Friday, August 5, 2011


Hats off to one of my medical school psychiatry professors, Dr. Werner Mendel. Every week he performed a fascinating practice before a rotating audience of students. When my turn came, an inpatient, Mr. S, was shown into the room and introduced to us. The next ten minutes, Dr. Mendel engaged the man in small talk: how are you doing? Is the food okay? Have you had visitors? Then the patient returned to the ward.

Dr. Mendel began. "Mr. S was born in Appalachia but moved as a teenager to New Orleans. He entered the Navy at the outbreak of the war, and served in the Pacific. He was captured and spent time in a Japanese POW camp. He was married but now divorced. He's a longtime heavy smoker…"

He backed up each point in his biography of Mr. S with an observation. "Of course, you noticed his anchor tattoo, the slight bow when he entered the room, the pale band around his fourth finger…" We students had been clued into Dr. Mendel's act, so we'd sat at the edge of our chairs, almost painfully attentive, yet we missed ninety percent of what he had noticed. Afterward, the ward's psychiatrist read to us from Mr. S's chart; needless to say, the stories matched.

Astonished that so much valuable information might universally hide in plain view, I coveted his skill. Afterward, I cornered him in the corridor. "Please, please," I begged, "tell me the secret."

I wasn't the first to ask. He told me what he told everyone: "Don't listen to the words. Listen to the music."

(An interesting aside: Dr. Mendel once performed a study in which trained psychoanalysts treated one group of patients, and hospital employees with no formal training treated a second group. Guess which group showed the most and least improvement. Right! Understandably, Dr. Mendel was startled by the results and repeated the experiment, with the same outcome.)

Decades later, Dr. Mendel's advice became clear: words can lie, but the body always tells our truth, inevitably expresses our mind.

Yet we maintain a myth that body and mind are separate: I "have" a body and I "have" a mind, and hardly ever do the twain meet. I don't know why we assume this; whatever Darwinian advantage it has eludes me. We so deeply believe body and mind are two unconnected entities that we act astounded when we learn that an event involving one affects the other. Unmanaged stress causes insomnia? Well, I'll be. Cancer can cause anxiety? Knock me over with a feather.

It takes our finest scientific minds, then, to reveal that, as I reported yesterday, negative events in our personal histories predispose us toward illness. Today I read its obverse: a better life is more likely to be longer. According to research published in May by the American Psychological Association (, a positive social atmosphere in the workplace confers longevity. In this study, employees who enjoyed collegial support and positive social interactions were less likely to die over a twenty-year period than those who reported a less friendly work environment. Well, as I live and breathe! What'll they think of next?

If we're to move toward a healthcare style in which people matter, we'll need to leave the duality behind. When we honestly see that body and mind are one, then preventive medicine is no longer just a search for incipient disease. It's living, moment to moment, as enjoyably as we can. 


  1. How can this message reach those who are tone-deaf?

  2. Hi, Anne,

    I'm not sure what you mean by your question. Can you expand on it?

    Jeff Kane