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Adventures in Human Being

A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

By Gavin Francis
13-minute read
Audio available
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

Adventures in Human Being (2015) is a sort of anatomical travel guide. A series of philosophical reflections on each of the body’s major organs, the book combines a clinical perspective on the body with select stories from our cultural history. The result is a series of striking ruminations on the human condition from the unusual angle of human anatomy.

  • Students of medicine open to a more philosophical approach to the body 
  • Philosophers curious to hear a doctor’s perspective on the human condition
  • Anyone who wants to learn about the inner workings of their body

Gavin Francis has worked as a pediatrician, a surgeon, an ER specialist, a trainee neurosurgeon, and even an expedition medic in the Arctic and Antarctic. He now lives with his family in Edinburgh, Scotland, and works as a family physician. Before this book, Francis authored two travelogues about his experiences as an expedition medic – True North: Travels in Arctic Europe and Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins. The latter book won the Scottish Book of the Year Award for 2013.

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Adventures in Human Being

A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

By Gavin Francis
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
Synopsis

Adventures in Human Being (2015) is a sort of anatomical travel guide. A series of philosophical reflections on each of the body’s major organs, the book combines a clinical perspective on the body with select stories from our cultural history. The result is a series of striking ruminations on the human condition from the unusual angle of human anatomy.

Key idea 1 of 8

The human face can express a uniquely wide range of emotion. 

What could be more familiar than the shape and contours of your face? You, like most of us, probably look in the mirror every day. But what does your face look like beneath the surface?

If you were to peel back the thin layer of skin protecting your face, you would see a tangle of dainty, salmon-colored fronds – the 43 muscles that control your face. The wide range of human expression is made possible by the subtle interplay of these muscles.

The key message here is: The human face can express a uniquely wide range of emotion. 

During his time as an anatomy demonstrator, the author dissected the faces of over 30 cadavers. All that dissecting taught him how to read the story of their emotional lives. How? Well, since different facial muscles are responsible for different expressions, it’s possible to see which expressions were habitual during life by looking at muscle definition.

For example, consider the zygomaticus major and zygomaticus minor, the facial muscles that exhibit the greatest variation in size. They’re responsible for spreading the sides of the mouth into a smile. Thick, well-defined zygomaticus muscles imply a life rich with laughter and happiness.

Developed orbicularis oris muscles indicate that a person had love in their life, because these muscles purse the lips for kissing. On the other hand, pronounced depressor anguli oris muscles – the collection of muscles responsible for frowning – are indicative of a life marked by sadness.

Perhaps the first person to read emotion from the muscles of the face was Leonardo da Vinci. The author argues that da Vinci’s ability to depict such vivid emotion in his paintings was directly informed by his experience dissecting the faces of corpses.

Just look at The Last Supper, which depicts the twelve disciples in paroxysms of emotion following Jesus’s announcement that one of them will betray him. This painting was quite innovative for its time. Before da Vinci, the convention was to depict faces as serene and expressionless. Emotion was considered a very human characteristic – and ill-suited to the faces of saints.

But da Vinci believed it was more holy to represent humans authentically, just as God created us. What he deemed most authentic about the human face was the range of emotion it could display.

It’s precisely this ability to express a range of emotion that makes the human face so unique compared to other species. And this is why the face is our first contender for being the most human organ.

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