A common complaint you hear from students who study abstract concepts is that it’s hard to wrap your mind around ideas that you don’t have immediate (visceral) experience in. I say this as a person who has an undergraduate and a graduate degree in philosophy; abstract ideas are my bread and butter. Studying biology falls somewhere in the middle of that field – we all have a body that is a biological system, but outside of our subjective experiences of stimuli and physiological responses, we don’t have a lot of access to the inner mechanics of how the body operates.
(In my humble opinion, philosophy falls to the right of the image… Image: XKCD: https://xkcd.com/435/)
While this tip might be harder to apply in philosophy, a useful trick I’ve tried using recently is trying to break down anatomical and physiological processes in terms of my own personal experience. Depending on your background, there are a number of ways you can cash this out, but I’ll give you three examples of where I’ve applied my past experiences and hobbies to learn key ideas and concepts.
1.) First Aid
The biggest crossover with studying biology I’ve had is from my experience in first aid. During my undergrad, I joined a campus first aid team. It was a team of student volunteers who actively trained throughout the year and covered shifts for events on campus. Because we trained above the standard first aid level, we would get into topics that required some level of understanding the organism at the physiology level. To understand how CPR mimicked the beating of a heart, we would learn how a normal heart functioned; to understand how shock affected the body, we would understand the cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous system operated; etc.
First aid is a stripped down version of what paramedicine is, so the two naturally dovetail with each other. As I work my way through the course material, I’m able to see the connections between the medical interventions I was taught as a first aider and the biological systems the body uses to maintain healthy function (or, related to emergency medicine, how the body adapts to compensate for a loss of homeostasis).
2.) Lifting Weights
This example draws on a narrow set of my course materials, but it still cuts broadly through the textbook. When you move out of the rookie phase of lifting weights, you naturally drift towards learning about anatomy and physiology. As of writing this post, I completed a test last week where I labelled a diagram of the posterior superficial muscles entirely based on my experiences with weight-lifting. As you dive deeper into exercise science, you are exposed to all sorts of cool applications of biology. You learn about the gross skeletal and muscular anatomy, you learn about cellular metabolism and the use of ATP in muscle contractions, about how micro-tearing of tissues builds muscle and bone density, how nutrition affects the body, etc. Even learning about exercise recovery helps deepen your exposure, such as learning about massage therapy, stretching any fringe forms of therapy, such as myofascile release and chiropractic medicine.
3.) That time I broke my ankle
A few years back, while out walking the dog during the first snowfall of the season, I was attacked by a roving horde of snow-ninjas who managed to put me down hard. By that, I mean my foot slipped on a patch of ice, my ankle pivoted, inverted and my bodyweight came down on my ankle. At the time, it seemed like a sprain because I was able to stand on the ankle and walk down the hill for help. After a trip to the hospital and a follow-up, x-rays determined that I had a fine fracture in the fibula and I had displaced the talus bone. It was recommended I have surgery to set the bones back into place with a series of screws and a plate.
The surgery was uneventful and the recovery went as predicted, and I’m now back to 99% (the occasional cold night makes my ankle stiff at work). There is an element of black box magic that happens when you recover from a broken bone. You receive a cast, are told to reduce movement for 6 weeks, then rehabilitate the muscles. Recently, when I was studying the chapter on bones, I learn what happens in those six weeks. It’s freaking awesome!
Assuming you can see the image above (being new to blogging, I’m not sure what’s considered fair-use for copyright materials – safe to assume, that image is not my creation), you can see the general phases of how bone gets repaired by the body. When I learned about the process of osteogenesis, I was able to remember the phases of bone repair base on my lived experience of breaking a bone and healing from surgery. It’s a hard and painful way of learning medicine, but it’ll stick with you!
These are a few examples of how my experiences help me make sense of the complexities of human anatomy and physiology. What are some of the ways you make the material relevant to your life? Let me know down below. Hopefully it’s nothing as bad as physically injuring yourself!