The Semmelweis Reflex

Semmelweis stamp
Photo from Wikipedia

On this blog, I often talk about the way the mind works. We are flooded with information all the time, so the mind has to filter through this vast volume of data and choose what to give attention to, then process it into recognizable form. Science tells us the world is quite a different place than what we perceive. What we perceive is a mental construct based on the incoming information, a construct we tune as children until it matches enough with the society in which we function. Conditioning, this is called.

If we put consciousness as the source of the process, we discover that the senses are a feedback mechanism for what we (together) have structured in consciousness. Nonetheless, it remains a construct we tune to match the group construct.

The ego-driven mind adds in the concept of individual as separate from other. This has 2 key aspects that compromise our ability to perceive reality accurately. Firstly, the ego has a need to be right, so it seeks things it can make wrong to make itself right. We find this in automatically criticizing someone poor, another race, a fast car, someone who butts in line, or whatever else we might use to gauge “rightness”. Always with rightness, there is wrongness.

Secondly, the ego identifies with the mental construct as what is “right”. Anything that is not a match with the construct is thus wrong. It also jumps on anything that shows up that confirms the story, however distorted the interpretation can sometimes be.

In spite of the fact that the world is constantly changing, new information continually arises, and the construct should be adjustable to help us, many people become increasingly fixed in their outlook. Curiously, this is self-reinforcing as well. The more rigid we are, the more ‘other’ threatens the status quo, so the more rigid we get. I have observed that many seniors get increasingly grumpy (read: rigid) or mellow (let go). Its obvious how the choice affects their quality of life.

A friend of mine took a recent workshop with Adam, the Dreamhealer. Adam evidently brought this tendency up and it has a name. The Semmelweis Reflex. “The Semmelweis Reflex is the dismissing or rejecting out of hand any information, automatically, without thought, inspection, or experiment.”

This is because it does not match the expectations of the construct. It is thus ‘wrong’. I would not use Semmelweis as another word for ego, though. Dr. Semmelweis was a physician who in 1847 discovered a connection between “childbed” (mothers) mortality and physicians spending time in a mortuary. He realized washing hands could make a dramatic difference in illness rates. This was 20 years before Pasteur and Lister developed the germ theory of disease. Semmelweis became known as the “savior of mothers” and has a University named after him.

However, the Reflex is named after what happened to him. In his time, this was contrary to medical opinion and his message was not heard. Or rather, was unwilling to be heard. The result was decades more unnecessary deaths. Semmelweis became frustrated, unbalanced and was tricked into an asylum where he died from injuries sustained being beaten trying to escape. Cause of death was an infection called pyemia, referred to as ‘childbed’ fever on an obstetrics ward. Human history is full of such ironies and stupidities.

If we understand this aspect of mind, when it is expressing a need to be right or make wrong, we can simply stop and ask ourself if this is a valid judgment or a simply unthought rejection. Sometimes, this simple observation can be the difference between folly and a well lived life.

For more information about Dr. Semmelweis, see the Wikipedia article or browse your favorite search tool.


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