The skin we’re in

The DO Book Club, April 2020: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson walks us through our origins, anatomy, neuroses and much more in a read that’s as engaging as his travel writing.

Welcome back to The DO Book Club! For April, I read The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. If you’ve read this one, please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’d like to write a book review for a future month, please email Andy Brown at abrown@osteopathic.org.

Plot summary

Bill Bryson, one of the most celebrated travel and science writers of our time—he’s most famous for A Short History of Nearly Everything and A Walk in the Woods—tackles the human body in his latest work. Divided into sections such as the skin, the brain, bones and nerves, Bryson details important—and sometimes little-known—scientific discoveries in these areas, shares surprising facts and also provides the most up-to-date recommendations for nutrition, sleep and other self-care measures.

The chapter on microbes is particularly compelling to read while we’re grappling with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Although the book was published just before COVID-19, the details Bryson shares about microbes and viruses are nonetheless interesting:

  • Researchers examined subway trains in Boston and found that while metal poles are a fairly hostile environment for microbes, they thrive on plastic handgrips and fabric-covered seats.
  • The flu virus can survive on paper money for two and a half weeks if it is accompanied by a “microdot” of snot, according to a Swiss study from 2008. But without snot, most cold viruses only survive on money for a few hours.
  • British researchers once fitted a volunteer with a device that leaked fluid at his nostrils in the manner of a runny nose. The fluid contained a dye that you could only see under ultraviolet light. After the volunteer spent several hours in a room socializing with others as if at a party, the UV light revealed that the dye had traveled to the hands, head and upper body of everyone in the room as well as glasses, doorknobs, sofa cushions and bowls of nuts. The average adult touches their face 16 times per hour, and these touches can help transport pathogens this way.

Interesting tidbits for DOs

The chapter on medicine acknowledges the important drug discoveries and medical advances that dramatically increased life expectancy in the 20th century, but also skewers the American health care system in ways that physicians will find interesting and possibly cathartic. Bryson notes that the U.S. spends 2.5 times more per person on health care than the average for all other developed nations in the world, and goes on to elaborate:

“The entire system is notoriously unwieldy and cost-heavy. America has about 800,000 practicing physicians but needs twice that number of people to administer its payments system. The inescapable conclusion is that higher spending in America doesn’t necessarily result in better medicine, just higher costs.” (p. 360)

DOs will relate to the end of the chapter, where Bryson writes about the surprising impact a physician’s demeanor can have on patient outcomes. He cites a 2016 study of diabetic patients, which found that those treated by physicians rated highly for compassion were 40% less likely to develop severe complications from the disease.

“In short, everyday attributes like empathy and common sense can be just as important as the most technologically sophisticated equipment,” he writes (p. 367).

Notable quotes

A through line in the book is the concept that many idiosyncrasies of the human body are such because we first evolved from single-cell organisms, then marine creatures, then four-legged mammals. Many things about the body are not optimal because they were originally intended to be used in vastly different ways, Bryson notes:

“We would all be a lot better off if we could just start fresh and give ourselves bodies built for our particular Homo sapiens needs—to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that. We began our journey through history as unicellular blobs floating about in warm, shallow seas. Everything since then has been a long and interesting accident, but a pretty glorious one, too.” (p. 10)

One fact that stuck with me is in the section on the brain, where Bryson shares what we know about the gray matter of teenagers:

“The nucleus accumbens, a region of the forebrain associated with pleasure, grows to its largest size in one’s teenage years. At the same time, the body produces more dopamine, the neurotransmitter that conveys pleasure, than it ever will again. That is why the sensations you feel as a teenager are more intense than at any other time of life.” (p. 63)

The part about dopamine goes a long way toward explaining the euphoria most people, myself included, feel when they listen to the music of their youth. Play an Oasis song and my mood is lifted in a way it never is when I hear the Lumineers. Bryson goes on to explain the flipside of this—seeking pleasure is a hazard for teenagers, and accidents, often in groups, are their leading cause of death. For instance, when more than one teenager is in a car, the risk of an accident multiplies by 400%.

Takeaways

If you like medical trivia, history and humorous writing, you’ll enjoy this book. At 450 pages, many of which detail complex biological and physiological concepts, this is not a light read per se, but physicians may find it to be an easier lift than I did.

Physicians and those who avidly follow health news and medical developments will likely not learn a ton of new information about the latest recommendations for diet and exercise or medical best practices in this book.

But they’ll enjoy Bryson’s take on them—he examines everything from the perspective of a voracious reader and fact-gatherer who has a wicked sense of humor. They’ll also learn more about some of the most important medical breakthroughs in history, such as the discovery of penicillin and the Framingham Heart Study, which identified or confirmed the major risks for heart disease.

Personally, I liked the book so much that I’m currently reading it for the second time.

May’s book

For May, The DO Book Club will be reading This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay. We encourage all who are interested to read along!

As a reminder, if you read The Body or any previous Book Club selection and want your reflections to be shared in future posts, or want to write your own book review for a future month, please leave a comment below or email abrown@osteopathic.org.

Happy reading!

Related reading:

The DO Book Club, March 2020: Brain on Fire

The DO Book Club, Feb. 2020: Lifespan

1 comment

  1. I haven’t read Bryson’s book, although I am interested in looking it over once libraries and bookstores have reopened.
    I will recommend The Uncharted Body, by Daniel Keown. This book examines the body from a Chinese medicine perspective, and is well worth reading. You will leave with an understanding that western allopathic/osteopathic medicine is incomplete at best. At some future time, or even now, western medicine will have to incorporate acupuncture, ayurveda, and homeopathy to have a more complete understanding of the human body.

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