The Wisdom of The Body

Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains; the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers; the vast compass of the ocean; the courses of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.

– St Augustine

A conversation about books with a friend during our morning walk sent me down memory lane to take a look at my shelves for books that belonged to, sort of, days gone by.

One such book that I fished out is ‘The Wisdom of the Body’, written by an American surgeon, Sherwin B. Nuland, and published in 1997. I have borrowed his title for want of a better one to express the awe that some of us who deal directly with the body feel when we take the time to contemplate deeply about its intricate structure and precise functioning.

Even when we batter it – with fast food, alcohol, tobacco and such other poisons – it has a remarkable capacity to withstand the onslaughts and keep ticking for dear life, as it were, for a good while until, of course, we have wrecked it so much that it no longer can sustain itself and prefers to go back to Mother Earth. But this premature scenario notwithstanding, however, our body is a really wonderful entity whose fascinating layers continue to be uncovered by the advancing frontiers of knowledge for the keener appreciation of those of us so inclined.

It would be an understatement to say that such knowledge about the body has exploded since Nuland’s book came out. Nonetheless, the advances have only taken us deeper into all the aspects that he has covered, and whatever was known then is as valid today. As he writes in his introduction ‘the seeming chaos our tissues has about it an overarching purpose – in this sense, not a theological or a philosophic purpose, but one based on the simple biological principle of survival. If an organism is to survive, every activity within it must in some way be part of the effort… the integration of all parts of this effort has a seeming wisdom about it, by which the multiplicity of processes is somehow guided into a harmonious whole… we are greater than the sum of our biological parts. Not only that, but we have it in us to be still better than we are.’ (italics added)

Unbeknown to us, there is an internal automatism that keeps our body going, and it is now known that the integration and harmony of the processes which underlie this automatism, that is biological living itself, is coordinated by a master controller, our brain. Of course, writing as a surgeon and physician from a western scientific perspective, Nuland’s predominant focus is on the physical aspects of the workings of the body, citing numerous scientists and clinicians who have preceded him, and acknowledging their contributions which have collectively and progressively added up and led to a more profound and comprehensive understanding of the human body.

No need to say that this is a work in progress and anyone who is interested to learn more will have no dearth of material wherein to probe into the ‘amazement that is us’, to use another term by Nuland. He confesses to a position that resonates with my own, ‘I write as a physician, albeit one who is the subject of an enchantment. Though this book treats of scientific specifics, I am not a scientist. I am a clinician, and my natural interest lies in people. I have written this book as I would embark on a journey seeking the basis upon which our species has developed the qualities that make us human.’

One of these qualities is wisdom, and although it has been traditionally been the domain of philosophers and spiritual men, latterly medical men and neuroscientists have joined in to characterize it with some more precision. In fact, in an article entitled Wisdom – A Neuroscience Perspective by Dilip V Jeste, MD and James C Harris, MD (of the University of California) in the October 13, 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the authors observe that there are ‘surprising similarities among concepts of wisdom across cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries.’ They note that ‘Modern definitions of wisdom are based on ancient Greek philosophy. Many of these defined elements of wisdom are also found in eastern philosophies – for example, in the Bhagavad Gita, a distillation of ancient Hindu philosophy that predates the earliest Greek philosophers by hundreds of years and in Chinese philosophies such as Taoism.’

Throughout mankind’s history we come across references to wise men, and it is not uncommon even today to have somebody or the other pointed out as a wise person. Intuitively, we feel we know what is meant by the description ‘wise,’ about which there seems to be general agreement.

Given this widespread presence of the idea from ancient times and across the world, Jeste and Harris ponder whether there could be a physical basis for it in the human body. To clarify, everybody assumes that thinking takes place in something called the ‘mind’ which they locate in the brain – in other words, the brain is the ‘physical basis’ for the mind.

Based on both reasoning from first principles and following upon the ongoing discoveries about brain-mind correlations, it appears that there is sufficient justification for seeking the physical basis, in the brain, that may underlie the several common elements that go into a definition of wisdom. These elements include: ‘rational decision making based on general knowledge of life; prosocial behaviours involving empathy, compassion, and altruism; emotional stability; insight or self-reflection; decisiveness in the face of uncertainty; and tolerance of divergent value systems.’ It is no longer odd to speak about the ‘neurobiology of wisdom.’

It goes without saying that the authors proceed according to a scientific approach, and they go on to consider: the brain structures which are ‘associated’ with wisdom, as shown up by latest techniques known as ‘functional neuroimaging’; the relation of wisdom to intelligence; the possibilities of ‘measurement’ of wisdom by a combination of methods rather than a single one; the relation of wisdom to age, and whether it confers any evolutionary benefit from a personal survival point of view; whether, with the knowledge of what may be termed the ‘pathways’ of wisdom, these can be reinforced or ‘induced’ so as to benefit society at large (it is in the nature of scientific pursuit to start thinking of applications that may be of future use).

Each of these aspects is discussed briefly, but can definitely be elaborated upon, and will no doubt form the subject of further exploration. Since the Bhagavad Gita is mentioned, those who wish to go deeper into the matter would gain by being be guided through Chapter 2, Slokas (verses) 55 – 72, to understand more fully what are the characteristics of the human being who has attained the state of Sthita Pragna: one who is ‘established in wisdom.’ Such a study will be fully rewarding both for the individual as well as for those with whom he is led to interact, and by extension to the community and society at large.

What is remarkable is that science is now joining in the endeavour to explore this path through an understanding of the physical processes that can only confirm the validity of the empirical evidence that the sages of yore have put up for our appreciation and refinement should we consciously decide to travel the road with them. For they did say that, yes, this royal road is not the preserve of anyone, but is the legacy of mankind, and whoever takes to the path with devotion and sincerity is bound to find it immensely enriching.

No clinician who approaches the human body as Nuland does, as the ‘amazement that is us’ can fail to realise, through an expanding understanding of its complexity – including that of the brain-mind dimension — that we human beings are indeed more than the mere sum of our biological parts and that we have more than a seeming wisdom. There is a true wisdom in the sense that the Bhagavad Gita unfolds – and this is journey that complements the exploration of the physical body and lifts us towards the enlightenment supreme.


*  Published in print edition on 19 June 2015

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