‘Just Listen to Your Body’: How Pseudo-Wisdom Fuels Science Denial

listen to your body

In the realm of New Age spirituality/ideology, one reason to oppose medical interventions is contained in the phrase ‘just listen to your body’ – in a very specific sense. Listening to your body could, in one way, simply mean developing a mindful awareness of your body, such as whether you feel physically fatigued or if there are places of tension. There is nothing problematic about this. In fact, body awareness is useful in terms of developing mindfulness, as well as recognising when you need rest and rejuvenation, whether you are hungry or satiated (instead of just wanting food out of boredom, stress, or loneliness), and how your diet and lifestyle are affecting you physically. However, this is not the sense of ‘listening to your body’ that drives anti-medical, anti-science attitudes.

There is a definite aspect of New Age spirituality and the wellness world (such as the yoga world) that has become enmeshed with science denial and conspiratorial thinking. This latter tendency, when mixed with New Age beliefs, is known as conspirituality (a term coined by the sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas in 2011, and which the philosopher Jules Evans has written extensively on in recent years). This common (but dangerous) admixture often pertains to Big Pharma, medicine, and vaccines, with people going far beyond a healthy dose of scepticism to a heavy dose of conspiratorial thinking. As a case in point, many anti-vaxxers and New Agers buy into various conspiracy theories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic: how vaccines are being employed for the purposes of mass tracking and mass destruction, and how the pandemic is a hoax, invented so that a global elite can control the masses or as a way to help pharmaceutical companies make money.

The Big Pharma conspiracy, a common belief among the conspirituality types, states that pharmaceutical companies are secretly working against the public interest, by causing or worsening diseases and suppressing natural cures for serious illnesses like cancer – all in a bid to increase their profits. There are many legitimate criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry (relating to how it misleads doctors and harms patients), but the Big Pharma conspiracy goes too far; it is guilty of black-and-white thinking, leaving no room for the idea that these companies, although motivated by profit, do provide benefits to many people. For the conspiritualist, the whole industry is decidedly evil.

With the above points in mind, one study found that the idiomatic expression ‘listen to your body’:

allows participants to demonstrate to others that they take their health seriously and for that reason avoid scientific knowledge. They contrast Listen to Your Body with “blindly following science,” presenting Listen to Your Body as the more critical and, therefore, more rational behavior. Instead of treating the idiomatic expression as “anyone’s knowledge,” speakers and recipients compete for the right to own it. 

While ‘listen to your body’ is often intended to communicate independent, critical, non-sheepish thinking, it has a tendency to fall into a very ideologically boxed mindset, with ‘thinking for yourself’ (i.e. trusting your own inner/bodily wisdom) lending itself to outright science denial. There is not necessarily any critical evaluation of scientific evidence taking place; there may be, instead, a blanket rejection or mistrust of anything deemed ‘medical’, ‘unnatural’, or ‘mainstream science’. ‘Listen to your body’ is, indeed, often steeped in irrationality.

‘Listen to your body’ can be a form of pseudo-wisdom parading as genuine wisdom. It is, moreover, prone to egotism: this mantra can be an attempt to position oneself as self-reliant, in peak health, and far more enlightened when it comes to awareness of one’s body and health compared to the masses who blindly accept mainstream medicine. We can see this level of ego creeping into the usage of the phrase from the aforementioned study, with speakers and recipients competing for who has a right to own it.

There is no logical ground to feel that ‘listening to your body’ is more self-reliant than accepting evidence-based medical treatments. We all rely on others for our individual health. The food we eat is dependent on a complex food system involving many industries and many people. Taking your health into your hands through dietary and lifestyle choices, but rejecting vaccines and medicine, is not a sign of self-reliance. In fact, it can be framed as the opposite: to base health-oriented decisions on ideology rather than a careful assessment of the benefits and risks of some treatment is other-reliance, not self-reliance. It is a dependence on either how others in the ingroup think or the ‘other’ that is the ideology itself. 

If ‘listen to your body’ encourages saying no to vaccines and medications but yes to other health-related choices, this does not mean you’ll be in peak health. For example, alternative therapies (like reiki, homeopathy, reflexology) are a staple in New Age and wellness communities, even though they have been shown, repeatedly, to be either ineffective or no better than placebo, with questionable studies supporting their benefits. (It should be said that the placebo effect can still be powerful, but the problem is that alternative medicine practitioners don’t make money from marketing a treatment that works no better than a sugar pill: their claims, which support their money-making ventures, are much more enticing than this.) Therefore, by opting for alternative therapies rather than many mainstream treatments, or rejecting the mainstream options outright, your health may not be as protected as someone who eats and lives healthily and who accepts treatments shown to be safe and effective.

Another way in which the expression ‘listen to your body’ reveals its pseudo-wisdom is when our body calls on us to engage in unhealthy behaviours. For example, what we eat changes our gut microbiome, which, in turn, makes us seek out specific foods. Some bacteria can increase cravings for sugar. If you were to listen to these bodily cravings, your health would suffer.

Furthermore, withdrawal cravings, which occur when kicking a drug addiction, are basically your body screaming to you to use the drug of choice again, as this will put an end to the unpleasant physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms you’re going through. Listening to just the body is, therefore, not always reliable or sufficient for finding out what’s in our best interest. Again, this is not to say that noticing changes and signals in your body has no benefits, only that this useful practice can be used to justify faux-profundity. The New Age guru Deepak Chopra tells us, “Just listen to your body, eat in silence and see what feels good and you will spontaneously choose the foods that are beneficial to you.” Although I’m not so sure about this advice, given that we have evolved both a strong predilection for foods high in fat and sugar and an urge to overeat. These cravings served us well in an ancestral environment where energy-dense foods were scarce, but they backfire in the modern environment we find ourselves in, with foods unnaturally high in fat and sugar galore. Because of our evolved nature, listening to our bodies is not always wise.

‘Listen to your body’ (in the specific context I am discussing it, and not body awareness) involves the interplay of several psychological components, including what I call the healthified ego (wanting to present oneself as healthier than others), as well as the over-attachment to – and fetishisation of – self-reliance. The individual – who only needs to ‘listen to the body’ – becomes the trusted health expert. The self subsumes the role of diagnostician and prescriber. Medical experts, who are of course fallible and guilty of bias, are not seen as deserving of the same level of trust as a person’s ‘gut feeling’. They may not even be trusted at all.

To be self-reliant, especially being able to take care of one’s physical health, is virtuous; but there is an extreme version of this attitude that can spell trouble for oneself and others. For instance, people who feel they don’t ‘need’ the COVID-19 vaccine because they can take care of their own health will, as the evidence tells us, pose greater risks to themselves (by increasing the risk of hospitalisation and death) and others (by not reducing viral spread), regardless of how healthy they actually are. Meanwhile, the risks associated with getting the vaccine are far lower than the risks associated with getting COVID-19 – but as research has underscored, vaccine sceptics overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes from getting the vaccine. 

It is hard to simply ‘listen to our bodies’ when we have cognitive biases, such as the optimism bias, which can make us overestimate how fit and healthy we are. Thus, ‘listen to your body’, in terms of appraising our personal health and bodily needs, may not always be based on trustworthy intuition, but may instead be a phrase that supports our biases and preconceived opinions.

I believe it is no coincidence that ‘listen to your body’ is most pervasive in neoliberal societies, as it is concurrent with an individualist mentality, with not wanting outside help for one’s ‘health success’. In neoliberal societies, self-reliance and competitiveness are prized – and these virtues seep into all areas of life, not just work; it seeps into how we think about our personal health as well. In a culture that venerates self-reliance, successful people are those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and it is easy to see how vaccines and medication-taking – in this ideological context – may be viewed as a failure of this goal. 

The phrase ‘listen to your body’ has now, unfortunately, become wrapped up in New Age thinking, a kind of thinking that is different from the concept of simple body awareness (awareness of both the inside and outside aspects of our bodies), the latter of which is genuinely helpful for addressing issues like stress. So we could all benefit by listening to our bodies more, but not in a way that feeds science denial and excessive levels of self-reliance.

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