We learned in high school that the human body is made of organs, cells, atoms, and subatomic particles. We used this framework to build on our understanding of the human body in college and medical school. We still use it today as the basis of our understanding of histology, anatomy, physiology, and pathology. This framework forms the foundation of our clinical research and diagnostic and treatment plans.
It's due, however, for a software patch.
Physicists have relentlessly continued to investigate the substance of matter over the past decades. Their experiments have demonstrated that the foundation of matter, including that constituting the human body, is not the tiny, solid, ball-like particles we played with in high school but fields of energy. This sounds much more like the exciting premise of a science fiction movie than something that needs to be incorporated into our medical understanding, yet the science and our commitment to our patients call for just that.
The scientific understanding of matter as something more than tiny, ball-like particles is one of the great breakthroughs in physics, one that happened nearly a century ago. It informs an array of technologies we use every day, including cell phones and lasers. Technological considerations aside, what does it actually mean to say the human body is made from fields? How might that be relevant to clinical medicine?
Physicists describe a field as something that has a particular value for every point in space. Opinions diverge about what that something is. Some say a field is made of pure information. Some say it is a mental observation, an aspect of the mind itself. Philosophers have chimed in, arguing about the differences between mind and matter and how fields, energy, and information may be woven in with these constructs.
The physics community is grappling with questions of meaning itself, including the question of whether conditions at the finest scales of matter are so sensitive that the experimenter's mind may be influencing the behavior of matter, a phenomenon known as the observer effect. This is one area of physics research that may find a parallel in medical research, giving us deeper insights into the relationship between the objective body and the subjective mind.
Niels Bohr, the winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics, once said, “...I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are, a great liberation of thought.”
All this uncertainty makes it's easy to lose sight of the established facts. So here they are:
- Almost 100 years ago, physicists demonstrated that the human body is not fundamentally atomic and not fundamentally made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Yet today we continue to teach students in high school and medical school that the human body is atomic in nature. This is the outdated basis of modern medicine.
- The consensus in physics is that all matter, including the human body, is made of fields. Expert physicists and philosophers are divided on what makes up these fields. Leading contenders include energy, information, and the mind.
- Experiments have blurred the previously distinct line between mind and body.
- The unspoken and unexamined consensus in medicine has always been that the brain creates the mind. This philosophical position known as materialism is not a scientific conclusion. The science supports the position that the brain and body are experiences within the mind, a philosophical position known as idealism.
The broader context of idealism has a lot to offer medicine. Most fundamentally, it rejects the vision of the human being as a robot. Through the eyes of today's outdated medical science, patients and doctors are assemblages of small parts, an understanding that lends itself all too easily to sweeping away the human element in medicine. This consideration is central to understanding and addressing the root causes of patient dissatisfaction and the physician burnout rampant in emergency medicine. Idealism rejects the idea of the human being as a machine, but it loses none of the benefit that science has already derived: We can recognize the human being as a living experience and value that the experience can be modeled atomically.
We need the help of our physicist and philosopher friends to decipher what all this means in the world of clinical medicine. If such a group doesn't already exist, I propose that we form one. (Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.) It's time we stepped into our own arena. Our patients are already there, waiting for us.
Somewhere in the cauldron of medicine, philosophy, and physics, a more complete scientific understanding of the human being is waiting.
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Dr. Kumaris an emergency physician in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. He is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How Redefining the Human Body Will Transform Health and Health Care and the upcoming book Is This a Dream? Visit his website atredefinehuman.com, and follow him on Twitter @DrAnoopKumar. He will begin writing a column in the EMN enews called The Mind of Medicine in February. Sign up for the free enews athttp://bit.ly/EMNenews.