MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

By Guest Blogger Carlos Orsi, Instituto Questão de Ciência – Brazil

Elizabeth spent her whole adult life on yoga, follows a raw vegetable diet full of detox juices, studies acupuncture, and all of a sudden, in spite of this super healthy New age lifestyle, she is diagnosed with bowel and liver cancer, stage 4. After one course of chemotherapy and one of radiotherapy, both the main tumour and the metastasis vanished! She considers herself fully healed. A victory for Science, of course! Or isn’t it?

Not accordingly to the interpretation of “Heal”, Netflix’s recent documentary.

Even after Elizabeth’s doctor suggested that maybe the quick and relatively simple remission might be due to a misdiagnosis made at the beginning, that overestimated the severity of the tumour, the film insists that the actual reason for Elizabeth’s recovery was the release of negative emotions and energy. Those, they say, had accumulated for decades, ever since the day when the patient, still a small child, was humiliated by her kindergarten mates for bringing a pack of crackers for Show and Tell.

Produced, directed, written, and hosted by Kelly Noonan Gores (American actor that can be seen on the episode “Sex, Lies and Silicone” from the series CSI, New York), “Heal” tells the stories of two women struggling with disease. While Elizabeth deals with her cancer, Eva suffers from a mysterious type of rash, undiagnosed by doctors. Eva, of course, is also searching for a cure.

The documentary features both women -either talking about their ailments or consulting with alternative doctors and practitioners – and interviews with authors of mystical self-help best-sellers, such as Deepak Chopra, Bruce Lypton and Kelly Turner.

For those not familiar with these celebrities, Chopra is the one who claims that the human body is a “field of energy and awareness”, and that it is possible to stop the process of aging, and even reverse it, using meditation, physical exercise and plain strong will. There is a parody twitter account, @WisdomOfChopra, that produces nonsense phrases, indistinguishable from the pseudo-sayings of this mighty guru. There is even a scientific paper (http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.html) showing clearly that everything Chopra says is actually identical to random nonsense.

Lypton, on the other hand, believes that since gene regulation – the study of which genes are active and which are not within the cells on a given moment – depends partly on environmental signals, then it obviously should be possible to turn genes on and off by sheer will and power of the mind. Kelly Turner has travelled the world interviewing cancer survivors who faced the worst prognoses, asking them how they assessed their own healing process. It makes sense of course, if you consider it wise asking lottery winners how they pick the numbers!

More self-help celebrities lend their grace to “Heal”. Rob Wergin, the “Divine conduit”, who claims to channel healing energy directly from God to the patients, and the so-called “medical medium” Anthony Williams, both show up in the documentary and even John of God, the famous Brazilian medium healer, features a small part. Heal was filmed in 2017, before John of God was tried and arrested for the sexual harassment and rape of over 400 women. Too bad no fortune-teller or tarot reader predicted this and warned the producer beforehand…

Quantum Physics, Buddha and Epigenetics

One guru/coach/master/whatever in the film cites the phrase “each men and women are the architects of their own health”, and attributes it to Buddha. That is false, Sidarta Gautama, the Buddha who taught in India around 500 BCE probably never said that. The statement, however, immersed in an atmosphere of profound “wisdom” and absolute certainty, is the hallmark of the documentary as a whole: every mention of science, epigenetics, physics or placebo effect is either false, twisted or out of context.

Let’s start with Physics: all the practitioners in the film seem to believe that the Matter and Energy equivalence, as described in the Theory of Relativity, together with certain aspects of Quantum Physics, somehow validate a kind of dualism in the world, where matter and soul would be separate entities. These scientific theories, in the film’s assessment, would also validate the predominant role of spirit over mundane things: if everything is about energy, then the physical world is nothing but an illusion, easily manipulated by sheer will.

No need to mention just how wrong this line of thinking is. Energy, in Quantum Physics, is a physical property of the world. It can be measured and manipulated with the appropriate tools, and it does not represent any kind of abstract or divine power.

Both in logic and rhetoric, this misuse of words is called “equivocation”: using the same word in the same argument several times, but with different meanings, pretending not to notice the change.

The stars of the film seem fascinated by examples that some mental states correlate with physiological states, but do not seem to realise that this does not mean mind rules over matter, but rather that the mind is also subject to physiological changes.

More scientific concepts are twisted during the show: epigenetics and the placebo effect are hyped all the way to the moon and back. Epigenetics – which deals with the cellular mechanisms responsible for turning genes on and off – is pictured as the key to positive thinking in cellular biology: “If I change my perception, my mind changes my beliefs about life, I change the signals that are going in and adjusting the functions of the cell”, says Bruce Lypton, author of “Biology of Belief”, looking straight into the camera.

Lypton jumps to the conclusion that if different hormones can make identical stem cells differentiate in different organs, by turning genes on and off, then surely thoughts can have the exact same effect, in any kind of cell! Of course, if there was any truth to this, it should be possible to differentiate an ear from a finger, or regenerate a lost member, just by wishful thinking.

A similar explanation is given by the author of “You are the placebo”. Joe Dispenza argues that if the placebo effect, generated by a combination of classic conditioning and self-suggestion, can make the body produce opioid-like molecules for pain, then surely faith and belief can make the body produce virtually anything necessary to heal. The writer claims to have healed himself of a severe spinal injury, using nothing but visualizations and positive thinking.

To sum up

Heal’s leading claims state that all illnesses are self-inflicted, result from emotional stress (bad emotions create “density” which weakens the immune system and causes cancer), and are as such, self-healing. And of course, we know that because of Quantum Physics, Epigenetics and blah-blah-blah.

There is a slight attempt – very slight indeed – not to blame the patients. It is mentioned at a certain point that the patients are not to blame for their own diseases; it is the modern lifestyle that poisons us all. The overall message, however, is very clear: everything happens for a reason, and it is all in your head. Noonan Gores tries to sell the documentary as a message of hope. Sadly, it is but a message of despair and guilt.

Perhaps the most naïve demonstration of this message is Kelly Turner’s idea -as stated in her book Radical Remission – that people who recover from malignant tumours have “found the cure to their own cancer”. Collecting and cataloguing these survivors’ “habits” makes no sense unless you compare them to a control group: a group pf people who shared the same habits and lifestyle, and did not recover.

The film also shows a man who presents himself as a brain cancer patient. He takes part in a very emotional sequence, where he shares a “mystical moment” in Rob Wergin’s arms. Everyone in the room looks really moved, and it is clear that the patient believes himself cured. But was he? The film conveniently stops right there.

Eva, the second protagonist, with the mysterious rash, has no closure either, and finishes the documentary exactly at the same place where she began: no diagnosis nor treatment – or so they say. One doctor put her on steroids, another gave her antibiotics. The holistic therapist that helped her go through childhood issues and release negative emotion did not seem to help either.

The main – and only – cure shown in “Heal” is Elizabeth’s, who treated her cancer with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The producer, however, refuses to connect the dots and give credit to “Western medicine”. Western medicine is after all, an aggressive monster, and full credit is given to alternative medicine alone. The reality of course, lies on the other end: the adoption of alternative therapies actually increases the risk of death in cancer patients (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/article-abstract/2687972 ).

The true “power of the mind”, it seems, lies in ignoring the obvious and falling desperately in love with a pseudoscientific fantasy. A cruel fantasy for those who fall, a very lucrative one for those who sell.

4 Responses to “Heal”, the documentary: nonsense and cruelty on health and disease

  • How could you suggest that something a trivial as chemotherapy and radiotherapy could possibly be responsible for Elizabeth’s remission? Every one knows that dried frog pills* are the real cure.

    *My thanks to Terry Pratchett for bring this cure to my attentior.

  • Tribute to a certain form of zeitgeist. Fallback from rationality in sciences to idealistic philosophic dreams. A ban on the question of “where is the evidence?”. I’m sure this is partially caused by disdain of natural sciences in the educational system. Even simple logicial violations are not recognized. For example, the thesis of “modern lifestyle” causing illness should provoke the counterquestion if there where better lifestyles and less illness in former times?

    In Germany, author Dietrich Schwanitz postulated in his bestseller “Bildung” (“Education”), that mathematics and natural sciences don’t belong to the valid education canon but belong to peripheral special knowledge. He got much applause on that. Why? Among other things, because it is comfortable… It is easier to listen to what one wants to hear. Further, it gives positive feeling to hear this from any celebrities. And it is uncomfortable to listen to these annoying skeptics… they always destroy the feelgood…

    I’ve dealt with the roots of disrespect on science for years. I don’t believe that this could be completely eliminated. But why isn’t there a much more louder voice all over the scientific community about that?

    • in my experience the experts [in medicine] tend to smile at all this, think it is not important, and are far too busy to give it some serious thought.

  • This sort of thing is so nasty and cruel. If your stage 4 cancer doesn’t go into remission, it’s because you are holding onto negative emotions. How could you possibly measure that? And how could someone with stage 4 cancer not have negative emotions?

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