Knowledge, Ignorance, and the All-Elusive Bliss.

I was at my GP recently for a routine exam, and mentioned that I needed a new prescription for my birth control pill.  It’s been a while since I was on this pill due to pregnancies and breastfeeding.  She asked me if I could remember the name of the brand, and I told her.  She then asked if I smoke (no) and if I ever get migraines.

‘Now that you mention it,’ I said, ‘I do sometimes get them now.  I think it’s when I’m really, really tired.  I lose vision and get really nauseous.’

‘Ah,’ she said.

It turns out, since I was on this medication last, they’ve discovered there might be a link between women who get migraines and also take this pill, and strokes.  STROKES.  Especially if they’re under 45.  Which I am.

I would quite like to not have a stroke.

I got home and did some quick checking on the internet (what do you know? My doctor knows what she’s talking about!) and then I was reading about strokes in general, and discovered that there is a link — whether or not it is causal, seems unclear — between long term, sustained stress, and strokes.  And that made me laugh a bit, because there is a fair bit of that kind of information about.  You know the kind of articles I mean.  The ones that tell you that depressed people are more likely to die younger than those without depression.  And the ones that tell you that insomniacs are more likely to have heart failure.  And when I read those articles, I think, how is this good information to have?  If you’re depressed, how is it good to know that you might have a shorter lifespan?  Isn’t that going to make you even more depressed?  And if you can’t sleep, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to help, wondering if your lack of sleep is a contributing factor to a possible heart attack in later life. And if you’re pregnant? There are now lists of things you have worry about and consider to keep your baby safe. Oh, and by the way, apparently if your grandmother smoked while she was pregnant with your mother, it could be the cause of your unborn child’s asthma.  Awesome.


It’s not as if I would like to go back to the age of superstition and luck, when you could die from an infected cut, or when there was no treatment for cancer.  But I do wonder if we have just a bit too much information, nowadays, about our bodies and potential health problems.  How much is too much knowledge?  How much do we really need to know?  We talk about knowledge being power, but is it really empowering, to know about all the potential risks that might just be risks, that are based on statistics with many variables?  I can’t help wondering if it’s because drug manufacturers and health professionals are worried about being sued, if they don’t disclose every single little thing which might go wrong with you later in life.  Maybe we’ve done this to ourselves?  We’ve probed and delved so deeply into the minefield of health research, and we demand to hear every detail, every result of every study, just so we’re up to date with the latest in medical science.  The question is: what are we even hoping to do with this knowledge?


In the past, information about our health would be on a need-to-know basis. The doctor would tell you what tests were required, what your prognosis was, and you, the patient, were expected to be patient. You took for granted that their advice was right for you. You didn’t get a second opinion — why would you need one?  And you trusted that everything would be OK, and left your health in the hands of those who knew better.

Of course, people who work in the health sector are people, and they make mistakes and get diagnoses wrong, and miss symptoms. Hopefully not often, but it happens.  So there’s a reason why we started asking ‘what’s that test really for?’ and ‘are you sure it’s…’ and began to demand more information about our health.  And this was a good thing.  If we have more information about our bodies, it could mean that we take better care of them, make better choices.  It might mean we’re sharing responsibility for our health with our caregivers, rather than assuming that they’re always going to have the (right) answers, and placing them on a pedestal, from which they’re sure to fall.

The problem is, in demanding access to all this knowledge, we’ve opened the floodgates, and I’m not sure we’re mentally prepared for all the information that’s flowing very quickly in our direction.  

Being able to access the kinds of knowledge that was previously only available to professionals has its drawbacks.  While it’s great to have more information, we may not necessarily have the experience or training to interpret it, so it becomes confusing and overwhelming.  Reports in the media often select the most shocking or sensational aspects of a study, and focus on them, rather than presenting them in a more measured way.  Of course they do, because the authors want the reports to be read, or watched, or listened to.  But in doing so, they’re not necessarily contributing to a better understanding about our health.  If anything, they’re exacerbating the problem.

I wouldn’t like to argue that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not convinced that omniscience is bliss either.  To that end, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.  Oh, don’t worry — I’m still going to ask my doctor for advice when I need it, and go for checkups.  I’ll still take responsibility for the fact that it’s my body, and that I know it best.  And I’ll still do research on my own, if I think it’s going to be useful.  But in terms of all the other stuff, I intend to blithely ignore it, and just assume that I am going to live a long and healthy life.  Because most of this information still really should be on a need-to-know basis, when you think about it.

And I most certainly do not need to know.




20 thoughts on “Knowledge, Ignorance, and the All-Elusive Bliss.

  1. You may have heard the old medical school saying, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Unfortunately, I’ve always been a zebra. When .000002 percent of the population reports a given side effect from a medication, or a given symptom of whatever disorder–that’s me. I have a very hard time getting doctors to take me seriously as a result. When I start taking a new drug, and I experience a rare side effect, I’m frequently told that I’m “imagining” things, that side effect is so rare it’s not even worth considering. I’d much rather be an educated medical consumer. Without the information at my disposal, I might actually start believing my doctors when they tell me I’m a hypochondriac who needs a different kind of help than they can give me.

    • Haha, I’ve not heard that saying, but it’s a good one! The one I know is ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ etc. I’m so sorry you often have the most unusual side effects, and of course, your experiences shouldn’t be dismissed (I think this is how problems can easily arise, when the patient is not considered to be a good source of information about his/her body!). There’s certainly nothing wrong with being informed, I just wonder if we need SO much information — about everything. I once had to take a friend to hospital because she was taking some antibiotics and convinced herself she was having the most dangerous side effects… turns out she was physically fine, but the symptoms were from a panic attack, caused by thinking she had the side effects :/

  2. This is a very interesting post and one that I definitely feel I can relate to in my own life. Whilst I am very glad that I am not predisposed to rare side effects, I am not glad at the swathes of information available on the internet to exacerbate one’s worry about every headache.

    Unfortunately I do sometimes end up reading health information online and inevitably I come to the conclusion I have developed some rare form of cancer. I normally manage to convince myself that is extremely unlikely and get on with my life, but the unprofessional advice masquerading as medical wisdom is not good for society. Simply getting on with things and assuming the best is definitely the right course of action.

    Good post.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s so easy to hop on the internet and convince yourself you have the symptoms of something or other, and some sites are definitely more informative and trustworthy than others! A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, so I like to temper it with a little bit of ‘lalala-can’t-hear-you!’ 😀

  3. Fabulous post! I’m with you. I don’t want to have a stroke either. Imagine that! LOL

    Seriously, my favorite line in your post is, “I wouldn’t like to argue that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not convinced that omniscience is bliss either.” Nice sentence. You write well.

    Also want to thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. It was great to “meet” you. Now I have another wonderful blog to follow. And, by the way, love your blog’s name!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • Thank you 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Definitely avoiding strokes is on my to-do list.

      I enjoyed ‘meeting’ you too! I really look forward to reading more of your work, and thank you for the compliments about my writing, as well. The Handsome Sidekick needs to take credit for the name! I’ll tell him you liked it.

      Hugs back from Western Australia 🙂

  4. I am a asthmatic… I had a DR. TELL ME that his son is an asthmatic and so HE felt he learned enough from HIS daughter (who he probably never met) That HE knew what to prescribe me. he gave me a medication for people with Emphysema that can cause SUDDEN death in asthmatics! I only know that because of the commercial for the drug!!! I walked RIGHT out of that office and NEVER RETURNED! These DR.’s are AMAZINGLY arrogant! I am DUMBSTRUCK by the SHEER ARROGANCE!

  5. Cool post!

    I actually know why all those side effects are reported, at least in the US: the manufacturers are required to by law. In early trials, if a certain bad thing occurs more than a some level ( I don’t know that level) it has to be reported as a possible side effect. If you look at the lists, almost all include headaches and, if for a disease, the main side effects of the actual disease. After the drug is approved, manufacturers prefer not to have new nasty side effects added on because of the impact on sales (not evil, just greedy). Sorry ’bout the lecture … I just had a nugget of truth aching to get out.

    • Oh, no, that’s fine! I figured there are reasons… like I was saying, it’s more so that they can cover themselves later if someone sues them, I imagine. You’re right, too, all of the side effects I’m thinking of now (antibiotics, even the pill!) list headaches… hmmm. Considering the way that recalls of drugs are such big news, I can understand why they’d prefer nasty side effects just stay listed on those little paper inserts in the packet, and not all over news headlines!

    • In the US, it’s a liability issue. The drug companies want to mention all the side effects in their ads, because their legal ppl have told them that if they publicly disclosed that Side Effect A can be caused by Drug B, the patient can’t sue them. Doesn’t stop the patient(s) from trying, and sometimes it even works, but that’s why–listing every side effect is a way of limiting any potential liability.

    • I’m with you there. Apparently people have successfully self-diagnosed all sorts of ills and diseases, but I think I’m much more likely to just make myself sick with worry!

      Thank you!!

  6. You know, I’m the sort of person who prefers as much info as possible, even when I have to sift through the enormous amounts of sensational stuff. But I think I have the advantage of knowing how not to digest it after years of watching my mother, who is a hypochondriac, diagnose herself and the other six members of our family with everything under the moon. (And for all her diagnosing, she still hasn’t figured out how to keep herself from catching/lingering in a nasty cold about once per month or more.)

    Your posts are so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you. 🙂

    And I just realized (after many times of seeing the new background) that you’ve done away with the balloons theme. Maybe I will adopt it after all. 😀 ❤

    • It definitely takes a lot of practice, I think, to be able to sift through to find the useful among the alarming! I’m sorry to hear your mother seems to still get ill so often :/

      You’re so welcome! Thank you for reading them!

      Haha, I found the balloon theme somewhat distracting because one balloon kept straying into my text. Also, the background I used on it wasn’t the best. Probably if I’d not meddled with it, it would have been fine!

  7. Any number of thoughts here.

    First, yes, they do disclose any possible side effect for fear of lawsuits (especially American sources). This simply make people worry more.

    Second, as my brother, pointed out, in order to have truly informed consent, he’d have had to have gone to medical school. My brother is not a doctor. He is a hypochondriac.

    Having trained in the US system, I was pleasantly surprised when I started practicing in Canada. One of my first patients, a highly-intelligent, older gentlemen, when I started to explain all the possible options, stopped me with: “I trust you, doc. Tell me what you think is the best choice. If it doesn’t work, I’ll get back to you.” My point is not that he had blind faith in me, but that he had faith that I’d do my best, and if the first choice didn’t work, we’d talk again.

    That segues into “how much info do you give a patient.” As a practical matter, no one remembers more than about 3 things, and that’s on a good day. I prefer to discuss major points/issues, then end it with: “if it doesn’t work by xxxx (whatever a reasonable time is), come back; if you have any problems, call me at once.”

    When people come in with what they “learned” on the internet, I (on a good day) smile politely. The number of times that someone has come in with something they learned on the internet, that wasn’t bogus, that I didn’t already know, is somewhere around, uh, never. I actually don’t mind people asking me those questions, so I can set their minds at ease; I do mind those who have decided that since they found something on the internet, they are now going to educate me.

    Recall an interesting British study about reassuring people who are needlessly scared of xxxxx. (If there is a reasonable risk, then by all means do the workup.) If they are normal people, simple reassurance is all that is needed, so don’t do the workup. If they are neurotically worried, then no amount of workup actually reassures them, so don’t do the workup.

    Please understand that I don’t think ignorance is bliss, nor do expect to be put on a pedestal (and am not comfortable with people who want to put me there). I do think that a very little is needed besides a fairly limited discussion, and very little is gained by people scaring themselves silly.

    • I had a lump under my arm recently and went to the doctor fairly quickly because I read on the internet that it could be a sign of breast cancer. I mean, it really COULD be, but in my case it was something really simple (which name I have since forgotten, you probably know). It went away a day or two later by itself, but it was a huge relief to have someone diagnose it as something very simple and easy to treat. Had I not gone to the doctor, and it had gone away anyway… I still would have been wondering what it was! (And I didn’t tell her that the internet had suggested it might be cancer. I didn’t want to seem alarmist!)

  8. With knowledge comes responsibility. So now that we have so much information available, we are more responsible for ourselves. And this responsibility includes the choices if we read about certain topics, what we read about them, and how we handle what we read. I guess that can be difficult for some people, but I’m really glad I can check certain things and sometimes don’t even have to see a doctor about minor things. 🙂

    • I think responsibility is the key — and knowing when it is time to walk away and not read certain things which will make you concerned. I’ve certainly looked stuff up for myself and for the children and saved myself a trip to the doctor (it’s free for us, but I don’t want to go to appointments unnecessarily). I also think this way about other sensationalist stuff I read, though… there are lots of headlines I know I just don’t need to click on to find out more. Why would I need to read more details about horrible events? I just have to walk away.

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