Monday, April 22, 2013

Cabeza de Vaca: Supernaturalism and psychosomatic disorders

Andrew Weil, a major proponent of the idea of self-healing (), has repeatedly acknowledged the influence of osteopaths such as Robert C. Fulford () on him, particularly regarding his philosophy of health management. Self-healing is not about completely autonomous healing; it is about healing by stimulation of the body's self-repair processes, which in some cases can be achieved by simply reducing stress.

Interestingly, there are many reported cases of osteopaths curing people from various diseases by doing things like cranial manipulation and other forms of touching. We also have much evidence of health improvement through prescription of drugs that don’t appear to have any health benefits, which is arguably a similar phenomenon.

The number of such reported cases highlights what seems to be a reality about diseases in general, which is that they often have a psychosomatic basis. Their “cure” involves making the person affected believe that someone can cure him, a healer, with or without drugs. The healer then cures the person essentially by her power of suggestion.

Paleoanthropological evidence suggests that this healer-induced phenomenon has always been widespread among hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that it may well have been the result of evolutionary pressures. If this is correct, how does it relate to health in our modern world?

I am very interested in hunter-gatherer cultures, and I have also been living in Texas for almost 10 years now. So it is only natural for me to try to learn more about the former hunter-gatherer groups in Texas, particularly those who lived in the area prior to the introduction of horses by the Europeans.

There are parks, museums, and other resources on the topic in various parts of Texas, which are at driving distance. Unfortunately much has been lost, as the Plains Indians of Texas (e.g., Comanches and Kiowas) who succeeded those pre-horse native groups have largely been forcibly relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

Anthropological evidence suggests that the earliest migrations to America have occurred via the Bering Strait, initially from Siberia into Alaska, and then gradually spreading southward to most of the Americas between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Much of what is known about the early Texas Indians is due to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who survived a shipwreck and lived among the Amerindians in and around Texas between 1528 and 1536. He later wrote a widely cited report about his experiences ().

(Cabeza de Vaca and his companions; source:

In Spanish, “cabeza de vaca” means, literally, “cow’s head”. This odd surname, Cabeza de Vaca, clearly had a flavor of nobility to it in Spain at the time.

You may have heard that early American Indians were uniformly of short stature, not unlike most people at the time, but certainly shorter than the average American today. Cabeza de Vaca dispels this idea with his description of the now extinct Karankawas, a description that has been born out by anthropological evidence. The male members “towered above the Spaniards”, often 6 ft or taller in height, in addition to being muscular.

The Karankawas were a distinct indigenous group that shared the same environment and similar food sources with other early groups of much lower stature. This strongly suggests a genetic basis for their high stature and muscular built, probably due to the “founder effect”, well known among population geneticists.

Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, two Spaniards and one Moroccan slave, were believed by the Amerindians to be powerful healers. This enabled them to survive among early Texas Indians for several years. Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues at times acknowledged that they were probably curing people through what we would refer today as a powerful placebo effect.

Having said that, Cabeza de Vaca has also come to believe, at least to a certain extent, that he was indeed able to perform miraculous cures. He repeatedly stated his conviction that those cures were primarily through divine intervention, as he was a devout Christian, although there are many contradictory statements in this respect in his reports (possibly due to fear from the Spanish Inquisition). He also performed simple surgeries.

Much has been written about Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the early Indians of Texas and surrounding areas, including the report by Cabeza de Vaca himself. One of my favorites is the superb book “A Land So Strange” () by Andrés Reséndez, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis ().

The Spanish explorer’s experiences have been portrayed in the film “Cabeza de Vaca” (), which focuses primarily on the supernatural angle, with a lot of artistic license. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with this film, as I expected it to show more about the early Indians’ culture and lifestyle. Juan Diego, the Spanish actor portraying Cabeza de Vaca, was razor thin in this film - a fairly realistic aspect of the portrayal.

It is quite possible that modern humans have an innate tendency to believe in and rely on the supernatural, a tendency that is the product of evolution. We know from early and more recent evidence from hunter-gatherer societies that supernatural beliefs help maintain group cohesion and, perhaps quite importantly, mitigate the impact that the knowledge of certain death has on the mental health of hunter-gatherers.

Homo sapiens is unique among animals in its awareness of its own mortality, which may be a byproduct of its also unique ability to make causal inferences. Supernatural beliefs among hunter-gatherers almost universally address this issue, by framing death as a threshold between this existence and the afterlife, essentially implying immortality.

Yet, supernatural beliefs seem to also have a history of exploitation, where they are used to manipulate others. Cabeza de Vaca himself implies that, at points, he and his companions took personal advantage of the beliefs in their healing powers by the various indigenous groups with which they came into contact.

Modern humans who are convinced that they have no supernatural beliefs often perceive that to be a major advantage. But there could be disadvantages. One is that they may have more difficulty dealing with psychosomatic disorders. The conscious knowledge that they are psychosomatic could possibly pale in comparison with the belief in supernatural healing, in terms of curative power. Another potential disadvantage is a greater likelihood of suffering from mental disorders.

Finally, those who are sure that they have no supernatural beliefs; are they really correct? Well, subconsciously things may be different. Perhaps a good test would be to go to a “convincing” movie (i.e., not a laughable “B-level” one; for lack of a better word) about supernatural things, such as possession or infestation by evil spirits, and see if it has any effect on you.

If the experience does have an effect on you, even a small one, couldn't this suggest that your subconscious belief in the supernatural may not be so easy to control in a conscious way? I suspect that having no supernatural beliefs is unnatural and unhealthy. In most cases it probably creates a conscious-subconscious conflict, and a fairly pessimist view of the world.

My guess is that it is better to have those beliefs, in some form or another, and be on guard against exploitation.


Gonçalo said...

Absolutely agree! Thanks!!!!!!!!

Skyler Tanner said...


Total non sequitur but I believe you know a client of mine, Cynthia Beath (or Boo as I know her). I had linked her to something you wrote and she sent back, "I know Ned!"

Small world.

Skyler Tanner

Ned Kock said...

Thanks Gonçalo.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Skyler. It is a small world that is getting smaller, at least virtually. You have a very distinguished client in Cynthia; Boo for you, probably Dr. Beath for her students. She is known worldwide, and widely cited, for her research in the area of information systems.

Kevin Owen said...

I have been practising Psychosomatic Healing for 2 decades. Many still don't even know it exists.

"The human body was found to be extremely capable of repairing itself when the stored memories of pain were cancelled. Further it was discovered that so long as the stored pain remained, the doctoring of what are called psychosomatic ills, such as arthritis, could not result in anything permanent."

"Experts estimate that psychosomatic illnesses account for up to 70 percent of mans ills, including being too fat or too thin, migraines, allergies and other afflictions not strictly caused by physical reasons."

Kevin Owen
Psychosomatic Healing
Handling Trauma With Advanced Psychotherapy
Handling the stress related to all illness.
With a reduction in Mental and Physical Stress comes an improvement in health.

girl said...

I don't get it. Is every condition which improves as a result of a placebo effect or psychosomatic healing a "psychosomatic disorder"? Or does psychosomatic healing affect conditions that are not psychological in origin?

Ned Kock said...

Even conditions that don’t have a psychosomatic basis may benefit from what I think Kevin is referring to as “psychosomatic healing”.

For example, a pre-diabetic state may be reversed by a feedback-loop causal chain like this: more optimistic thoughts > less perceived stress + more perceived energy > less antagonistic relationships with others + more physical activity > improved body composition > improved insulin sensitivity > more optimistic thoughts …

Here is where the power of suggestion can make a major difference. A very materialistic view of the world may interfere with that.

Ned Kock said...

The flipside of this scenario is that the power of suggestion can play against you. Healers, even modern ones such as the late Robert Fulford, carry a great responsibility.

At some point Cabeza de Vaca and his three colleagues were being followed by a group of Indians who strongly believed that if Cabeza de Vaca and his three colleagues were to be made angry by them, the Indians would not only become ill but could also die.

Well, Cabeza de Vaca and his three colleagues became angry with the Indians because they were steering them toward the Indians’ friends and away from their enemies, which Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues wanted to reach.

As a result, several Indians became ill and eight Indians died suddenly. Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues then became happy, and the Indians who were ill suddenly recovered completely.

Such is the mind endowed us by evolution …

shtove said...

Thanks. Very interesting.

I don't quite follow the leap from divine intervention to immortality.

The former is necessary, but not sufficient, for the latter.

Ned Kock said...

Hi shtove. What part of the text are you referring to?

dearieme said...

So there is more in the way of surviving written records for this brief spell of Spaniards living among Indians than there is for four hundred years or so of the history of the Romans in Britain.

Kevin John Owen said...

"Here is where the power of suggestion can make a major difference. A very materialistic view of the world may interfere with that."

There is no power of suggestion in what I do. Its more along the lines of defraging the mind of past truama using many different kinds of advanced psychotherapy [Not Psych Psychotherapy, now obsolete]

"Injury and illness are predisposed (made more likely to occur) by the spiritual state of the person. They are precipitated (brought on) by the being himself as a manifestation of his current spiritual condition. And they are prolonged (extended in time beyond normal limits) by any failure to fully handle the spiritual factors associated with them."

Of what must a science of mind be composed?

Kevin John Owen said...

girl said...
I don't get it. Is every condition which improves as a result of a placebo effect or psychosomatic healing a "psychosomatic disorder"?

Good question. I'm afraid so. That's why when applying medical treatments to psychosomatic illness they are limited to treating the symptoms only, through the acute and chronic stages of the illness until it kills them. They have no cures and even the pretended cures are sometimes less successful than placebo effect results. Research is usually doctored to show it has a slight advantage over placebo effect before it is introduced to the market. There are no cures in medicine.

"Or does psychosomatic healing affect conditions that are not psychological in origin?"

Psychosomatic stress can be the cause of them. A person has an argument with his wife, leaves in the car but he attention is still stuck in the argument and not on the driving, causing him to have an accident. If he injures himself in the accident the trauma if not handled can prolong healing. If handled with Psychosomatic Healing injury time can be halved. If not handled the physical can heal but the pain can linger in the injured area for a lifetime causing all kinds of complications

Accumulated physical pain and loss brings about a reduction of consciousness, a reduction of physical health and a reduction of the will to live to a point where the organism actively, if often slyly, seeks death.

Skyler Tanner said...


Boo speaks just as highly of you, especially of your character.

I've been very fortunate to have Denny and Boo as a sort of "wise Aunt and Uncle" for the past decade of my life. Like so many, you only know of their accomplishments because of other people telling you.


Ned Kock said...

I’d be surprised if that were the case dearieme. Moreover, much of what is written about this case comes from a few key documents, particularly CdV’s report.

Ned Kock said...

Kevin, if people seek your help because they believe you can heal them, you can strong influence them – by virtue of that very fact that they believe you can heal them.

Ned Kock said...

Nice to hear that Skyler, thanks.

dearieme said...

"I’d be surprised if that were the case dearieme": but it is, ned. WKPD: "Beyond the first few decades after the initial invasion, Roman historians generally mention Britannia only in passing. Thus, most knowledge of Roman Britain has derived from archaeological investigations, and the epigraphic evidence lauding the Britannic achievements of an Emperor of Rome, such as Hadrian (r. 117–38) and Antoninus Pius (r. 138–61)". Of administrative records, which must once have been huge, nothing survived the Dark Ages. We know the Roman names for only a few of the settlements. We don't know the Roman names for the roads, nor the size of the population, nor (even approximately) the acreage of cultivated land; for much of the period we don't know which legions were in Britain. The most famous document in Romano-British history, when the emperor wrote to the citizens to tell them that they'd have to defend themselves from the barbarians - i.e. that no troops would be forthcoming - is now believed to be a misattribution.

But I digress; my point was merely that you should be glad that such evidence as you have of Indian society has survived.

Ned Kock said...

I am surprised then; thanks for this interesting information dearieme!

LeonRover said...

Hi Ned.

This is off-topic.

BUT this article uses quadratic modelling for advocating statin-dosing. I know your interest in non-linear modelling.

(I am amused that the technique adopted MAXIMISES DEVIANCE.)


Ned Kock said...

Interesting Leon, thanks. There will be a post coming from me soon where a link will be shown between LDL-C and health, more LDL-C associated with health problems, but it will not be what most people think.

LeonRover said...

Ned, I look forward to the LDL-P post.

In the meantime, here is a comment I dropped on Chris Kresser's recent post.

"Here is a slide based on a 2002 study, which graphically displays how LDL-P varies both with HDL and TAGs. It also shows where the concordance of LDL-P with LDL breaks down (becomes discordant) with high TAGs and low HDL.

This slide shows joint risk of CAD as function both of HDL and LDL
The lowest risk is at HDL>85 and LDL of 100.

This study:” Lipid levels in patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease: An analysis of 136,905 hospitalizations in Get With The Guidelines”

contains these histograms of LDL, HDL and TAGs.

While admissions with HDL>=80 are about 1% and the admissions with TAGs <= 60 are about 13%, it is unfortunate that there is no analysis provided comparable to the "joint risk histgram" above."

You may well be aware of these; however these pictures make points in a clear fashion.


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