My Body Sings the SOcial Electric

(This article originally appeared in Forbes…)

Eric Topol, director and chief academic officer of Scripps Translational Science Institute and Scripps Health started his talk on mobile health at the Aspen Ideas Festival with a quote from over 200 years ago.

“Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.” – Voltaire

And he noted that things hadn’t change much in 200 years. He said that historically there have been many diseases that could be described as idiopathic or cryptogenic which really just means that we don’t know what caused them. But then he began to share just a glimpse into what was coming out of the labs.

He showed a bedside sleep monitor that could tell him when he had had a good sleep (and tell his wife when he was really awake so they could talk). He explained how this kind of tracking and feedback allowed him to start seeing patterns during the day that contributed to his sleep at night. Curiously his office staff received his “sleep tweets” as well and could tell if he was going to be irritable or ready to take on the day, hours before he arrived. For a while now we’ve been researching this aspect of the connected world, some people talk about it as “the quantified self,” where every aspect of your daily life is measured and tracked.

He pointed out that using genetic sequencing we now knew the root causes of over 150 common diseases. He previewed a browser for the human genome called the “genome wowser,” he discussed cells in the body that, when someone is about to have the kind of heart attack that doesn’t show typical symptoms, shed into the bloodstream and look very different than normal. He noted sensors that are in testing right now that could track and respond to such changes and send a warning out to the patient that something was amiss.

He invited an audience member to come up and have their heart scanned in three dimensions with a new kind of pocket visualization tool called a Vscan that could be this era’s answer to the stethoscope.

In essence Eric was describing a future where we may be able to discover (or rediscover) the owner’s manual for the human body, through a much richer kind of sensing, feedback, and pattern recognition.

By the end of the talk he had modified Voltaire’s quote to flip the tables and point out that we are fast learning more than we could have ever dreamed about the human condition. That we may be standing on the threshold of a new era in connected wellness.

But for some reason as Eric quoted Voltaire my mind was thinking of another quote from someone in Voltaire’s future. Maybe this other quote resonated with me more because of a lecture I had just attended on advances in stem cell research and something called “optogenetics,” where genes from light reactive bacteria were spliced into brain cells and with the flip of a light switch apparently reduced signs of anxiety in lab experiments. Or, maybe it was the fact that I had just come from a panel discussing social network “command centers” and the impact of tools like twitter on how we communicate and stay connected en mass. Or maybe it was the recent paper I had read about the impact of social networks on health behavior.

In any event, I was thinking of Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem, “I sing the body electric.”

In that poem he celebrates the complexities of our shared existence both great and small. Whitman notes that,

“The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them; they will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, and discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.” 

Read that quote again, but think about social networks and Eric’s office staff, and those biosensors that can detect an impending heart attack. Or think about those optogenetic genes that can lighten a mood with the application of light. Read it and imagine a time that isn’t so far away from this very moment when your body might join the social electric, when our genes might tweet, when our bodies might sing, and our friends and families might be a part of that song.

“I am large I contain multitudes.”

Social networks take on a whole new meaning when we think bigger than the billions of cell phone users in the world today. When we think instead of the nearly 8 billion people on the planet, each one with a chance to connect their tens of trillions of individual cells into a socially networked fabric of health. Where we may actually feel their pain and sing words of encouragement in response.

In another poem from the same edition Whitman wrote that, 

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” 

Health in the age of trillions will be very different than what we think of health today. Naysayers may say that connecting everyone to everyone else at the cellular level would be overwhelming or impossible. Yet in our own body we find trillions of cells handling all sorts of amazing tasks every day. Nature has figured out how to tamp down the noise and discover patterns in all the information. We may need to look at Nature’s design patterns for guidance here. We won’t get there on our own, and maybe we don’t need to go, or might not want to go, quite that far.

But we ought to consider the possibilities.

We often suffer from a poverty of imagination when thinking about how to innovate, how to explore the possibilities of our emerging science and technology. My humble prescription for those times is to step back, look to artists, look to poets, look to people who lived in the future during Voltaire’s time.

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