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The Power of The White Coat

The psychological impact of symbols and images.
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A visit to the dentist is never the same after seeing the 1976 movie classic Marathon Man. The famous torture scene, set in the dentist chair, with Laurence Olivier playing the Nazi war criminal Szell, leaves your next visit to the dentist even less appealing. If you are afraid of dentists, I suggest you don’t watch it. You may never go again.

I’m lucky I have been born with strong teeth and with the proper care; they should last me most, if not all, of my life. If it weren’t for some mistakes early on, they would be in even better condition. That can be said about a lot of things done in our youth.

I tend to clench my teeth while I sleep when I’m under stress which has exacerbated the problems my mistakes have left. During the lockdown of 2020, I had to replace the same filling three times over six months. Ideally, a cap over the damaged tooth would have been the solution; however, with dentists limited to emergency surgery and all dental technician’s closed, the filling was the only option. My dentist and I looked forward to a more permanent solution; as soon as we were permitted, the booking was made and the cap organised. The operation went smoothly, and apart from a limited diet of soup and stews for a day or so, we were pretty happy with the result.

Until…

A month later.

I woke up one Wednesday morning with a very sore tooth, it appeared to be the tooth directly in front of the capped tooth, but the pain was located with all the teeth on that side. My first thought was to take it easy. I might have some unresolved stress where I clenched my teeth and bruised a nerve. I have seen Marathon Man, and despite knowing it’s just a movie, I still like to avoid the dentist. Who doesn’t?

So, I waited a day.

The next day was no different. After procrastinating until the late afternoon, I finally called my dentist. I couldn’t see him till the following week. I feel safe with my dentist, so I have no genuine desire to go anywhere else, so I agreed to wait.

The next day it was getting worse. I couldn’t eat on that side. Any variance of temperature away from room or body temperature would cause shooting pain. Even rinsing my mouth after brushing, the water temperature had to be exactly right. I started to think it must be an infection; something must have got underneath the cap. I was going to be in for root canal work. I could see the dollars and pain mounting up. As one of my psychologist friends would say, I was “catastrophising” the situation. I was building up a whole story. I knew this, of course, but even having that conversation with myself make no difference.

Of course, it was now the weekend, and apart from going to the emergency department, I had to wait until the week began. I was getting tired. The pain was a constant drain on energy and affected sleep and work.

Late one night, I booked online to a medical centre my health fund operates for first thing Monday morning. I took whichever dentist was available. I was concerned the infection would spread. Although my heart and intuition kept telling me that there was no infection, that my emotional responses were making it worse – it did not matter – the pain was still there. I knew that my intuition is not always correct, so it must be wrong in this situation. The pain was that bad.

I arrived early and waited. I was ushered into my unknown dentist and explained the situation. He listened patiently, did an examination, and said he did not think it was an infection but let’s take some X rays to be sure, to see what else may or may not be going on. A few minutes later, we were both sitting down and looking at my left lower jaw x-ray photos.

Good news – no infection. The nerve was awfully close to one of my fillings which could be causing the problem, although unlikely. My hitherto unknown dentists advice was to wait until Thursday where my regular dentist was organised to see me and take it from there. I had the X rays emailed to me ready for Thursday.

Of course, you are already guessing what may happen … over the next two days, the pain subsided. Even on that Monday afternoon, the pain was significantly reduced. By the time Thursday came around, it was 70% better. Still overly sensitive to heat and cold, but the intensity was reduced considerably.

Yes, there was a problem. The filling on the tooth in front of the “capped” tooth was slightly high. When I clenched my teeth, this high filling put extra pressure on that one tooth and its nerve. My dentist reduced the height of the filling, and it now sits quite well in my mouth. The remaining pain has gradually disappeared.

The most striking realisation is that without doing anything practically, the first dentist told and showed me there was no infection, which significantly reduced the pain levels. The power of a “white coat’s” symbolic imagery had its effect on my emotional consciousness.

This type of story gets repeat all the time. There are stories of people diagnosed with cancer and months later are dead and with an autopsy discovered it was a miss -diagnosis. There was no cancer. Others are diagnosed and spiral into poor health only on encouragement to get another opinion that there is no cancer and almost overnight are back to normal.

In my own country, our indigenous people’s believe in the power of “pointing the bone.” A powerful ritual brought about by the “kurdaitcha man”, a type of shaman in which death to the guilty party, is willed by the kurdaitcha. The victims become listless and apathetic, usually refusing food or water, with death often occurring within days of being “cursed”.

With its storehouse of beliefs, our unconscious mind’s, symbols and imagery have a powerful effect on how we live our day-to-day lives.

The most wondrous stories and art draw on these symbols, so they linger and continue to be revisited by us; they continue to inspire, bring joy, or haunt our souls.

In the recent Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian”, part of the Star Wars Universe, the creators draw heavily on myth and symbolism. We see in the making of series – “The Gallery” old footage of George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, discussing with fellow creatives the scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” between Darth Vada and Luke Skywalker. Here they talk about the scene as a battle between father and son. The son is still using his father’s old lightsabre, a symbol of his father’s values and beliefs, as a weapon against his father; only to lose it in the fight and his hand. When Luke receives a new lightsabre, it is a different colour. He is now his own man, with his values and opinions, willing to decide his destiny. All these themes are chosen before one frame of film is shot.

It is an age-old story, where a child must move away from the parent’s shadow and influence to become fully human, fully themselves. To make their way in the world or be destiny to a half-fulfilled life.

It is no coincidence that when Lucas was writing the original saga in the 1970’s he had on his desk, The Bible, The Bhagavata, and Joseph Campbells classic “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” He and his fellow producer Gary Kurtz had a significant interest in comparative religions and philosophy. In the search for a great story, Lucas would read Grimm’s Fairy tales, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, J.R.R. Tolkien’s, and Frazier’s “The Golden Bough”. Lucas also read Greek, Islamic and Indian Mythology. There is a reason Star Wars has been so successful. And it is the reason why those creatives who went back to those foundations for “The Mandalorian” saved a floundering film franchise.

There is a profound psychological impact of symbols and images. According to Joseph Campbell, a limited number of stories get revamped and reconfigured because each human experience is not significantly different from another. We often have the same struggles and battles to overcome, albeit in varying stages of earth’s history. The technology changes, but the conflicts remain the same.

The power of myths and symbols is why we hang on to them through religions, spiritual practices, rituals, and various life milestones ceremonies. It gives us a sense of belonging and support.

For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are the spontaneous productions
of the Psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (p. 1-2)

The grand living cultures in Asia of India and China tap into these deep connections with Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra, the so-called Indian Feng Shui. These two great traditions, plus the ideas in sacred geometry and other schools of thought, all dive into what Jung has called our Collective Unconscious.

As Robert Cialdin outlines in his influential books “Influence” and “Pre-Suasion”, – advertisers and the merchant class take advantage of these powerful images and actions every day. To go back to my own dentist experience, how often have you seen a medical advertisement with someone wearing a white coat. It is almost stock-standard practice. We are emotional beings first and foremost, and we are foolish to think otherwise. They are powerful messages to reinforce a particular paradigm.

We must learn when images and symbols are essential to hang on to, use them, discard them, or replace them with a more helpful story.  A questioning mind and a desire to gain greater awareness are one clear way ahead. We can learn to use them to our advantage to gain mastery over our own lives.

Who knows what idea and thoughts your next trip to the dentist could inspire?

Till Next Time

Resources & Further Reading

Empire Building : Remarkable, Real-life Story of “Star Wars” – Garry Jenkins

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win – Maria Konnikova.

The Hero with A Thousand Faces – Joseph ‘Campbell.

Influence : The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert B. Cialdini

The Golden Bough : A Study in Magic and Religion – Sir James George Frazer

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe – Chris Taylor

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Written By Owen Thomas

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