Even though this may come as a bit of a shock, it is important to realise that none of the ways anatomy is-or-was taught to you and I – by our teachers, textbooks, and even the latest and whizz-bangiest virtual anatomy atlases – actually tells the full truth about the human body’s structural form.

These clever people (and people-made products) all tell us about the part of the truth that they (and the products’ creators) know lots about and are able to share with others. Despite the indisputable worth of what they tell us, the information they promulgate is no more than a ‘snapshot’ of the truth. It is just a humanly perceived glimpse of something that is fundamentally much larger and, in theory (Heidegger, 1977), can probably never be completely explained by people.

This assertion is illustrated by the age-old parable about the blind men and the elephant. It is a story about six scholarly old men who, in the middle of a thought-provoking discussion about elephants, suddenly realised that none of them truly knew what an elephant was – because none of them had actually ever seen one. So, even though they were all blind, they travelled to a place where an elephant lived. Then, just as soon as each had found a comfortable space for himself, they began using their hands to examine the elephant’s body.

The information each sage obtained through doing this was different to that acquired by his peers – as all six of them only found out about the part of the elephant that was closest and most easy for them to inspect – such as an ear, or a tusk, or the tail. Their focusing on the body part nearest to them helped them develop some useful insights about elephant anatomy (e.g., it is like a huge fan, a pointed spear, or a length of rope) … but it didn’t tell them all that much about the structure of the whole creature. Which was, to be frank, far larger and far more complex than any of them realised.

Each and all of these supposedly wise old men fervently believed in the truth of their findings, yet their conclusions about the elephant’s body form, which were constrained by their methodological assumptions and method of data collection, were (at best) quite limited and ‘wide of the mark’.

Human bodies and what people believe them to be have been comprehensively examined across many scholarly disciplines and paradigms – including the anatomy profession – for a very long time. The amassed literature shows that there are in fact many ways of validly perceiving and describing human bodily structure (I call them anatomies), all of which depend on the ways ‘the body’ has been conceptualised, experienced, observed, illustrated and described by people. Each and every one of these anatomies has potential to tell us some things about the body’s structural form, although none of them can explain it in its entirety. In the words of the well-known Indian writer Amish Tripathi (2010, p. 229),

There are many realities. There are many versions of what may appear obvious. Whatever appears as the unshakeable truth, its exact opposite may be true in another context. After all, one’s reality is but perception, viewed through various prisms of context.”

Feeling the lumps and bumps on dried wrist bones, for example, or examining the tendons crossing a dissected cadaver’s wrist, looking at variously angled wrist X-Ray images, three-dimensional MRI scans of the wrist region, subtly sensing the outer ends of the heart and pericardium acupuncture meridians, and tuning in to some of the several pulses that can be diagnostically palpated at the wrist all have potential to contribute to our knowledge of wrist structure. No two sets of information obtained from doing these things will be exactly the same, even though there may be some overlap between some of them. And none of them, on its own, can tell us everything that is knowable about the wrist, or the rest of the body it belongs to … just bits of it.

Our bodies are not, and probably have never been, conceptualised in exactly the same way in every part of the world. We see this in the ways people’s bodies have been anatomically portrayed and medically cared for in different countries over thousands of years – in ancient Egypt, Greece, and India; in medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire; in Renaissance Italy and Ming Dynasty China; in precolonial Hawaii, post-colonial Africa, and in bi-cultural New Zealand. Even today, acupuncturists, brain surgeons, massage therapists, physiotherapists, and internal medicine physicians throughout our globalised world use different, yet overlapping, sets of anatomical knowledge – each of which is in keeping with the types of treatment they offer.

Many people – including lots of anatomists, health professionals, and university academics (who possibly should know better) – appear to have fallen into the trap of uncritically presuming that there is only one way of ‘properly’ conceptualising the body – i.e., the one they have learned from their textbooks and teachers, and has subsequently been boosted by their own experiences and research. Even though this point of view is likely to be congruent with their profession’s usual knowledge development principles and procedures… it still fails to explain the whole and glorious truth of the matter.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. New York: Harper & Row.
Tripathi, A. (2010). The immortals of Meluha. Chennai, IND: Westland Ltd.

The Living Website by Sue Adstrum PhD

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