Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Semi-morbid Tuesday

The other day I happened to watch an episode of Nova on PBS and heard a brief discussion of how some people cannot stand not to know something while others resolutely do not want to know somethings. The discussion on Nova came up in the context of genetic testing - did people want to know if they carried a high risk gene versus not wanting to know.

I have a hard time with the not wanting to know idea since I am definitely a "I want to know!" type of guy. In discussions with friends, some have expressed the "I absolutely don't want to know!" sentiment. I cannot understand why anyone would not want to know. I guess that is because I am one of those people that feels a need to know about everything. One definition of what it is to be human claims that the crucial distinguishing characteristic of humans is the ability to spot patterns and plan accordingly. Not wanting to know seems a bit un-human in this light. In addition, I can make a simple logical case for wanting to knowing. Thus it would seem that the people who desire not to know must be illogical, un-human,  or basing the decision on emotion. I suspect it is emotion.

As a concrete example, suppose that one had the gene for Huntington's Disease. In spite of the fact that it is incurable and fatal in the long term, I'd want to know if I had it. I could then plan ahead to have various things in order. I could also avoid putting off doing things until later, like the proverbial "we'll travel a lot after we retire." It just seems that one could plan to re-order the normal activities and priorities of life to account for the changes in time-line and abilities in the final stages.

One of my friends made a strong case for not knowing in his case. His point was that since the end is so debilitating and involves losing so much of what he viewed as important for a desirable quality of life, once he knew he had it, he would have a very hard time not ending his life early in order to avoid the spiraling path of debilitation. I'm not sure whether I'd classify that as not wanting to know or if it was a case of not being able to handle the consequences of knowing in a manner that made him happy.

In any case, my question for the day is whether you want to know or not? Can you articulate why you feel the way you do? Would the severity of the end stages affect your desire to know/not know?


  1. I have pondered this question before as ALS runs in my family. Would I want to know why lied befored me if I could find out? Oddly enough I think this a premise of new show coming out in the fall. Everyone blackouts for 2 minutes and sees the future. The question that remains is can that future be changed. I think I agree with you. I think I would want to know. So I could accomplish more of the important things before I no longer could. Not very articulate

  2. I've been asked several times to participate in genetic testing for breast and colon cancer. I've declined.

    Having survived one form of cancer, I live my life differently and knowing something may or will happen in 10 years is pointless. I could be hit by a bus, a cure may be discovered and yet I would always have that nagging feeling in the back of mind that I'm going to have a horrible, painful disease - NO THANKS.

    Sometimes, ignorance really does equal bliss.

  3. That's a tough question. If the end were to be from something instantaneous like a car crash, I'd be wondering every time I got in the car if this was the day. I'm a big worrier and stresser so probably I would opt not to know.

    However, I would like to know the fates of those that are near and dear to me so I could take full advantage of the time I have with them.


You know you want to ... so just do it!!!

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