The Body as a system of classification

As anyone in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama will tell you — making the familiar strange and the strange familiar is one of the best ways to kickstart critical thinking. To give meaning to an example that seems otherwise meaningless sheds light on the ways that words seem to grant authority to social agents. So let’s give it a whirl:

Consider an example that should be very familiar: your body. That sack of flesh and blood that magically works together to make you, you. As Bill Bryson more elegantly puts it, “We pass our existence within this warm wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted” (4).  I stumbled on Bryson’s book The Body while browsings the shelves at Barnes and Noble  — though I certainly had no need to lengthen my reading list. More often than not, my book-buying to book-reading ratio favors the first, but miraculously I actually made time to open this new read. As I made my way through Bryson’s synopsis of the human body and its history of discovery, I often stopped to highlight — not the fun facts I could spew at parties, but the sentences that acknowledged the contingency of our knowledge. Though it seems we have got our bodily functions sorted out, it turns out that the body is not so easily described, defined, or categorized.  

Think about your thumbs. That’s right – thumbs. Are they a finger? Sure, but when I ask you to put up your first finger (as Bryson asks of his readers) I would bet you aren’t giving me a thumbs up, but perhaps taking a guess at ‘who-done-it’ in a game of Clue. Did you know most dictionaries can’t even agree on what counts as a finger? Or that physicians avoid numbering digits to avoid confusion (wouldn’t want to amputate the ‘wrong’ first finger!)? Thanks to Bill Bryson we all know now. And sure, this certainly seems like a tangent only useful in small talk, but let’s take it a step further. 

The one thing we think we know best — ourselves (or more specifically our thumbs) — are actually bottomless pits of ‘coulda beens’. Not only are we are constantly redefining what counts as a finger but, and this is the real kicker, we take our bodies to be self-explanatory and consistent between human beings. We’re all made up of a brain, some bones, and a bunch of organs. So we’re all human right? But we don’t all have the agreed-upon 206 bones, for example. Some have a thirteenth set of ribs, and many experts forwent even trying to count all the teeny bones in our hands and feet. Even our patella (aka the knee-cap) isn’t classified as a ‘real’ bone but a “sesamoid” meaning “like a sesame seed” though it’s much larger than that as Bryson points out on page 165.  The way we classify our literal, physical selves, then, is much more complex than one might assume.

And here’s the really freaky part — our senses are entirely fictional and thus unique by default. Even now as you read this you aren’t actually seeing the screen as it really is, no one can. As Bryson explains, “the biggest part of seeing isn’t receiving the visual images; its making sense of them” (55). It takes one-fifth of a second for visual input to reach the brain along the optical nerves, and though minuscule, that piece of time matters when it comes to life-or-death reaction times. The brain takes care of this though and…

“continually forecasts what the world will be like a fifth of second from now, and that is what it gives us as the present. That means that we never see the world as it is at this very instant, but rather as it will be a fraction of a moment in the future. We spend our whole lives, in other words, living in a world that doesn’t quite exist yet”

Bryson, The Body 55

Our brains are wired to organize the world into simplified patterns all in an effort to dull the confusion of what would otherwise be an overwhelming lifetime of never-ending, nonsensical, sensory stimulants. Though our bodies are highly effective machines, their anatomical design denies us any possibility of accessing ‘reality’ as it really is. It’s great that our mind helps fill in the gaps, but acknowledging the gaps make room for us to think critically about what it means to interpret the world around us. 

Consider one last example from The Body: our sense of smell. Compared to the other senses, scent is rather neglected. It turns out that scientists get more funding opportunities to find the cure for sight blindness than anosmia (scent blindness) and when asked, most people would give up their sense of smell before all the others. Because of this, our understanding of why and how we smell is a bit like our understanding of space or the ocean. There are plenty of unknowns that await discovery beyond those dark, lonely nostrils. From what we can tell though, odors “are created entirely inside our heads” (107) and the discrepancies this fact causes are never more apparent than in Bryson’s recollection of an interaction he had with Gary Beauchamp, president emeritus at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. The story goes that during an interview, Beauchamp pulled out a vile for Bryson to smell, which to him smelled like nothing at all. Giddily, Beauchamp explained that the hormone, androsterone, smells like nothing to a third of people, like sandalwood to another third, and urine to the final third. He then reports, “If you have three people who cannot even agree on whether something is pleasant, revolting, or simply odorless, you begin to see how complicated the science of smell is” (90). To add a Religious Studies flare to Beuchamps valid insight, I’d go so far to say that the complexity of the science of smell (and all the other parts that make up our bodies, for that matter) is just one example of the complexity of classification, comparison, and definition. 

As Bryson explains somewhat chillingly, “As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” (107). Turns out that fingers are hard to define, ‘reality’ is harder to classify, and some senses win out when compared to others. Hopefully, now you can begin to consider how each of our ‘warm wobbles of flesh’ is not only difficult to describe in themselves but even more diverse when compared to one another. Now ask yourself, are medical fixes as universal as we sometimes make them out to be? Can reconsidering the faulty lines between the ways we classify our body do something to improve our approach to healthcare? I certainly think so.

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