Risk-takers and rebels, the “Mavericks of Medicine” frequently challenge conventional wisdom and stir firestorms of controversy. Some are ridiculed, even reviled. Yet these same people are discovering some of history's greatest medical breakthroughs, changing the path of medicine, and opening up the prospect for further lifesaving advances.
In interviews with brilliant and controversial medical researchers and practitioners like Andrew Weil, Jack Kevorkian, Bernie Siegel and Barry Sears, Brown reveals “proposed solutions for what’s wrong with modern medicine, ideas about reversing the aging process and suggestions that can lead to a future in which all diseases are easily curable.”
“We are living in truly astonishing times,” Brown says. “Technology theorist and inventor Dr. Ray Kurzweil told me he thinks that nanobots, blood cell-size devices that could go inside the body and keep us healthy from the inside, will be available in about two decades.”
Just 20 years ago, depression went largely untreated and the U.S. death rate from heart disease was a third higher than it is today. Forward-thinking mavericks sparked transformations in each of those realms and now stand on the verge of even greater ones.
As science reveals more about the chemistry of mental function, diseases ranging from addiction to Alzheimer's could become as manageable as high blood pressure. With luck, several drugs that target the underlying mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease could reach the clinic before the first Baby Boomer turns 70.
“Today’s iconoclasts are tomorrow’s icons. A provocative and thoroughly absorbing work. Insights and revelations from those shaping and re-defining the limits of medical thinking. Highly recommended reading.”
- Philip Lee Miller, M.D., Founder, Los Gatos Longevity Institute. Author, The Life Extension Revolution
“This is a wonderful and fun collection of diverse, intelligent viewpoints on life and death, including aging research and the extension of human lifespan, by scientists and physicians. There is no 'consensus' here, where a committee concocts a carefully worded and politically correct vision of the entirety of an area of scientific study with which everyone is supposedly in agreement. Long live independent thinking!”
- Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw, authors of Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach.
"David Jay Brown has an interviewing style that is smart, direct, and to the point. Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions of the intellectual giants he has interviewed, you will certainly finish Mavericks of Medicine with an expanded mind."
- Ray Sahelian, M.D., author of Mind Boosters and Natural Sex Boosters.
"David Jay Brown is the most compelling interviewer on this planet."
By David Jay Brown
As with science, the history of medicine reveals that knowledge often advances through the ideas of maverick thinkers—ideas that were initially greeted with disbelief or even mockery. For example, in 1847, when the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis started making the claim that puerperal fever was contagious, and that poor sanitation was responsible for spreading the illness from one new mother to another, his fellow physicians thought that he was crazy. "Wash your hands!" he shouted in the hospital maternity wards of Vienna, while the other doctors laughed.
Likewise, in 1628, when British physician William Harvey first proposed that the heart might be a a pump at the center of a closed circulatory system—rather than a "heater" for the blood, as was thought at the time—he was ridiculed by his medical colleagues who thought the idea ridiculous. Then, in 1718, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu insisted that live smallpox culture be introduced into her son's veins as an inoculation against the disease, her contemporaries thought that she was worse than nuts. Yet, with time, the ideas of these courageous individuals were vindicated, and history simply abounds with examples of how eccentric individuals—that were initially regarded as quacks—helped to advance science and medicine.
Both science and medicine are inherently conservative. Scientists and physicians are trained to always lean toward convention and to be suspicious of new ideas. This tendency to test new procedures carefully, and to make new declarations cautiously, is partially why science and medicine have been so successful and have such reliable track records. However, it is also why the conventional or mainstream core of established scientific and medical institutions—such as the American Medical Association—always advances much more slowly than the peripheral research frontiers, where eccentric individuals are experimenting with unorthodox possibilities that sometimes conflict with conventional thought.
While the right amount of skepticism can be healthy, and it's certainly necessary for science and medicine to advance, it can also stand in the way of progress. Unrestrained skepticism can mutate into neophobia—the fear of novelty—if it isn't properly balanced with open-mindedness and curiosity. Neophobia prevents the unbiased experimentation with new possibilities, and, in its more extreme forms, even causes conventional scientists and physicians to ridicule new ideas simply because they are unconventional. Having a proper balance of open-mindedness and skepticism is essential for science and medicine to properly advance.
While maverick thinkers certainly aren't always right, without these courageous individuals all scientific and medical progress would stagnate. The history of medicine reveals that during every time period in history there has been maverick thinkers who were ridiculed by their colleagues for having unconventional ideas that were later vindicated. This means that right now—in the historical epoch in which we currently find ourselves—this scenario is most likely taking place. So then, with this illuminating insight in mind, let us now consider who some of the promising maverick thinkers of our time might be, and what their ideas about medicine might mean.
Conversations on the Frontiers of Medical Research
In your hands is a collection of interdisciplinary interviews that I did with some of the most brilliant and controversial medical researchers and practitioners of our time. This collection of interviews with eminent physicians and cutting-edge researchers explores innovative work in the areas of life extension, cognitive enhancement, improved health and performance, integrative medicine, stem cell research, novel pharmacological and nutritional therapies, prosthetic implants, holistic and traditional medicines, mind-body medicine, euthanasia, and the integration of medicine with other fields of science.
As with my three previous interview books—Mavericks of the Mind, Voices from the Edge, and Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse—the people who I chose to interview are those creative and controversial thinkers who have stepped outside the boundaries of conventional thought and seen beyond the traditional view. I chose highly accomplished people who dare to question authority and think for themselves because it is often this capacity for independent thought that lies at the heart of their exceptional abilities and accomplishments. In questioning old belief systems, and traveling beyond the edges of the established horizons to find their answers, these unconventional thinkers have gained revolutionary insights, and they offer some unique solutions to the problems that are facing modern medicine.
Some of the questions that I will be discussing with these brilliant and courageous individuals have profound implications. What are some of the biggest problems with the way that medicine is practiced today, and what can be done to help improve the situation? What role does the mind play in the health of the body? How can people improve their cognitive or sexual performance? What are the primary causes of aging? What are currently the best ways to slow down, or reverse, the aging process and extend the human life span? How long is it possible for the human life span to be extended? What are some of the new medical treatments that will be coming along in the near future? Do we have the right to die? What role does spirituality play in medicine? Speculating on these important questions can help us to understand our bodies better, improve our health, enhance our performance, and live longer happier lives. Let's take a look at some of these questions more closely.
What's Wrong With Modern Medicine and How Can We Improve It?
Almost everyone agrees that something is wrong with modern medicine. I recently attended a talk given by Andrew Weil, and when he announced his prediction that the healthcare system in America would soon collapse, everyone in the room vigorously applauded. However, although most people agree that something is wrong with modern medicine, not everyone agrees as to what it is and what to do about it.
On a most basic level, many patients simply feel that their physicians can't relate to what they're going through and that they're treated like a statistic. As a way to help remedy this situation, mind-body physician Bernie Siegel told me, "One simple suggestion would be to put every doctor into a hospital bed for a week as a patient. Put them in a hospital where they are not known, and have them admitted with a life-threatening illness as their diagnosis. Then let them stay there."
Another big problem with modern medicine is expense. The skyrocketing costs of healthcare, and the lack of healthcare insurance by many, is a serious problem. According to Larry Dossey, the author of Space, Time, and Medicine, "We're nearing fifty million people in this country who don't have health insurance." So what does Dr. Dossey suggest? "We need government-financed, centralized healthcare for everybody," he said.
However, not everyone that I spoke with agrees that socialized healthcare is such a good idea. When I spoke with life extension researcher Durk Pearson he said, "The most dangerous possible thing I can think of—other than having a complete police state like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia—is to have a national medical program. Because, believe me, they are not going to be acting in your interest—they're going to be acting in their interest. There's no such thing as a free lunch. When you have a government health system, you have a bunch of bureaucrats telling you when it's time to die. The reason is very simple. They'll never collect back from you as much tax money as they spend taking care of you, so it's time for you to die. Read up on Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan's Public Choice Theory."
Ironically, many people also seriously question the safety of modern medicine—and for good reason. Dr. Dossey also told me that, "The death rate in American hospitals from medical mistakes, errors, and the side-effects of drugs now ranks as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer." Although some people who have studied the statistics that Dr. Dossey is referring to disagree with this figures, they don't disagree by much, as even the most hard-nosed skeptics rank medical errors and drug side-effects as the fifth or sixth leading cause of death in American hospitals. Not a very comforting thought.
So the lack of trust that many people have toward modern medicine is understandable. However, an even greater cause for concern is that many people think that the medical establishment and the federal government are deliberately impeding medical advances that might divert profits away from pharmaceutical companies. For example, Durk Pearson—who won a landmark lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), charging the government agency with unconstitutionally restricting manufacturers from distributing truthful health information that could save people's lives--told me that he thought that the FDA was "the biggest barrier between life extension and people."
Pearson told me that this is simply because many people in the FDA are financially intertwined with the pharmaceutical companies. According to Pearson's partner, life extension researcher Sandy Shaw "... right now the FDA favors drug companies. There's no doubt about it. The drug companies are in bed with the FDA. The FDA is in bed with the drug companies." What this means is that the FDA generally supports patented drugs over natural dietary supplements—regardless of the scientific evidence—because the drug companies can't profit off them.
Pharmaceutical companies are seen by many as being motivated primarily by profit, and a lot of people are concerned that this motivation adversely effects their research agendas and marketing strategies. To help solve this problem, retrovirus researcher Peter Duesberg suggested that we "Generate a free market for scientific ideas in which funding depends on logic, scientific principles, and useful results, rather than on the approval ... of "peer-review." Since the "peers" represent the established scientific monopolies their self-interest demands "science" that confirms and extends the status quo—rather than innovation, which threatens their considerable scientific and commercial investments."
When I spoke with natural medicine advocate Jonathan Wright he offered some insight into why the research agendas of the pharmaceutical companies might be off track to begin with. He said, "So far as medicine in general goes, our very biggest mistake ... started in the early part of the twentieth century, and it continues to this day—and that is, relying on patent medicines to heal the body. This has been an enormous mistake, because the condition necessary to patent anything says that it can not occur in nature. But our bodies are made of materials that are entirely natural ... The best it's going to do is suppress symptoms, and yet the medical profession has gone along with this for over a century."
However, Dr. Wright told me that he thought that the solution to this problem was very simple. He said, "Everything we need to do can be summed up in these two words: copy nature." For example, research has shown that when engaging in hormone replacement therapy it is essential that one use hormones that are biologically identical to those found in the human body, if one wishes to avoid the potentially deadly side-effects from taking patented synthetic hormones. The scientific evidence certainly suggests that we should avoid that which is unnatural to the body, and that an important secret to health and longevity is simply to mimic what nature does. Others point out that this is a good place to start, but that we can also significantly improve upon nature.
Our conventional medical system is entirely oriented toward the treatment of disease, illness, and injury. Little attention is given to making healthy people healthier and for improving physical, sexual, and cognitive performance. However, there are now many drugs, herbs, and nutrients available that have been shown to improve physical endurance, cognitive abilities, memory, and sexual performance. In the pages that follow, I discuss these drugs and dietary supplements with Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, Jonathan Wright, Ray Kurzweil, and others.
These performance-enhancing supplements appear to compensate for some of the decline in performance caused by aging. If cognitive and sexual performance can be enhanced in the elderly then perhaps other consequences of aging can also be reversed. Understanding and reversing the aging process is another important theme in this book.
Reversing the Aging Process and Life Extension Research
Although there are some good theories of aging, and a lot of progress has been made in terms of understanding why we age, the aging process is still largely mysterious. Some of the most important theories of aging—such as the free radical and cross-linking theories—are discussed in this book, along with proposals for how we might halt and reverse the aging process.
When I spoke with Leonard Hayflick, the microbiologist who discovered that healthy somatic cells can only divide a finite number of times (now known as the "Hayflick limit" ), he defined aging as "... the random systemic loss of molecular fidelity, that—after reproductive maturity—accumulates to levels that eventually exceed repair, turnover, or maintenance capacity."
British biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey told me that he thinks that there are seven primary reasons why aging occurs. He said, "These are intrinsic side-effects of metabolism, of being alive in the first place, and they are things that build up throughout life. Although these side-effects are not the cause of aging, they start to become harmful once they get to a certain level of abundance. Once there's enough of them around the body starts to suffer from them and eventually it suffers seriously." Dr. de Grey believes that this process is reversible, and he has assembled a master plan for doing so that a substantial number of other life extension researchers are taking seriously. In the pages that follow, Dr. de Grey speaks with us about this.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that radical life extention might be possible is because not all animals age like we do. In fact, it appears that some animals don't age at all. When I interviewed John Guerin, director of the Ageless Animals Project, he told me about rockfish caught off the coast of Alaska, that were hundreds of years old, healthy, and fertile. Whales have been known to live for over two hundred years without showing any signs of aging. A male whale that was over a hundred years old was harpooned while it was in the midst of having sex. Guerin believes that by studying these types of animals we can learn why they live so long without losing vitality or fertility and then apply that knowledge to extending the life span of human beings.
Technology theorist and inventor Ray Kurzweil spoke to me about how nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics will eventually allow humans to live for indefinite periods of time without aging. Dr. Kurzweil thinks that "nanobots, blood cell-size devices that could go inside the body and keep us healthy from inside" will be available in about two decades. So, Dr. Kurzweil believes, if we can just stay alive for another fifteen or twenty years we'll be able to live forever.
Nanotechnology would not only allow for radical life extension, but also for a dramatic improvement in all physical capabilities—including brain functions. Dr. Kurzweil believes that the line between biology and technology is going to completely blur together in the decades to come, and that nanotechnological brain implants will substantially increase our intelligence and dramatically expand the power of the human mind. The power of the mind, and it's relationship to medicine, is another important theme in this book.
When I was in college during the early Eighties, my maverick mentor Russel Jaffe told me that the most effective tool discovered by modern medicine was being overlooked by the majority of physicians. Dr. Jaffe was, of course, referring to the placebo effect, the power of the mind to effect the health of the body. Numerous studies have demonstrated that what we believe about a medical treatment dramatically effects how we respond to it. This is why when pharmaceutical companies develop a new drug it is always tested against inactive sugar pills—placebos—that are known to improve symptoms and facilitate cures simply because the patient and/or the physician believe that the new drug might work.
However, ironically, when I studied psychobiology at USC and NYU, I was taught by most of my professors that the placebo effect was simply something to be controlled for in experimental or clinical trials. In other words, it was like a nuisance that interfered with our understanding about the effects of a new drug or procedure, and most researchers and healthcare practitioners simply shrugged the placebo effect off as simply irrelevant. This was in the days before we really understood that what we believe not only directly impacts how we feel, but it measurably effects our physiology as well. We now know that the mind and body are simply two parts of the same inseparable system, and each dramatically effects the other.
Candace Pert, the neuroscience researcher who discovered the opiate receptor in brain, (and who I interviewed for my previous book Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse), brought about a paradigm shift in modern medicine by pioneering research that revealed an intimate relationship between the mind and body. Her interdisciplinary research into the relationship between the nervous system and the immune system demonstrated a body-wide communication system mediated by peptide molecules and their receptors. Dr. Pert believes this to be the biochemical basis of emotion and the potential key to understanding many challenging diseases. Dr. Pert's research provides a basis for understanding why cancer patients can measurably reduce tumor growth through the process of visualization, and why placebos can cause measurable physiological changes.
In his practice as a general and pediatric surgeon, Bernie Siegel began recognizing common personality characteristics in those patients who did well and those who didn't. In his bestselling book Love, Medicine, and Miracles, Dr. Siegel describes how exceptional cancer patients survive because of their attitude and beliefs. When I spoke with Dr. Siegel he told me, "You can't separate thoughts and beliefs from your body. In other words, what you think, and what you believe, literally change your body chemistry."
Studies confirm Dr. Siegel's observations. For example, a PET scan study conducted at the University of Michigan showed that people who believed that they were receiving a pain killer actually produced more pain-killing endorphins in their brains and experienced less pain.
A relatively recent branch of medicine known as mind-body medicine addresses this fascinating and important topic of how the mind influences the body. In this collection, I speak with Bernie Siegel, Andrew Weil, and Larry Dossey about how we might be able to use this understanding to improve our health. I also speak with psychopharmacology researchers Raphael Mechoulam and Rick Strassman about the therapeutic potential of cannabis and psychedelic drugs. Many hallucinogenic plants—such as peyote and ayahausca brews—have a long history of shamanic and medicinal use in healing practices around the world, and may enhance the strength of the placebo effect (i.e., the power of the mind) because of their consciousness-changing abilities.
When I interviewed Dr. Weil he told me about how he had become completely cured of a lifelong cat allergy during an LSD session when he was twenty-eight, and that this experience had a profound influence on his medical perspective. He said that he would use psychedelics in his medical practice if they were legal. Dr. Weil said, "I think they've been a very profound influence. I used them a lot when I was younger. I think that they made me very much aware, first of all, of the profound influence of consciousness on health ... Psychedelics can show you possibilities ... I think they're potentially tremendous teaching tools about mind-body interactions and states of consciousness."
Perhaps even more fascinating than mind-body medicine is a transpersonal phenomenon known as "remote healing." It seems that what we think may not only effect our own health—it may also directly effect the health of others. When I interviewed Dr. Dossey he told me about numerous controlled, double-blind studies demonstrating that "prayer" can have measurable health effects. The effects of directing positive intention have been demonstrated in dozens of controlled laboratory studies—in people, animals, and even bacteria. Dr. Dossey also told me about studies that demonstrated health benefits from engaging in religious practice, and spoke about the integration of medicine with spirituality. Reflecting on the integration of medicine with spirituality brings one to the notion that sometimes healing the essence of who we are, and reducing suffering, may mean letting go of the physical body.
The Right to Die
Just because medical technologies give us the ability to live forever doesn't mean that we have to do so. The late psychologist Timothy Leary was one of the first people to start promoting ideas about life extension; he began doing so in the late 1970s. Attaining physical immortality, he believed was one of the "goals" of biological evolution. Dr. Leary's enthusiasm inspired longevity researchers and helped to popularize ideas about how science would soon conquer the aging process and allow us to virtually live forever.
However, when Dr. Leary was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer at the age of 76, he said that he was "thrilled and ecstatic" to hear that he was going die. As much as Dr. Leary loved life, he not only accepted death--he embraced it. In the end, he even decided to forgo his plans for cryonic suspension. I think there is an important lesson in Dr. Leary's dying process about the importance of facing the mystery of death with the same openness and sense of adventure that one faces life.
In other words, attaining physical immortality in a human body may not be the final stage for evolving consciousness in this universe. Numerous spiritual traditions—such as Hinduism and many forms of shamanism—assert that healing the spirit sometimes involves transcending the body and moving on to whatever is after death. However, regardless of whether or not consciousness survives death, not everyone may wish to hang around until the final collapse of the universe, and certainly people who are in chronic pain, or who are suffering greatly, should be given the option to leave if they wish.
When I asked Dr. Weil about his views on the controversial issue of euthanasia he said, "I don't think it's appropriate for doctors to be involved in that, although I think patients should be able to discuss that issue with doctors. I think that for people with overwhelming diseases, for whom life has become really difficult, that they should have that choice, and that there should be mechanisms provided for helping them with that."
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, on the other hand, believes that physicians should be able to perform euthanasia, and he is currently in prison for second degree murder because he assisted with the last wish of a patient who was suffering from ALS. When I interviewed Dr. Kevorkian about voluntary death I learned that, despite the U.S. government and medical establishment's opposition to euthanasia, eighty percent of the public support a patient's right to die and one in five physicians has admitted to practicing euthanasia at some point in their career. Why, then, is euthanasia illegal? "I think that the U.S. government, medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies are opposed to euthanasia for monetary or financial reasons," Dr. Kevorkian said,"To help correct this situation there has to be an organized public response and outcry—which I believe is now occurring."
While the goals of contemporary Western medicine are healing disease and treating injuries, the goals that one aspires to in the pursuit of optimal health are much larger and more encompassing. This may involve developing an immortal, nanotechnologically-proficient, self-repairing super-body of our own design, or it may involve gracefully transcending this world entirely and discarding our body like a pile of used clothing—but, either way, I think that the primary goal that medicine should aim for is the reduction of human suffering. I think that if we make the reduction of human suffering our number one priority, then the future of medicine does indeed appear very bright.
The Future of Medicine
We are living in truly astonishing times. Although our current healthcare system appears to be crumbling around us, we are simultaneously witnessing a rapidly-advancing biotechnology revolution that promises to forever change the course of human history. New possibilities are emerging everywhere we turn, and there is enormous cause for hope. When we look out onto the frontiers of medicine we see an incredible vista blossoming with possibilities that stagger the mind and border on the miraculous. New advances in medicine promise to help humanity end countless generations of suffering and deliver us into a golden age where disease and aging are merely subjects that we learn about in history class, and the boundaries of our physical capacities are limited only by our imaginations.
The following interviews shed some light on where modern medicine may be evolving. They provide a treasure-trove of practical suggestions that anyone can use to improve their health today and they offer an exciting vision of what's to come. These mavericks of medicine provide us with bridges to awe-inspiring possibilities, and they offer us the hope that we can all live longer, healthier, and happier lives.
David Jay Brown
Ben Lomond, California