What Is Healing?

Dr. Joseph Gone discusses indigenous healing practices in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley and Clare Callahan

As an illness, cancer preserves its fundamental characteristics in spite of how cancer patients and the broader population feel about or define the illness. Cancer, in other words, is an indifferent phenomenon to the extent that how it operates is immune to the meanings one assigns to it. By contrast, an illness such as multiple personality disorder interacts with the human narratives told about it. For example, prior to approximately 1950, there were only 50 cases of multiple personality disorder in the history of medicine. In the 1990s, however, there were 50,000 cases documented in America and elsewhere. This sharp increase in the number of documented cases was arguably due to media documentation of multiple personality disorder in films such as The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Sybil (1976). The depiction of the illness in the media, as well as the discovery of battered-child syndrome in the 1960s, created the conditions for the expression and diagnosis of multiple personality disorder. Depression may similarly interact with the narratives that are told about depression.

HI Distinguished Visiting Lecturer and Professor of Psychology and American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Dr. Joseph Gone, suggests that these phenomena can be classified as either indifferent or interactive. This line of thinking was inspired by philosopher of science Ian Hacking, who has argued that science “is a human enterprise” and that in order to understand present-day science, we must understand the “historical context of its emergence.”  Dr. Gone describes indifferent medical phenomena as operating regardless of the human meanings assigned to them, whereas the meanings assigned to interactive medical phenomena give that phenomena its causal power.

Dr. Gone led the Faculty Fellows Seminar in Health, Well-Being, Healing on March 23 in a discussion about psychology, indigenous healing practices and clinical therapy practices, and epistemology of healing. Dr. Gone’s body of work, as evidenced in the articles that he provided to the seminar, argues that the practices of traditional professional psychotherapy or clinical psychology may be less effective than and at times antagonistic to indigenous practices for fostering the well-being of indigenous communities. Indeed, underlying the practices of professional psychotherapy and clinical psychology is a violent history of colonization to which Dr. Gone argues practitioners must be sensitive when considering approaches to indigenous healing.

The articles on Dr. Gone’s research that the Fellows read in preparation for the seminar seemed to pose an opposition between “technical” and “relational” methods of healing. Fellows challenged this terminology, arguing that all psychological healing is relational in the sense that it requires a relationship between the client and the practitioner to be effective.  Dr. Gone clarified that in the psychological literature, “technical” methods signify methods of healing that can be tested and reproduced in a clinical setting, whereas “relational” methods signify healing that takes place in a community setting, or healing that takes place as a result of interaction between an individual and supernatural forces. He argued, however, that technical and relational methods are merely areas of emphasis in psychological literature. He recommended that the Fellows consider their own philosophical standards for determining the effectiveness of healing.

Dr. Gone also encouraged Fellows to re-think their own epistemology of healing and what constitutes evidence of a cure. He suggested that when conceptualizing healing, the nature of the malady, the nature of the therapeutic claim at stake, and the context in which illness emerges all require careful explication and matter a great deal to how one understands what healing is. When it comes to proving the effectiveness or the curative properties of indigenous and alternative healing techniques, Dr. Gone argues that one must account for what a particular culture considers the highest form of evidence (in some languages, this information is communicated grammatically). For the Gros Ventre tribal nation, for instance, personally experienced events that are articulated as such constitute incontrovertible evidence. The usual hallmarks of effectiveness of a medical technique in Western culture, namely reproducibility of an intervention’s effectiveness in multiple settings, is not universally relevant.

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