‘The Medium is the Message.”: How we see health and disease determines how we treat it

August 15th, 2016




“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler”


-Albert Einstein




Imagine this scene being filmed:


A tap is running, spilling out wasted water all over a bathroom floor. We see the back of a man energetically mopping the water into a bucket. It quickly becomes obvious he cannot keep pace with the relentless overflow.




He turns to the camera filming this and says: “With your help, we can find a bigger, better mop to combat this terrible situation. Please, give generously and share with your friends to help spread awareness of bathroom flooding.”


We will revisit the relevance this way of thinking has to our health and medical choices shortly. In the meantime let us look at a few, sneaky practices that lead us like trusting lambs into the abattoir of such a mindset.



The disease labelling epidemic


After the discovery and wild success of antibiotics the birth of modern medicine began. Never slow to spot an economic opportunity, it wasn’t long before the corporate world jumped on the bandwagon.1  This led to a massive push to find the proverbial ‘pill for every ill’. (for more on this very subject check out the three-part series here, here and here)


Of course funding for something is easier to obtain if it has a name. Thus the disease labelling industry has become a very important business strategy in itself. In a wonderful piece of twisted logic, the more disease names that could be created, the greater number of cures could be offered resulting in a greater number of medical products for sale for greater profit generation. On the medical side, a greater number of funding grants for research about all these new diseases had to also be created.


This perfect storm of mutual benefit has created a money trough that everyone feeds from:


  • Researchers have their justification to seek funding to study this new phenomenon to try and explain it and perhaps suggest a cure – although that of course would require ‘further study’ and thus more funding 2. 
  • Corporates create new product lines
  • Patents of new products (for those newly minted diseases) also generate revenue
  • Desperate patients and their relatives and friends network enthusiastically to campaign for further funding to find the ever-elusive cure and help them find purpose and empowerment in the midst of their helplessness and anxiety
  • Doctors can now offer (and sometimes bully or compel) their patients to take these new ‘miracle’ drugs
    • the drugs themselves raise and crash hopes as they skulk off the market shelves in well-rewarded defeat to be replaced by another, equally confidence-inspiring and consonant-filled brand shortly afterwards.


Does all this sound familiar? If so, then read/listen on…



Breakin’ it down for ya – the reductionist approach of modern, scientific medicine




“The medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan once said. 3 That is, the way we observe something – what filters/models/constructs we view it through – profoundly affect both what we observe, any conclusions we may draw from it and any subsequent action we may take. It also moulds our way of communicating to others.


Examples of the mediums through which we might medically observe this are microscopes, x-ray and electrocardiograph machines, reading case histories and (hopefully) looking, listening and touching (palpation). Less quantifiable skills like instinct and intuition based upon individual sensitivity and experience can also be factors. 4


Ways that we may generally communicate with each other or receive information (and thus how the message is affected) can be: talking, touching, radio, television, telephones, handwriting, typing, drawing and painting, photography, film, email, sms, social media and so on. All shape-shift their message to suit the available medium. They are highly subjective in nature as it depends what is included or excluded.


The reductionist view, adopted by medical scientific research in particular, unapologetically excludes as many factors as possible in order to isolate what they believe may be key factors (or, in the case of medicines, active ingredients) in order to reach their conclusions.


In the corporate reality of modern medicine this is not an entirely altruist endeavour however. The ability to identify a key ingredient, synthesise and patent it are major economic drivers for research.



A reductionist research method is a very compatible match for the creation of patented product. It also helps keeps government medical bodies, doctors and patients alike ‘on message’ about focusing exclusively on medicine-based solutions – ‘a pill for every ill’. Anything that distracts from that goal is not good for business and becomes subject of smear campaigns in the media using compliant (that is, on the payroll of the drug company) medical researchers and journalists.



The big picture – holistic approaches to health


The term ‘holistic’ means to include as many factors as possible. It attempts to see the whole picture, not just selected parts that most conveniently suit a particular agenda or economic imperative. It has often been applied (not always justifiably) to complementary and alternative healthcare practices. It is really just a more inclusive model that, given the opportunity, could benefit both sides of the medical divide – for patients and healthcare consumers in particular.


An holistic approach to healthcare includes more diverse factors like lifestyle, emotional stresses, dietary practices, relationship patterns, rest and exercise, inspiration and creativity, sexual and sensual vitality, economic factors and so on. The further one looks back up the cause-effect chain the more likely one can identify, treat and perhaps most importantly, prevent negative outcomes.


A doctor or therapist who only looks at the current presenting symptoms is like a detective arriving at a crime scene after the murder and declaring a ‘war on crime’ – as if it were some devilish, agenda-driven creature operating independently of all other factors. Though it makes an emotional argument the cause and effect chain it is based upon is too simplistic. Mr. Einstein would not approve that level of simplification.




In fact, it is exactly how we end up with the logic of the bathroom flooding scene that opened this blog. If we don’t include the many factors that may have lead to the problem we just become ever more desperately fixated on attacking the alarming symptoms in front of us. While this is justifiable in acute situations where an immediate focus on the symptoms are required to save someone’s life, the vast majority of health issues are not so immediate and require a different approach.   


While terms like ‘prevention’ are payed empty lip-service in the medical debate there is no inherent capability to address it while we hold on so tightly to our reductionist view of health. The medium through which a reductionist approach views disease simply doesn’t allow it. That mentality used to be called ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ and is still used as a cautionary metaphor against an over-focus on one factor at the expense of everything else.


When we add to this the economic imperatives that the corporatisation of modern medicine has created is it any wonder we are only offered another appeal for more money for more medicine-only based research or another pill?


Until we take the holistic view of the body-mind seriously enough we will never break free of our current situation. We will just be stuck in endless ‘war’ metaphors where symptomatic cures are the angels fighting the demons of disease with the ‘cutting, burning, and poisoning mindset’ we’ve been dragging with us since medieval times. 5 



So, how do we become more holistic in our approach?


Well, I’m so glad you asked because, in an amazing coincidence, that is exactly the topic of part two in this short series on how we look at health and disease and how it moulds our way of treating it.


After all, as T-Bone Burnett once sang:

“This version of the world will not be here long. It is already gone It is already gone”





Till another Monday brings us a fresh perspective,



1 The creation of corporations were themselves quite a newly minted concept at that time.

2 Many a distinguished medical and scientific career has been based upon this very cycle while the decades roll by without a cure in sight.

3 He wrote a book of the same name only a typesetting error by the printer changed it to ‘The medium is the Massage’. This struck him as oddly apt so he kept it that way for the book at least.

4 As the old saying goes, “There are no great therapists, just those who have seen it before.”

5 We have just changed how we cut, burn and poison (surgery, radiation and medicine).



© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com

Related Posts

Leave a Reply