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The following excerpt is from Dr. Cowan’s book Human Heart, Cosmic Heart: A Doctor’s Quest to Understand, Treat, and Prevent Cardiovascular Disease (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2016) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher
What do we know about the structure of the heart? Well, the first thing is that the heart is not "heart-shaped"--as in Valentine's Day heart-shaped. I know this seems obvious, but I can still remember the day in anatomy class when I was slightly taken aback to discover that there was nothing about the heart in front of me that resembled a Valentine's Day heart. Of course, I'd seen beautiful images of organs in anatomy books, so I also half- expected to find a clearly outlined, well-defined organ in front of me. Instead, the heart in front of me looked like a lump of tissue. Not an organ, just tissue--a muscle, embedded in fat. Nonspecific, nondescript fat. I hid my disappointment, but a little part of me felt crushed. The heart was nothing special.
While in medical school, I learned that the heart is made out of a special kind of intermediate muscle (shared only by the uterus in the human body), that it has four valves each with its own set of "leaflets," and that each of the heart's four chambers--two upper atria and two lower ventricles--have a different thickness. We went on to examine the pressures and some aspects of the flow of blood entering and leaving the heart. But nothing was said about the actual shape of the heart. Or any other organ. This was simply not a matter of interest.
This lack of attention paid to the structure of the heart surprises me now because humans have a rich history of fascination with the human form and the geometry of the natural world. We see this in the depiction of people and various animals as a series of triangles and circles in ancient cave paintings. And we also see it in the writing of the ancient Greeks, especially that of Plato, who believed that the five Platonic solids--tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron--were the basis of all natural phenomena, including of the human form. In fact, the architects and builders of antiquity were more or less obsessed with form. They were also amazingly precise. According to some sources, the precision of the base of the pyramids exceeds even that of our current capabilities.
One form that shows up again and again, both in nature and in human creations, is the spiral. In particular, there are many "golden" spirals in nature--a spiral whose growth factor is the golden ratio (1.618 expressed as a decimal, and represented as phi)--"golden" because the ratio is the same as the ratio of the sum to the larger of the two quantities. The Fibonacci series--the series of numbers you get when you add the previous two numbers together to obtain the next number in the series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 . . .)--approaches this golden ratio asymptotically.
The golden spiral shows up in the smallest of entities, such as DNA molecules, and in the most massive of entities, such as the Milky Way galaxy. Think, for example, of a nautilus shell or a fiddlehead. We see this golden spiral formation of leaves growing on branches, in the formation of rose petals, sunflower heads, snail shells, and on and on. The golden spiral can be seen in the Greek Parthenon, and the Fibonacci series can be heard in the first movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony.
When we turn to the human body, if we know how to look, we see number patterns, geometric forms, spirals, and Fibonacci numbers throughout our anatomy, as well. Consider the arrangement of our teeth. During the first part of our life, we have four sets of five baby teeth. Starting around age seven and ending around age twenty-one, we develop the full four sets of eight teeth. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that young children resonate most strongly with music in the five-note pentatonic scale until about the age of seven; in fact, most successful lullabies are written in the pentatonic scale. As adults, we leave the dreamy, pentatonic world and arrive at the octave, or eight-note scale.1
Or consider the relationship of the eight bones that reach from the shoulder to the tip of your fingers, or from your hip to your toes. The length of these bones is the same ratio as the intervals that lie between the notes on the western octave scale.2 Are these coincidences? Or do they suggest an underlying strength or enhancement of function when structures are laid out according to geometric principles? Are there deeper creative principles at work here that are crucial to our understanding of how the body functions?
Understanding the form of something can offer crucial insight into its function. Take an egg, for example. Depending on the species, eggs vary somewhat in shape. Some are more conical and others are more spherical. Birds that nest on cliffs or in other precarious locations tend to lay more conical eggs because if they roll out of the nest, the eggs will roll in an arc rather than in a straight line (off the cliff!), whereas birds that make their homes in deep, well-protected nests tend to lay more spherical eggs. Tapered or not, an egg shape is one of the strongest forms in nature--resistant to breakage when subjected to pressure--so when something needs to protect its offspring, nature often puts those offspring inside of eggs.
It's important that we begin to rectify the kind of oversight that I encountered in medical school and gain a better understanding of the principles nature uses to create form, and what form can then teach us about function. This is complicated, to be sure, and it's easy to indulge in almost delusional revelations about the significance of things that turn out to be nothing at all. Maybe this is part of why the discussion is avoided altogether in medical school: it's seen as too "woo-woo." But it's a shame that we then completely avoid this rich, crucial, and potentially lifesaving subject for fear that the medical profession would look less serious or would appear too "out there," and that for the sake of our careers, we avoid all mention (or even thought!) of deeper meaning or connections. The unfortunate consequence is that we have only a superficial understanding of nature, the body, and the magic of seeing a big picture relationship between the two.
Thomas Cowan, MD has studied and written about many subjects in medicine, including nutrition, homeopathy, anthroposophical medicine, and herbal medicine. He has served as vice president of the Physicians' Association for Anthroposophic Medicine and is a founding board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Dr. Cowan is the author of numerous books including Human Heart, Cosmic Heart, Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness, and his latest book Cancer and the New Biology of Water (coming September 24, 2019 from Chelsea Green Publishing).