I once took a psychology class that focused on reviewing the history of learning theories. The professor pointed out that our knowledge of the brain and how it works is less complete than say what we know about the heart. This is because for most of history the brain was considered to be an almost sacred vessel, the repository of the mind and the center of spirituality. For this reason it was considered sacrilege to invade the space in which it resides, even in terms of merely discussing it.
At the end of the nineteenth century pioneers in the study of how we think began to posit theories and perform experiments. Many of these men and women were seen as societal pariahs with ghastly and ghoulish ideas. Their work was often marginalized and misunderstood. Luckily they had the courage to continue their research and build a foundation of knowledge upon which much of what we know about the brain today is based.
The brain is perhaps the most interesting aspect of our human bodies. We are still learning how it works. We have yet to become as expert at repairing malfunctions of our brains as well as we do with our other organs. We are hundreds of years behind in our understanding of how it operates, but we have indeed made great strides in unlocking so many of its secrets. Those who spend their days in research and medicine take us closer and closer to the time when we may be able to fix even the most delicate problems.
The twentieth century heralded a kind of scientific renaissance. Not only did we conquer gravity and successfully fly above the ground and into the heavens, but we increased our knowledge about our own bodies and what makes the remarkable machine that resides inside each of us operate. Part of those studies lead to questions of just how much each of us is affected by nature versus nurture.
What we have learned thus far is that each person carries a specific set of DNA that defines much of our physicality and even affects our intelligence. Once we are born with certain traits it is up to first our parents and later ourselves to determine how we will use the basic aspects of our chemical and biological makeup. We can’t change the color of our eyes unless we mask them with colored contacts, but we are able to either enhance or retard other aspects of who we are with our upbringing and the choices that we ultimately make as adults.
We know for example that we may carry a propensity for obesity but if our parents feed us healthy diets and encourage us to exercise regularly we may enter adulthood with a foundation for maintaining a lifestyle that will keep us fit. If on the other hand indulgent parents fill our bellies with sugary treats and allow us to sit in front of gaming units for hours every day it is more likely that the gene that makes us obese will take the lead. In other words we are not necessarily bound to the fate of all aspects of our genetic makeup. There are things that we have the power to control if we are willing.
As we learn more and more about our own personal DNA we have the powerful capability of improving or even overriding certain tendencies that lurk inside our bodies. If we bear a marker that tells us that we may be prone to heart disease we may start early eating a cardiac friendly diet and exercising to make that muscle that is the engine of our bodies stronger. We don’t necessarily have to be victimized by the reality that we carry signs of pending trouble. We can be proactive in preventing the very disease that threatens us.
I am fascinated that DNA is even able to determine which of us are related to one another. I have found a host of cousins that I never knew existed just by testing my own DNA. There is something rather powerful and mysterious about the double helix that is the essence of our lives, but it is also rather liberating to know that we often have the power to change our physical destinies with our own choices and actions.
I don’t think that we use the power of our knowledge nearly enough. We all too often operate as though we are still as ignorant about our makeup as we were hundreds of years ago. We make studies of health and nutrition come across as so dry and boring that our young have little interest in such things when in reality the information is fascinating and has the potential of radically altering their lives for the better.
One of my mother’s all time favorite high school classes was homemaking. In today’s world such an elective would no doubt be viewed as not only having little value but even as being a bit insulting to women. Ironically my mom was constantly quoting her teacher and speaking of the things that she learned from her. She had a keen sense of nutrition and how to create a healthy and safe environment in our home. She used the information that she had learned in highly practical and useful ways. The class was deemed important by her in guiding her daily life even as she grew into her old age.
We miss the mark with our students today. Our health classes are riddled with definitions and rules that do little to inspire. Perhaps we should instead be showing them how to cook healthy meals and which forms of exercise work best. Our quest for creating more scientists and mathematicians is a worthy one but we would do even better if we were to also emphasize and encourage healthy lifestyles, not with lectures but by demonstrating how to be kind to our bodies. We have sadly regressed in this regard.
I recall watching a program many years ago in which a particular tribe of native Americans were found to have a disproportionately high incidence of diabetes. Groups of researchers descended on the area in hopes of learning why this was happening. What they found was that the people ate enormous amounts of fast food and led sedentary lives. More importantly, the scientists did a study of the history of the tribe. They saw that these were people whose ancestors had been runners who traveled everywhere on foot at rapid speeds. They had even held an annual contest to determine champions able to navigate long distances over rough terrain in record time. Their genetic structures showed that they needed this kind of physical activity to keep from succumbing to the symptoms of diabetes. The scientists built fitness centers for the entire population and sent personal trainers and nutritionists to help the citizens change their habits. Within a year the incidence of diabetes had fallen to levels below the national average in most cases without the use of medications.
We owe it to ourselves to use the remarkable genetic information that is available to us to improve our lives and those of our children. To ignore the warning signs that lie inside our bodies is foolish. It’s time that we all became both aware and active in the care and feeding of the bodies that affect us for good or ill. Let’s choose good.