Mind and Medicine
The Journey so Far

Ben Janaway

I Dec 21 2016

The conception of Mind and Medicine was not a definitive act, no distinct decision, but more a cumulative and almost organic process. I found myself sat at my kitchen table at 5 am in late 2016, the morning light struggling to penetrate the somewhat faded blinds of my flat, candle burning and lukewarm coffee in hand, lost in thought. I felt like I was missing something, a feeling of a missed step or the absence of a door handle in the dark.

I had spent the last seven years working toward become a fully qualified doctor. This was a decision I had made late, and much to the surprise of my parents and teachers. Throughout school, aside from aimless wandering and dubious song writing, my ‘talents’ (or as far as my report cards would suggest,) laid in the ‘arts’. I loved painting, drawing, writing, music and acting. I felt my happiest when expressing the myriad confusing and angsty feelings of turbulent adolescence.

I remember being told to be an author, or an artist.  My final GCSE art exam consisted of a rapidly drawn allegory of Dante’s Gates of Hell, my English an essay on Lord of the Flies and some stuff about chemistry, physics, mathematics and Spanish (I remember my Spanish teacher very well, even in those days I was a slave to a pretty face.) I managed to do well in most, but excelled in the creative fields. I approached college with a plan to be an author, or artist, or whatever.

So medicine was the natural choice, made on the spur of the moment in a cold hall in Winchester at my college interview. I saw an uncertain future in artistic pursuits, but saw the option of a ‘safe’ career with my spare time spent in expression. I was certainly not prepared, and forgivably delusional, about how this decision would alter the course of my life.  So I picked to study Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Psychology and Biology.

Nine years later I find myself a man out of place and out of time. I feel that in the escalator of medicine, where you plan, and work, and plan, you have little time to think seriously of anything but the next career step. All university projects were bent toward a career in academic neurology, all team building geared toward gaining transferrable skills, all projects demonstrating a unique facet applicable to some barely understood pathway. I was a boy scout, aside from the whiskey, rugbyand chasing girls.

After two years in medicine, I found myself worn and tired. My interest in medical careers waning, lost in a constant battle with myself. On one hand, I had grown to love science, a great love of understanding coloured with the necessary imagination to capture new knowledge. On the other, angry and disillusioned at the limitations imposed by station and practicality, a constant fight to provide care against dwindling resources, increasing patient numbers and absent staff morale.

More and more I turned to science, my secret love, my torrid affair. Having discovered Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ in my final university years, the spirit of understanding and sharing the amazing was one I could not shake. I threw myself, with reckless abandon and caffeinated zeal, into a wide range of science including Sagan, Kaku, Dawkins, Freud and expanding into philosophical texts including Nietzsche and Satre. The option to escape saved me in my darkest times, across continents and years. I found these hours spent lost in learning a time found in life.

It was the love of the process, how science was infinitely and cruelly self-correcting, sceptical in heart and cautious in mind, that led me to question my medical school knowledge. The more I asked, the more I learned, the more I delved deeper and uncovered inconsistencies in not just conclusions drawn on research, but problems in research and the process itself. Suddenly all the old rules were broken, the old roads missing their destinations.

With so much unclear, I realised that finding some clarity, and the grey borders between these abstract continents, made me very happy. Finding ways to explain the universe and the menagerie of complexity within it became like a drug, made my heart beat faster and my hands quick. I fell in love with communicating the knowledge of the greats, as well as challenging it.

So how did this somewhat self-indulgent mission translate into the website you see before you? Why do I have any special role to play? The simple answer is, because I wanted to help people understand the limits of what we know and what we don’t. I have no greater intellect or perspective than other doctors (and in my opinion, probably much less,) but I am willing to trust that people can learn. I don’t believe knowledge should be the exclusive right of those paying for university, and that given the right language, everyone can be a scientist.

So I began to write for online health sources. I had developed a rather fortunate arrangement with Stella Bolam at patient.co.uk, who would regularly offer me the opportunity to write for the site. I have to this day completed over 70 articles, ranging on subjects from mindfulness to the physiology of brain cell regeneration, all learned from hours of research, scepticism, and tireless communication. I have loved every single minute.

But as in any market, the opportunity for exponential growth (and in this case I refer to both my passion for science writing and the work itself) is limited by a number of a factors.  Patient.co.uk offers a wonderful service, but it was not practical to use it as an outlet for a creativity I had buried back in a cold Winchester hall many years before. I needed something new. I needed an outlet. And unfortunately for some (or perhaps fortunately,) I am somewhat grandiose at times.

So I began Mind and Medicine as a personal blog. I would upload articles based on what interested me, and hope to teach others about it.  At the same time my work for patient.co.uk became more topical, responding to developing healthcare news. It was in this work that inspiration struck. I realised that healthcare journalism, at least within the mass media (I exclude patient.co.uk here), was of variable quality and in some cases, absolutely awful. In the worst, misleading and causing death.

Science had taken a back seat to sensationalism, headlines and celebrity quips. Politicians made decisive and incorrect conclusions about complex scientific phenomena, denounced years of research in favour of their poor understanding, an in the process misled millions.  Medicine was not spared this injustice, with members of the UK parliament often appearing less scientifically competent than their office would appear to demand. Worse, I saw experts ignored, insulted and attacked. Science was falling to populism, politics and the pound.

The world appeared to reject knowledge in favour of security. 

I decided on that cold morning that people were better than that. That the common man and woman had the capacity and enthusiasm to know more about the world around them, and within my sphere of experience, themselves and their health. It was then that I decided that Mind and Medicine could be more than my personal blog, but an active effort to educate the public, dispel myth and equip us to make better decisions about ourselves and each other.

I realised quickly that this was not a task I could do alone, so I reached out. Quickly I found common ground in unlikely places, different healthcare professionals who were willing to give up their time to learn and write about science. Through hard work I put a plan together, and Mind and Medicine began. I decided that we should focus on a few concurrent plans, topical news and basic health science. I also wanted a platform for healthcare professionals to voice their personal thoughts. Nothing off the table, as long as you could back it up with evidence.

A few months down the line we now have a team of 10 writers, which is growing daily. We have put out over 20 articles, and are averaging 1-2 a day.  Our social media force is growing, with over 500 followers on twitter and 1400 + interactions a week. I feel that we are beginning to make a difference.

The next step is to grow, to better our communication and to help explain the wonderful knowledge of medicine gleaned by science and academia. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, knowledge is a vast ocean, and we have only just got our feet wet. But we need your help. Keep sharing and let us know what you want covered.

Knowledge is a gift, better given.