1,300 years of Entrenched Anatomical Thinking - Habit versus Creativity
We hope that new and creative ideas will make an instant impact on those around us. That they will sweep away ideas that don’t work or haven’t been validated. However, the reality is that we are creatures of habit. Both cognitively and socially, we build edifices around our ideas; to elevate, preserve and protect them. Creative thinking is a challenge to the status quo. It breaks habitual assumptions and quests for change. I think one of the best examples of habit versus creative change in our thinking is found, not in design, but in science. Specifically in the science of anatomy. Due to how we protect and entrench our thinking, it took 1,300 years for people to challenge fundamental flaws in our understanding of the human body.
The agent of change, Andreas Vesalius, was born in the 1500s to a family filled with a prestigious and long line of medical professionals. His great grandfather, grandfather and father all practiced and taught medicine, often serving various royal lines of Europe. In 1536, while studying in Paris, hostilities between France and the Holy Roman Empire forced Vesalius to move across Europe, eventually ending up in his great grandfather’s alma mater, the famed University of Padua, There Vesalius studied for a medical doctorate, which he received in 1537.
It’s hard to build a picture of the man behind the image. Assuming a remote resemblance of the woodcut, Vesalius is thickly bearded with short-cropped hair. He looks off, away from us, while he holds the arm of one of the subjects of his dissection. Perhaps through a mix of his family’s connections and a precocious interest in anatomy, he was immediately offered the chair of anatomy and surgery at Padua upon graduation.
It’s important to understand the entrenched knowledge context of Vesalius’s time. For nearly 1,300 years medicine in general, and anatomy in specific, had depended heavily on close reading of the works of the Greek Galen; considered by many to be the ultimate father of medicine. As an interesting side note, it is from Galen that the idea of the ‘four humours’ (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) became entrenched in Western medicine. When we say someone is ‘phlegmatic,’ (cool and calm), it is to Galen we are appealing.
Though a polymath in many ways, Galen was a product of Ancient Greece; constrained by the standards, tools and mentalities of the time. Galen had to limit himself to a few animal studies for his work on human anatomy. What little access he had to human subjects may have come from his experience working as physician to the gladiators. Vesalius, in contrast, had a long history with direct observation of the human form. Stories suggest, while in Paris, he would spend time unearthing bones from the various charnel houses around the city.
Vesalius would have been taught the works of Galen, and may have had little reason to initially challenge anything offered by the great Greek physician. After all, Galen’s work was considered ultimately authoritative. However, while in Bologna in 1541, several years after accepting the teaching position in Padua, Vesalius found out that Galen’s work was based on animal studies. A fact that had been either unknown or ignored by many.
So it was in 1543, after immersing himself in a much deeper and accurate study of the human form that Vesalius would publish his two groundbreaking works of anatomy; “On the Fabric of the Human Body” (De Humani Corporis Fabrica) and “Abridgement of the Structure of the Human Body.” Vesalius’s work is as much a triumph of artistic merit as it is a scientific study. Perhaps inspired by the new and modern perspective realism in art (courtesy of great engineers like Brunelleschi (architect behind the famed dome of Milan) and Da Vinci, Vesalius arranged images that capture the human form with as much realism as possible.
Vesalius’s findings were earth shattering for his time. Humans had a single jawbone, not a split bone. Galen perhaps had been influenced by studying dogs or other animals. Humans had a straight femur, not curved. Again, Galen was probably influenced by dogs. Many in the medical profession at the time struggled to accept it. Suggestions came that the human body had changed radically since Galen’s time; leg bones that had straightened in the thousand years or so by wearing tight pants.
Like all true stories, it doesn’t end with Vesalius, it goes on to people like William Harvey, who proved conclusively how blood flowed around the body, pulling down another piece of the edifice of ideas created by Galen. Changing entrenched habitual thinking. What is clear is that creativity is a fundamentally destructive act. Creativity takes apart our existing assumptions that we have habitually entrenched in our thinking. We adhere so heavily to these habitual ways of thinking that some ideas can take thousands of years to change our collective minds. This entrenchment is aided by obvious social and psychological pressures that encourage us to validate existing beliefs (e.g. confirmation bias).
It poses interesting questions for our future. What assumptions are we holding now that people will look back and wonder why it took us so long to break out of our habitual thinking? How many people, like Vesalius, are providing a creative new view on the world and are being ignored?
The Story of Science. Broadcast in 2005 by BBC: United Kingdom.
Vesalius image is Public Domain.