Emilie Passow: Our Bodies, Our Selves

Our Bodies, Our Selves, asserts the title of a prominent guide to women’s health, unequivocally making clear the position of the authors, the Boston’s Women’s Health Collective, on the ancient, ongoing enigma of the mind -body connection: our bodies are our identities. Historically, responses to this intriguing question have ranged from a primarily religious conception of the body as temple or vessel of the soul, to the body as largely irrelevant to defining who we are- Descartes famous dictum “ I think therefore I am,” to the current scientific paradigm that conceives of the body as inextricably interwoven with consciousness, and with whatever intangible aspects of ourselves – temperament, mood, personality, and a host of predispositions -that contribute to who we are. ( This view, of course, is the basis of the reference with which we began this introduction.) A corollary of most of these views, with the exception of the approach that actively denigrates the body as a source of temptation , of distraction from higher spiritual callings, is that taking care of our bodies is important to our well-being, an undertaking which, in turn, necessitates some understanding of how the body works.

Within this framework , the role of the medical professionals and the role of the “average” individual have subtly criss-crossed. Given the intimate connection between the body and a sense of identity, medical training across the United States now also addresses the relationship between the health care professional and the patient in addition to the innumerable aspects of scientific knowledge necessary to detect and ameliorate illness. The goal of such education has two primary components: first, to cultivate empathy for the patient’s suffering – what Dr. Eric Cassell has defined as the full experience of an illness or disability, as distinct from the much narrower focus of the disease and the concomitant pain or lack of physical function per se; second, to engender respect for the patient as an autonomous individual whose cultural background, value system, and priorities are legitimate, integral parts of the individual’s experience of illness and of making medical decisions, for the medical team as well as for the patient. Conversely, the prevalence of health education as early as pre-school, of daily media coverage of health, and of pharmaceutical advertisements-even if they have their own financial agendas- not to mention the vast array of medical information available on the internet, all create the expectation that every individual , at least in Western societies, should know enough about the body to take good care of it. (Of course, factors such the expense of healthful food compared with how inexpensive unhealthful food is, the super-sized portions customary in the United States, and unrealistic standards of beauty and eternal youth, for example, create very powerful, countervailing pressures that actually lead to illness and disfigurement, but that is a subject for another time.)

Unique as an undergraduate program, Drexel University’s 18 credit Certificate in Humanities, Health Sciences, and Society , sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of English and Philosophy, and The College of Nursing and Health Professions, helps students embrace aspects of both of these new roles by incorporating some of the basic tenets of medical humanities taught in most medical schools across the United States since the late 1970s. Rooted in medical oaths as old as that of Hippocrates as well as the historical link between art and the development of medical, specifically anatomical knowledge, the philosophical foundation of this interdisciplinary field is almost self evident : that neglecting the art of medical practice in favor of the science of medical practice is reductive, insufficient, and incomplete; that literature, art, philosophy, in other words, all the major branches of the humanities are useful if not essential resources for helping medical professionals fulfill their responsibilities as healers not simply “fixers”; that healing is possible even when no cure is available, because healing involves a sense of mattering, of being cared for that can facilitate a reconciliation to one’s vulnerability, (medical or otherwise). Whether timely or untimely, our mortality is our shared, inevitable vulnerability, and thus probing the human condition can be practical as well therapeutic for the practitioner as practitioner and as person. As extraordinary as they are, technological innovations in medicine have sometimes distracted us from this humanistic, contextual side of science and engineering in general and medical practice in particular, even while such invention has profoundly complicated many of the ethical and existential issues inherent in conceptions of the body, of illness, of healing, and of care, especially at the end of life. Our Certificate Program in Humanities, Health Sciences, and Society aims to promote exploration and appreciation of as well as dialogue about the multiple dimensions of precisely such concerns.

All this to explain why in 2006, The College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, as part of the of the new 18 credit Certificate Program in Humanities, Health Sciences, hosted a panel discussion on Dr. Von Hagens controversial exhibit “Body Worlds” then featured at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. Consisting of ‘plastinated,’ flayed human corpses arranged in various poses to expose the inner workings of the body, the exhibit, still touring the world- raises an array of ethical, artistic, and educational questions that we wanted our students and faculty to consider, especially because of the broad constellation of programs and degrees we offer in the humanities as well as in the sciences, bioengineering, general engineering, nursing and allied health professions. Let’s start with the basics: What are we looking at in this exhibit? Are the pieces in this exhibit bodies ? Sculptures? Educational Tools? Even the answer to this seemingly fundamental question could radically affect our perception of what we are doing as viewers in this kind of exhibit and what we think Dr. Von Hagen himself was doing in creating these figures.

The dilemmas continue. Even if these bodies have been donated with informed consent, does such treatment of the human body violate any standards of human dignity? Indeed, what defines human dignity in the first place? How should ethical criteria for the use of technology, in this case the process of plastination, be developed? Is such detailed knowledge of the human body necessary or relevant to everyone? When does an exhibit cross the line into exhibitionism, and when can curiosity become voyeurism? What are the goals of art, of education, of entertainment, and of ethics, and how do we decide which to privilege when the boundaries of one area may violate the ethical imperatives of the other? Similarly, how do we balance immediate and long terms impacts of technological innovations when the short term might conflict with the more lasting ? Such queries are endless and touch upon almost every facet of the goals of a university education.

And so we brought various speakers from different disciplines together, including a pre-med, biomedical engineering student enrolled in the Certificate Program in the Humanities, Health Sciences and Society, to share their expertise as well their personal responses to this exhibit. The Faculty Dinning Room in which the event, under the rubric of the series entitled Dinner and Discussion at Drexel, or D3 for short, was packed and the evaluations were glowing. It’s clear ,then, that while our bodies themselves are mortal, interest in our bodies will never wane, and the desire to know will always take us beneath the surface.

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