Why do men have nipples? Why do we sleep? And can contact lenses get lost in our brains?
Those are just some of the burning questions Dr. James Hamblin takes on in his book, If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body. Hamblin spoke with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to answer a few body and health questions and explain why he thinks his book is timely.
Why are so many health and science questions persistently unanswered?
James Hamblin: It comes down to a basic understanding of how science works, which is kind of an important discussion right now. There are different [kinds of] evidence that are constantly coming in and shaping and growing viewpoint[s]. There are outliers. And it doesn’t mean that people don’t understand at all, but that you need to kind of step back and see the forest and see where the majority of evidence is pointing you toward understanding things.
What is ‘agnotology’ — the study of doubt?
Hamblin: That word was coined by a professor at Stanford named Robert Proctor, who I spoke to for the book. Agnotology [means] the study of not knowing. It addresses ignorance, the study of why people don’t know things, and how that ignorance comes to be.
A classic example of that is the tobacco industry for decades sort of sowing the idea that we don’t really know if cigarettes cause cancer. Just that little bit of doubt was all that it took for a lot of people to think, ‘OK, I’ll just keep smoking until it’s clear.’
You see similar things now with vaccines, with climate change, with people who — all they need to do is establish some doubt, and make people feel that we just don’t really know, therefore everyone is titled to their opinion [and] it’s all equally valid, when in fact no, you have a robust body of evidence that’s pointing you in one direction.
Are we seeing the extreme end of the democratization of health information? With people telling doctors, ‘That’s your opinion, I have my own’?
Hamblin: Yes, because everyone has all this information, it’s shifted the dynamic. A lot of patients are coming in to their doctor carrying stack of paper that they’ve printed out [and] they’re pretty sure what their diagnosis is, and just saying, ‘Just write the prescription because I know what I need.’
Doctors are kind of playing the role of reacting to that now and being filters for this information as opposed to being the gatekeepers. That shifts the power dynamic where the patient can say, ‘I’m convinced I have hypothyroidism and if you, the doctor, won’t give me that diagnosis and write a prescription for it I’ll go to someone else.’
Why do men have nipples?
Hamblin: This is an homage to the book that started the idea of this book in my head, which is called ‘Why Do Men Have Nipples?’ It was in 2005, a very popular book, but interestingly in the book they apologize. They say that their publisher wanted them to call the book that but they don’t actually have a very satisfying answer.
And it’s true. The answer isn’t that interesting. We all develop nipples before we start to differentiate into sexes, so it comes very, very early in embryological development. We all have some amount of breast tissue as well. One percent of breast cancers happen in men, which is a statistic worth knowing about.
The real interesting thing about that story to me is this double-standard societally of how we treat nipples. It’s the same structure, there’s even a tiny bit of breast tissue in everyone — why is it that there are states where it is illegal to display female nipples? There’s Instagram and Facebook where you can’t do it, and yet we have no qualms over male nipples.
Why do we sleep?
Hamblin: Sleep is a great example. No one exactly knows why we sleep but you would think that we should have evolved not to need sleep — because sleep is when you would get picked off by a predator. And the people who would need to sleep less could be hunting and gathering and mating and doing whatever other things might have contributed to survival over thousands of years. But we do need to sleep and it seems that it’s serving a role to sort of restore and refresh our brain, and the whole human system wouldn’t work without it.
What’s the oddest question you’ve been asked?
Hamblin: They all are pretty odd. I start in the preface of the book by saying one that an ophthalmologist friend of mine asked that I address, which is ‘can contact lenses get into our brains if they get stuck in our eyes?’ And that was one I hadn’t even thought of myself, but apparently he actually hears a lot from people [who] lose a contact lens and call him in the middle of the night saying, ‘Is this going to get into me somehow? I can’t find it.’
But no, it will come out. It’s a dead-end cul-de-sac. It can get stuck up there and get infected — so if it doesn’t come out, do contact your physician — but you don’t need to call in the middle of the night, worried that it’s lost in your brain forever.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘Play’ above to listen to the entire segment.