As I read about the life and death of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, my thoughts wandered to the unsung heroism of TDWI contributor Julie Hemker who has endured more than forty surgeries (!) for conditions related to her congenital sacral agenesis. Julie is not as famous as Hawking but her courage is just as awe-inspiring. It made me wonder, how Stephen’s and Julie’s heroic struggle with unrelenting adversity be explained?

 

Animals do it, but they’re no heroes

Bruno was our friend’s feisty little French Bulldog. When he ran, you wouldn’t get in his way; when he got into dogfights, even Great Danes could not intimidate him. Then he got into an accident severely injuring his spinal cord, rendering his hind legs useless appendages. He also lost bowel and bladder control. Did that break his spirit? Not for a minute. He kept on running around, with his limp hind legs dragging limply behind. He kept on challenging dogs 20 times his size as if nothing had changed in his life. But would you describe Bruno as courageous? Probably not.

I am not talking here about the momentary surge of adrenaline that fuels acts of courage, rather the heroism of a daily struggle against mind-numbing adversity against all odds. It is awe-inspiring to observe —and in many respects is unique to us humans. Why?

I think Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, put it best in his wonderful book “Stumbling on Happiness:” We are the only animal that thinks about the future. No ape can plan to be a doctor to his troupe when he grows up. No elephant is capable of extrapolating from the denuded trees his herd is leaving behind that his own food source will eventually disappear. Animals live in the present; they remember their past, they are aware of the present, but they are totally oblivious to the future beyond a time scale of a few minutes.

Herein lies the difference: Unlike animals who cannot appreciate the future struggles awaiting them, humans can imagine them and still brave them.

 

How humans discovered the future

About 2 million years ago, a momentous event started taking place: Our brain was becoming progressively larger. Our ancestor species, Homo habilis had a brain of about one-and-a-quarter pound. Homo sapiens (that’s us) has a brain of almost three pounds, more than double. All this extra mass of noodles went to populate one area: the frontal lobe, the executive center of the modern brain. And like any CEO, this center receives inputs from all areas of the brain, integrates the information, and then plans accordingly. Planning by definition requires imagining the future. That’s where our imagination resides—in the prefrontal cortex.

 

Optimism

Hawking doubtlessly foresaw the devastating wreckage his disease would wreak on his body. His physician told him that he would die in two years. This would drive anybody to despair. So what made Stephen Hawking fight on?

Just being able to peer into the future is pleasurable, to the point that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there. Gilbert cites Lowenstein’s report on a study in which volunteers were told that they had won a free dinner at a fabulous French restaurant and were then asked when they would like to eat. Now? Tonight? Tomorrow? Most volunteers chose to wait until the next week. Why the self-imposed delay? Gilbert tells us that it is because by waiting a week, these people not only got to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Chateau Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look forward to all the slurping and sipping for a full seven days.

We don’t peer into the future just for the pleasure of it. Think of it: How many billions of dollars a year do we spend on financial advisers who claim to understand what’s going to happen in the future? Or palm readers? We even delight in reading Chinese fortune cookies mass produced in China to gratify our ego. Why do we do it?

We don’t do it out of idle curiosity or an academic exercise. We do it because we want to do something about it. Our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. We take pleasure in exercising control; one of the most gratifying feelings we experience is being effective, making things happen. Much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.

Our desire for control is programmed into our brains. It is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding (that old dopamine again), that people act as if they control the uncontrollable. And this, in a word, is the root of optimism. Is it any wonder that clinically depressed people have a sense of lack of control, of the future happening to them without any possibility of them influencing it? This is the root of their hopelessness, a hallmark of depression.

Had Hawkins had a depressive personality, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have just shriveled up and died much sooner, leaving the world a lesser place. Hawking has been portrayed in a film about his life, The Theory of Everything, as having a sunny personality, a self-assured view of himself as having the key to “the theory of everything”. He was also surrounded by loving people, supporting and believing in him all the way. This provided the nourishing milieu in which his optimism could flourish and thrive, despite his devastating physical impairment.

 

Happiness is subjective

Lori and Reba Schappel
Lori and Reba Schappel

We look in on people’s lives from the outside. We judge their happiness by our own standards. But happiness is subjective. To illustrate, there is this famous story of Lori and Reba Schappel, conjoined twins, now in their 50’s. They share blood supply, part of the skull, and some brain tissue. Lori and Reba are happy—not merely resigned or contented, but joyful, playful, and optimistic. When asked about the possibility of surgical separation, Reba replied: “Our point of view is no, straight out no. Why would you want to do that? For all the money in China, why? You’d be ruining two lives in the process.” Would you and I describe our reaction to being conjoined as joyful and optimistic? Yet, a study of the medical literature by Alice Dreger found “the desire to remain together to be so widespread among communicating conjoined twins as to be practically universal.”

So this, then, is the point of Stephen Hawking’s, Julie Hemker’s, Lori and Reba Schappel, and all the millions of people whose spirits triumphed over adversity:

It is their peering into their futures and with unbowed optimism doing something about it.


First published March 1, 2015, this post has been updated by the author on the occasion of Stephen Hawking’s death.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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