‘I’ve had this pain for months and nobody has been able to help, I’m at the end of my tether with it,’  she complained in a high pitched whine.  The consultant listened carefully, asked her about her pain – when it occurred, what brought it on, whether it was associated with food, posture, sex, exercise, and nodded gravely at her answers.  He then thought for a long while, and then with a grave face told her he wanted to try a completely different type of treatment. He disappeared into the office, only to reappear a few minutes later walking slowly down the ward, holding in front of him a pair of tweezers which grasped a large white tablet.  He dropped the tablet into a glass of water and told the patient to sip the water slowly as soon as the  fizzing had subsided.  


It worked.  The tablet contained little more than vitamin C and some bicarbonate of soda, but through personal gravitas and a little bit of play acting the doctor was able to recruit a therapeutic response in the patient when all other treatments had failed. 


The eighteenth century hypnotherapist, Franz Anton Mesmer, carried this to extremes.  He used to dress up in a purple cloak covered in moons and stars and connect his patients by iron bars to a tub containing dilute sulphuric acid.  By movements of his hands and eyes, he would draw off the sickness and instill energy into the affected part.  This powerful theatre, which resonated with contemporary ideas on electricity and cosmology, rarely failed to cure his patients.   


It helps if the treatment already fits in with ideas that are already prevalent in society.  Yakult, the phenomenally successful probiotic yoghurt, is unproven, but the idea that replacing the bad bugs with good bugs fits with current fears of terrorism and the rise in criminality.  If people can just feel safe inside, then all will be alright. 


For illnesses to heal, we must all have faith in the treatment and in the person who is administering it.  A bit of theatre and make believe can encourage expectation and hugely enhance the therapeutic effect.  Many doctors need to pay more attention to the mechanics of healing; eye contact, active listening, taking time to understand their patients fears and a confident explanation of why the treatment will work. Looking for inspiration on their computer screens and the recantation of rare but serious side effects can be counterproductive.   


But deception is not just important in medicine, it underpins all aspects of life.  Our view of the world is constructed not by what actually exists, but what we think exists, the meaning we ascribe to it and the expectation that we have in it.  These are informed not so much by scientific evidence as by the influence of our parents, our teachers, the friends we had at university, the advertisements on television, a play, an inspiring speech.  


Human beings are story tellers.  We use our imagination to invent a narrative that fits what we perceive.  We convince ourselves it is true, but it is our truth.  There is no absolute truths, only beliefs.  There are no absolute facts, only theories.  But we demand an explanation. We need our narratives, our mythologies in order to make sense of the unknown, to explain the inexplicable,  to tolerate the intolerable.  Traditional healers, like the sangoma in Africa, are story tellers.  They explain the illness and cure it by altering the story.   The same principles are implicit in some types of psychotherapy. 


Many occupations trade in deception; salesmen lie for commercial gain, politicians for ambition, teachers and priests out of conviction, healers out of compassion – actors for dramatic effect.    


Religion is a grand mythology.  The Christian story and the remarkably similar Moslem story have captured the imagination of vast numbers of people for over a thousand years.  They both impart a message of understanding, compassion and self sacrifice, an ethical code essential for the integration of society.  The theatre of the service, the robes, funny hats, rituals, the awe-inspiring edifices all help to consolidate the mythology, maintain the belief and the integrity of the society.  


Our political leaders are also mythic figures; we create Gods out of them.  We need to have faith that they will be strong and determined and live up to our aspirations, while satisfying our needs and dispelling our doubts.  They have to be worthy of our trust in order to gain our votes.  The rhetoric of a charismatic orator such as Barak Obama could unite a nation, inspire half the world.    


Our courts of law attempt to extract truth and justice out of conflicting narratives and deceptions, but in doing so they can create their own mythology which requires the most impressive theatre of bewigged and gowned characters on raised platforms to convey the necessary authority. 


If mythology and delusion were not so crucial to our existence, then literature, poetry, theatre, art, sculpture, song, dance, music would not be so popular.  And because these are representations and not constrained by reality, they possess enormous power to inspire, shock, to bring people together in joy and grief, to demonstrate and teach.  They are outer expressions of our inner world of thought and dream, where every scene is illusion, every act has meaning.   


But if the arts are about expression and representation, what of science?  Science is perhaps the biggest deception of all our institutions; it purports to be about fact, but is nevertheless delusion.  Scientists use assumptions to make the measurements and observations, from which they derive theories that create the ‘laws’ of science and nature.  The only certainties about a scientific fact is that it continues to be supported by observation and has resisted attempts to disprove it, but we know that science is never stable, it changes is according to fashion.  Today’s scientific dogma is tomorrow’s heresy. 


Ask anybody what gives their life purpose and meaning, most would reply that it’s the love of my family, or the love of my spouse or partner.  But isn’t love just a reassuring delusion?  How can we be sure it’s true?  When somebody tells us that they love us, we believe it because we want to believe it.  We need to have somebody special to desire, feel close to; somebody we can invest with our hopes, entrust with our fears, and the expression of love is a kind of password?  Romance is a wonderful  mythology, the cards, the flowers, the romantic dinner for two,  the theatre of the bedroom – the seduction scene.  Romantic couples weave a magic spell, a delusion that convinces them that their love is special and will last for ever.  The Beatles sang,  ‘All you need is love.’  All you need is delusion just didn’t scan!  Even if the relationship is failing, people often hold on to the mythology and the hope it conveys for far too long because the separation and loneliness is just too frightening.     



It’s not what is that’s important, it’s what we think might be.  We can build a better world.  We will never get ill and die.  We will be in love forever.  We will be rich and  famous. God will forgive us. Our children will love us.  Friends will respect us. Human beings tell stories.  It’s built into us.  It’s called imagination.  But imagination involves delusion and self deception.  Our delusions are what inspire us, console us when things go wrong, keep us secure, regulate our behaviour, and generate our desire.  With appropriate self deception we can look back with fond remembrance, and look forward with hope.  Without it, there is no meaning to life.     


By contrast, what serves for reality and is supported by hard evidence,  is dull and tedious, a land of the dead, where there is no meaning and no hope. God does not exist in the ‘real’ world,  love is an illusion, our friends just care for themselves and our employers are only interested in making money.  Life is one long sequence of separations and increasing isolation and when we die we will just disintegrate and nobody will remember who we were. There is no heaven. Beauty is merely a projection.  Happiness is just the release of a chemical in the upper part of the brain stem. Our leaders will always let us down. The world is slowly being poisoned.  We are going to run out of food.  We are just an animal with a capacity for telling stories. 


Phew!  A ray of hope!  Where there’s a story, there’s hope


Rather like patient who is given a ‘placebo treatment’, it is important that people be allowed to keep their delusions (providing they don’t hurt others). Otherwise they run the risk of sliding into a pit of meaninglessness and depression.  Like nineteenth century missionaries, people of strong moral principle can demolish cultural meanings, leading to an erosion of spirit and a decline in health.       


But before I go any further, I should perhaps make it clear that I am not advocating that we should deliberately tell lies, though there are occasions when to conceal the truth is an act of compassion.  Deliberately deceiving another person, keeping secrets from them, not being authentic, can not only devastate their trust, it can also compose  a self script that is so damning, it cannot be edited out.    


Equally so, to be so analytical and introspective that we are fully aware of the extent of our self deception, is not a recipe for happiness.  If we can’t believe in an individual mythology, then we may be destroyed by the reality of the world.  Depression, which is the commonest chronic illness in the western world arises from a depletion, not only of the body and mind but also the spirit – the meaning and purpose of life.


Is there another way?  Is there a philosophy that is more grounded in reality, less dependant of a sustaining mythology, on relationships and material possessions.  Can we become more self reliant?  Can we perhaps find inspiration and peace in the natural world?  It sounds remarkably like Buddhism.  



Comments, feedback on this post would be very welcome.  I feel the message is important, but the style seems a bit too much like a sermon.  What do you think?