The Semmelweis Reflex

by Charles Lyell on May 3, 2013

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”  – Voltaire 

The Semmelweis reflex explains why it might take years until the information contained on this site is considered common knowledge.

According to the Semmelweis Society International (http://semmelweis.org/), "The Semmelweis reflex or 'Semmelweis effect' is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms."

Named after Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th century Hungarian physician, the phenomenon could have been called the Galileo reflex. After all, the Italian astronomer provided a classic example of how dangerous experts can be, centuries before Dr. Semmelweis made the mistake of threatening his peers’ dopamine flow. It can also be called the dopamine reflex, since the powerful neurotransmitter is responsible for the knee-jerk reaction keeping today’s researchers from figuring out how everything they do they do to protect and trigger dopamine flow.

Compared to Semmelweis, Galileo was lucky. Dr. Semmelweis ended up in an asylum where he was beaten to death by guards. His offense was figuring out why so many women were dying in hospital maternity wards. Until Ignaz came along the doctors, who happened to be esteem addicts, protected their dopamine flow by convincing one another that the expectant mothers were responsible for the inexplicably high mortality rate. Semmelweis deduced that the deaths were related to the physicians studying cadavers in the hospital’s morgue. Sure enough, when Semmelweis convinced the doctors in his hospital to wash their hands in a disinfectant, the death rate dropped dramatically.

Ignaz’s troubles began when he threatened the dopamine flow of physicians working in other hospitals. The doctors were highly offended by the esteem deflating suggestion that they might be killing patients. Unable to explain his already proven theory, the good doctor was attacked, disgraced, dismissed, forced to relocate, and committed to an asylum where, within a week, he was dead. Why? For trying to save lives by asking doctors to wash their hands.

The Semmelwies reflex provides invaluable insights into:

  • Why you won’t find researchers using brain scanning equipment to investigate possible connections between dopamine-induced addictions and all of Abraham Maslow’s deficiency needs, especially safety (power), acceptance (approval, attention), and esteem (status). 
  • Why so few fully comprehend that addicts who use power, money, and religion to trigger dopamine are more common, destructive, and self-deceptive than addicts who use drugs to trigger the same neurotransmitter. 
  • Why today’s experts are blind to the blatant similarities between themselves and the 16th century scholars who wouldn’t look through Galileo’s telescope and the 19th century doctors who refused to wash their hands.
  • Why there’s no easy, non-threatening, safe way to contradict established norms, beliefs, or paradigms, especially when the norms, beliefs, or paradigms are based on fears, prejudices, and self-serving deceptions.
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  1. [...] they were killing women, while refusing to do something as simple as washing their hands to prove Ignatz Semmelweis wrong. Why? I believe they weren’t interested in facts, truth, or finding out they were [...]

  2. […] can relate to Messrs. Galilei’s and Semmelweis’s frustrations. They were trying to point out the obvious to seemingly intelligent peers. But instead […]

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