Blue Pill, Red Pill

I was listening to an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast  in which he interviewed Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad.  Vince said that they shot almost all of Breaking Bad on 35 mm film, and that he misses film (because now they are shooting Better Call Saul on the Red). Marc asked Vince why he missed film, and he said, “I don’t know, I just miss it.”  Vince went on to humbly confess that before they started the Better Call Saul series, their DP conducted a blind test of 35 mm film versus video, and they showed Vince both side by side. Vince admitted that, although he wished otherwise, he could not tell the difference in this “blind taste test”.  And so, since video was less expensive to shoot on, and far more flexible in terms of seeing the actual images being captured on video monitors in real time, they went to video (as has every other serious production company). But, even though Vince admitted that video has several advantages, and no disadvantages, he still wishes they were using film. He could not point to a logical reason; he just felt that film was better.

There used to be a series of TV ads for an audiotape company called Memorex. When I was a teenager, we used to make “mix tapes” of our favorite music on audiotape cassettes (these are now museum pieces).  Audiotape has a noise problem called “hiss” (which got eliminated when the technology switched from analog recording to digital recording).  Basically, as the tape rubbed against the sensor in the tape player, there would be a background white noise created by some of the random magnetic flecks on the tape. Although it was at a low level, you always knew when you were listening to a recording on audiotape.  Along came the company Memorex, with quieter tape.  They would advertise their tape with the slogan “Is it live, or Memorex?”  Meaning, were you at a live concert or were you listening to recorded music on Memorex tape?

This prompted the question as to whether we should live our lives in reality or should we allow ourselves to be deluded, either by others, or ourselves, or both? What will make us happier, healthier, and more productive? Living life with a mind full of facts, figures, and verified information; or living life in a fantasy world of make believe?   What has been so interesting about conducting the interviews and doing the background research, is that delusion plays a major role in various societies, despite verifiable, reproducible facts that make such delusionshighly, highly unlikely.  Are such delusions the product of ignorance? Tradition? Programming?  Or might there be a more functional role for adopting and maintaining untenable beliefs?

We’ve all heard of stories of people who have survived traumatic experiences, and later developed protective delusions to help them rationalize or marginalize the painful memories. Could it be that certain aspects of life are better handled with delusion rather than reality?  I think that, in certain aspects of life the answer may be yes, and in other aspects of life the answer may be no. In our Belief interviews we have touched on various aspects of life where society has a spectrum of views, from real to delusional. I think the deeper message that might come from our Belief series is whether rational thinking is better applied to certain areas of life, and delusional thinking is better applied to other areas of life.

Let’s take health care as an example. Modern medicine communicates in a language of heart rate, blood pressure, CAT scans, electrolytes, and other quantitative measures of human health.  But modern medicine has yet to find an explanation for the placebo effect.  What causes people who take some inert pill to heal better than people who take no pill at all? It is still unexplained. This is an example of where delusion (the belief that one has consumed a beneficial substance) has a positive effect. Take away the potential comfort that the “control group” experiences by believing that they may be taking the active medicine, and they will not do as well as the people who are under the delusion that they are taking something with active properties. My unproven bias is that most “alternative” modalities, such as acupuncture, hypnotherapy, homeopathy, and mindfulness techniques, trigger a response similar to the placebo effect. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that they engender comfort to the recipient, providing an anti-anxiety effect that counters the mind’s tendency to worry, and thereby inhibit the release of stress hormones and other still unknown stress response transmitters that might have a long term, negative impact on one’s health.

Another example is religion. It’s comforting to think that if we simply lead a good life and do what our religious leaders tell us to do, we will find a place in heaven amongst our loved ones. It’s a wonderful delusion; because the opposite belief (that the movie ends and the theater lights never come back on) is very depressing.

Another example is “health foods”.  In order to prove that any food, or supplement, or even exercise routine, or mindfulness routine is better or worse for people, a “double blind” study would need to be conducted. This would involve taking two groups of people who are identical in every respect, including height, weight, ethnic background, diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, economic status, education, geographical location, sleep patterns, number of children, where they grew up, etc, etc, etc and feed the substance in question to one group but assure that the other group does not consume the substance in question.  Depending upon the statistical significance that the investigator wishes to achieve, one would have to perform this study on hundreds if not thousands of people. Depending on the outcome the investigator is studying, such as longevity, the investigator would need to conduct this study for 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years.  And for the entire period of the study, the “control” group would not be allowed to consume the substance, while the “test” group would need to regularly consume the substance.  Can you imagine the compliance problems?  The tracking problems? The cost of such a study?  But this is what would be required to prove or disprove that some food is healthy for you, or harmful to you.  The bottom line is that just about everything written in health and lifestyle magazines is unproven. However, is there benefit to delude oneself into thinking that an apple a day keeps the doctor away?  Or that organic foods will prevent you from being exposed to that cliché buzzword, “toxins”, or maybe even the boogey man? Is there a placebo effect that comes from downing a multivitamin each day, or drinking green tea instead of black tea, or eating that kale salad?

So, clearly, delusion has its potential benefits. But can it also be harmful? We know about mentally ill people who have harmful delusions. They either think they are someone who they are not, or they fear something that should not be feared, or they commit suicide because they cannot make sense out of reality. Such delusions are certainly counterproductive, if not harmful. But are there other, more subtle delusions that can be harmful? Can a belief in a religion cause one to do harm to oneself or others? And are there people who take advantage of the fact that humans find certain delusions helpful, and prey upon such human instincts and behaviors? We know of examples of religious leaders who take advantage of their followers (Catholic priests), or cause them to harm others (fundamental Islamists), or work diligently to gather riches for the leader and drive themselves into poverty (Scientologists).  We know of food companies that take advantage of people’s desire to eat “healthy” and sell them high-fat, gluten free candy bars, or other products with dubious health claims. We know of nutritional supplement companies that sell people products with grass clippings in them instead of the plant or root from which the product was supposed to be derived. We know of alternative medicine practitioners who claim to be able to heal someone’s cancer with herbal teas and coffee enemas, tragically misleading these people away from conventional therapy, and toward a stage 4 death sentence.  Many of the interviews we conducted delve into this question of harm or good?

I think these are the questions our series should ask. Essentially delusional beliefs are a tool that can be used for good and for bad; and our series should explore when they are being used for good, when they are being used for bad, and when we just do not know. The big question is not whether delusional beliefs are good are bad; it’s “when are they good? and when are they bad?” I don’t know if any other program has explored beliefs in this way, and I think we can bring a great deal of insight to our audience if we develop the episodes from this perspective.