The iceman forcing scientists to rethink human physiology

I just listened to an episode of the podcast ‘Grow Big Always’ where the discussion revolved around the concept of mind control over body. The eccentric Dutchman Wim Hof first caught my attention a few years ago in a BBC documentary about ‘superhumans’, and in that episode, Wim was able to dive in the Arctic underwater in shorts for a considerable period of time, defying physiology as we know it. He has defied many odds since then, and we are only now beginning to understand how his physical and spiritual practices have enabled him to control his autonomic nervous system as well as his immune system, which is short of revolutionary. What to me, is even more amazing is the fact that his breathing techniques (somewhat similar to certain yogic meditation practices) combined with specific physical exercises and cold exposure can be taught to normal people with success.

For scientists, check out this article in PNAS from 2013, where Wim trained a group of people with his practice. To the researcher’s surprise, the training managed to greatly reduce the immune response (in a good way) to bacterial endotoxin. The ability to consciously control the autonomic nervous system and the immune response is truly revolutionary.

It is interesting to note how mute the response has been from the mainstream scientific community. This is not a study that has been obscured to some unknown journal or confined to some new age spiritual community, but instead this is a sound scientific study published in a prestigious journal. Yet very little has been reported in mainstream news, where sites like the BBC would instead constantly publish some new study on this or that new drug to cure cancer. The effects of oxygenation of the blood via deep breathing and increased alkalinity of the tissues as a consequence of the oxygenation on the immune system has been scientifically studied and validated. If preventing illness is really this easy, I wonder what the future of the medical industry (and preventive medicine) would look like…

Reality is only true within the perspective we choose to explore

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Today I was looking out my window across the street at a bus stop and noticed a person standing there looking back towards me. Even though we are all aware that different viewpoints must exist, in that moment, it really struck me that the reality that this person was living in was distinct from the one I inhabited. As that person looked towards me, she was imparting meaning to the perspective of reality that she was encountering from across the street. That point of view was unique to her alone and will be different for the next person who may repeat the same act but interpret the viewpoint from his or her own unique set of mental lenses.

7 billion perspectives

In this one moment, there are therefore 7 billion realities coexisting simultaneously as 7 billion people assign their own unique meaning to reality as they see it in front of them in the here and now. In the next instance, another 7 billion perspectives emerge, having been created in that instance by all 7 billion people. Could it be that in one instance of time, ‘reality’ is just made out of 7 billion multiplied by an infinite choice of perspectives?

What on earth could this mean?

There is no one reality nor is there one truth. There are a multitude of truths and a multitude of perspectives all existing at the same time. Reality is only true within the perspective we choose to explore. All other perspectives are valid and equally true…

Is there truth to science?

Following through this line of thought:  when we carry out an experiment, the results that we obtain, on their own, are neutral or meaningless, until a human being interprets the observations in a specific way. Given that each scientist working in that particular field has their own unique perspective of the world in front of them, one would expect there to be multiple interpretations to that one particular experimental result. Imagine how much more fun science would actually be! Perhaps in such a situation, we would then have to invent tools to allow us to integrate these diverse perspectives and work together in order to augment our understanding of a particular phenomenon to a higher level.  Yet, what we see today is a general consensus of what can be considered to be one version of a specific scientific truth. This ‘fact’ then persists over long periods of time, to the point that alternative perspectives or interpretations are squashed and fail to see the light of day. A paradigm shift occurs when one scientific truth is replaced by another that may be radically different from the previous one.  From that point onwards, it becomes the general consensus reality, promoting that one new version of scientific truth that will become the new dogma without incorporating many other possible interpretations of that ‘truth’.

Surely, this way of working with one point of view at a time is far too slow to create advances that could confront the challenges that humanity faces today. Perhaps, out of pure necessity, the science of the future will one day be driven forward by this multiple perspective approach as a new generation of scientists wake up to the realization that all truths are valid in a neutral universe.

‘There’s no space for today’s young Einsteins’

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I entered science full of optimism and left a top ivy league university lab feeling disillusioned with lack of meaning in my work. My advisor encouraged each of us graduate students that a scientific career was reserved for only the fittest…in a Darwinian sense of the term. In fact, today’s scientific career leaves very little space for neurodiversity. Introverts (like Einstein) just cannot flourish in an environment where people are encouraged to publish or perish. The science of today is filled with errors and irreproducibility because all the truth-seeking/meaning-driven people have been weeded out by the system and those that remain are of certain personality types that drive a certain type of science. Perhaps this is particularly true of the biological sciences although such attitudes in academic theoretical physics are increasingly commonplace.This article at the Guardian sums it up clearly here :

If Einstein’s project had relied on a grant application today, it would surely be rejected; probably no young scientist could afford the luxury of contemplating it in the first place. It’s not clear there is a space for Einsteins in modern science any longer.

Towards health 4.0

Obesity, Alzheimers, multi-drug resistant bacteria, allergies, autoimmunity, Ebola and pandemic flu; these are among the health challenges that our society face in the 21st century. The question is: how ready is our healthcare industry in meeting these emerging challenges effectively?

I went into the biological sciences because I believed that scientific progress could make life better for billions of people, especially the ones that are the most vulnerable. After more than a decade in academia and industry, I am sceptical that with the current setup, we will ever be able to come up with meaningful solutions to the current and upcoming health challenges of our time. It is astonishing that around 270 billion dollars per year is being spent on medical research, yet emerging diseases like diabetes keep increasing relentlessly in developed countries and preventable infectious diseases like tuberculosis continue to kill millions in the developing world. It is hard not to wonder if we, as researchers, are looking in the right direction to solve the world’s health problems.

If this trend continues, our healthcare industry will be crippled from the increasing burden of illness that threatens to swallow up resources that are getting scarcer. To face these complex health challenges, I believe that there is an urgent need to explore radical new directions for scientific discovery that are innovative and unconventional yet relevant for the health problems that we face today.

To do this, we need to abandon the safety of scientific silos, go beyond the existing scientific paradigms and reach out across different knowledge domains to make new connections that bring us to the next level of understanding the human body in the context of modern society and the environment that we live in. Equally important, we should treat negative results with the same reverence as positive results, even if this means that these results are not as appealing to prestigious scientific journals and for our scientific careers. At present, large areas of investigation are being neglected simply out of fear of going against the prevailing scientific establishment (which includes grant-funding bodies and university tenure committees) or perhaps out of perception that the topic is not fashionable enough for the community. This aspect of research culture, I feel, hinders our ability to truly discover solutions that make a real difference to people’s health and to society.

With this blog, I plan to look at issues in healthcare with different sets of lenses. I want to ask questions that are not usually asked and pick up on things that are not usually noticed. I will attempt to put healthcare issues in perspective by incorporating viewpoints from beyond the world of biological science and medicine. Stay tuned for more updates and I look forward to your comments!