Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are we becoming too well informed to think?

Today I came across a newspaper article in which we read how a body builder/personal trainer was advised by an NHS nurse that her BMI (body mass index) was too high and that she should eat less and exercise more. The newspaper article was accompanied by a picture of the body builder. She is what my sons call 'stacked'. Maybe you don't like that particular kind of body shape, and that's fine. But this woman has clearly worked very hard on getting her body to look the way she wants it to look. I'm pretty sure her body fat percentage is very low, but muscle weighs far more than fat, so a very muscular person, on the basis of BMI alone will register as overweight or even obese.

I think it's safe to say that the nurse in question made no effort to address the woman's unique case. She unquestioningly followed a single set of guidelines as issued by the NHS.

We seem to have guidelines for everything these days. So much so, that I wonder whether we're in danger of giving up the effort of thinking for ourselves.

Sometimes guidelines are treated as inflexible rules. I mentioned once before on this blog about a friend of mine whose baby was struggling with reflux problems. She was worried about him, because when she laid him down to sleep, he would spit up and start choking. Because I had a son with a similar problem (apparently it's quite common for baby boys to have a slightly underdeveloped valve between the end of the oesophagus and the start of the stomach - it usually resolves once they become able to sit up by themselves), I suggested that she try laying him down on his side with a rolled up towel behind him to hold him in position, so that if he spit up in his sleep, it wouldn't get caught in his throat. Her response was "Ooh, no. We're not allowed to do that. The health visitor says we have to put him down on his back." Not allowed to. Not allowed to make a decision in respect of your own child that is contrary to what the health visitor has recommended based on the guidelines handed down to her by a faceless organisation that has never met the individual child in question.

A few years back, we read glowing obituaries for a traffic engineer in Europe (I wish I could remember more details about him) whose view was that more information to drivers made roads less safe. He was credited with revolutionising traffic safety by removing most of the information given to drivers and allowing them to take ownership of their own driving habits.

Now that I have health and safety guidelines that tell me it isn't safe to stand on a chair on top of a desk to change a light bulb, and warning signs over the hot taps in public facilities telling me that the water is hot, and labels on bags of nuts telling me that they contain nuts... do I need to do any thinking for myself? Perhaps the rationale is that it frees up my brain for important things. But I maintain that the more we are protected from the possibility of making stupid choices, the less likely it is that we will make inspired ones.

I have no research to go on here, but I wonder if it isn't a bit like a sine wave. The ubiquitous 'they' are trying to remove the bottom half of the wave, but actually what's happening is that the entire wave pattern is getting flattened as the top half is reduced proportionately. Spike Milligan is reported to have hated the medication that took away the swooping lows of his bipolar disorder (or manic depression as it was known back then), because it also robbed him of the soaring highs. The two things aren't directly related, of course, but I wonder, if in the process of trying to move the whole wave upward, we don't actually just reduce its amplitude. And if we reduce it enough, will we all just, well, 'flatline' a la the movie Serenity?

Surely being allowed to make a few stupid mistakes, will encourage us to think a bit more? Surely looking at a competitive body builder, a nurse can set the BMI guidelines aside? Surely the mother of a baby with reflux can experiment to see what works best for her own baby?

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