Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/January 1911/The Health Instinct




PEOPLE do not take the matter of health seriously." So wrote Professor Bain not over thirty years ago, but in the intervening time how things have changed! If he were writing on the same theme to-day, he would probably say that we take the matter of health too seriously, or, at any rate, that some of us are on the verge of so doing. We have heard of the bicycle face and the automobile countenance, and it would not be surprising if some one should soon describe for us the health-seeker's visage. It may not as yet have established itself as an unmistakable type, but one can already trace signs in a certain worn and anxious expression of countenance suggestive of the approach of starvation, or the fearsomeness of an unseen foe.

In days of old, men sallied boldly forth, fearing naught save the fires of future punishment, and these were likely to be forgotten in the business of the hour. They had too much to do, and too little to eat, to be over-anxious in regard to diet or exercise. But a knight in full armor, or a dozen of them, was as nothing to brave beside the hidden bacterial hosts which now make a constant terror by night and day; while the poison cup was rare and harmless in comparison with "auto-intoxications" and the ravages of "uric acid" with which the dweller in twentieth century time is threatened in the viands he must face each day.

Between the periods of these trying encounters with hidden foes which strike beneath the belt, the seeker after health examines with anxious eye the latest newspapers and magazines for paragraphs and articles which may serve as guides to his sad progress between the ever threatening Scylla of overeating and the Charybdis of under eating; of exercising too much and of exercising too little. Of leading along these lines he finds no lack, but the teachers are so many and their dogmas so diverse, and the results of following their advice often so disappointing, that the health-seeker's troubles only thicken. Even those whose consciousness has given them no trouble along lines of health are not wholly exempt from the fear, or fear of the fear; for, in many households where the health idea has become rampant, the guest at the board is assailed with advice as to the wholesomeness of this, the hygienic qualities of that, and the proteid content of the other dish, until his own stomach becomes alarmed and cries out even for the flesh pots of the Pharaohs and the jolly admonition to the banqueters to "eat, drink and be merry, for to-morrow ye die."

In the realm of muscular activity the health seeker may be told by the specialist that what he needs is more exercise, and that if he will only take a sufficient amount he will attain unto physiological perfection; while on the editorial pages of one of our dailies he reads that any exercise done in a perfunctory manner is positively harmful. One advises ten-mile walks, and another tells him that walking is the poorest of exercises. On the other hand, there is a numerous company of those who would have us attain the kingdom of health through faith rather than works. Truly, leading in the realm of the physical is as absurdly sectarian and dogmatic as it ever was in spiritual affairs. All can not be wholly right; nor all altogether wrong. Happily there is a Virgil to pilot one through the shades of half-truth expressed by the exercise cult, the chew-long circle, the low-proteid faith, or the Eddyite sisterhood. The guide is an old one—good sense—good animal sense of one's condition for work; in other words, instinct brought up to date.

From the lowest forms of life up, there are but three sets of activities, each depending on the others for its existence and condition—the consciousness of his needs, the ability to supply those needs, and the power to assimilate what has been secured. Life is but a continuous round of these, and there are no more and no less in man; the three functions are a bit more complicated, but they are at bottom the same. Among our animal ancestors each was dependent on himself, and his consciousness never failed to tell him just what and how much food to take, and how much and what kind of exercise he needed, to keep him in best fighting and hunting trim. If this consciousness (instinct) failed him, he went by the board. He took no exhausting walks to add to his energies, he knew better than to get drunk or stuff himself unnecessarily and so render himself a prey to his foes, and he had too much else to do to upset his bodily machinery by morbid introspection. Health magazines are hardly needed by a fox or a bear.

Civilization has brought with it dependence on others, and more time than the average man-animal knows what to do with. The man-child may go on a spree, knowing he will not be devoured piecemeal by his neighbors and that if he gets sick some one will take care of him, and so he goes on a spree, and so he is otherwise careless of his conduct. His instinct for health is blunted and rendered of less use through his dependence and his pleasure-of-the-moment excesses. Appetite, temporary pleasure and laziness, get the upper hand, though the consciousness of what is physically good or bad is still present and can be partially or wholly restored to controlling power. We once heard a young woman who delighted in breaking all the laws of health, remark, after hearing a lecture on the sin of disobedience to such laws, "I do not like to hear those things; they are too true." Her health instinct was keenly alive, but only as an onlooker. Instinct was the first health law-giver, and, modified and brought to date, will always remain the supreme judge in these questions. The present widespread interest in things pertaining to diet, exercise, emotional states and other allied subjects, is an awakening of this health conscience, but we are in danger of ignoring the existence of such a guide in the anxious endeavor to follow the many one-sided teachers of the hour.

The three primitive animal functions are dependent upon each other, and so the old, old habit of doing something, of keeping busy, must be a factor, a very important factor, in the health problem. An amoeba will travel faster against a current than in still water, and we have known supposed invalids gain strength and flesh under circumstances that directed their energies from thinking about their inner machinery to an outward expression of mental and physical effort of which they would have thought themselves incapable. In those with interests beyond themselves, the instinct for health has a chance to assert itself and to supervise without interference. "The chief good I do my patients," said one who is a physician to the wealthier class, "is to find some occupation for them, some hobby to keep them busy."

The application of the mind-body energies to some fixed object beyond self, arouses and sharpens one's consciousness of physical needs, and, as a result, we know what sort of eating, drinking and exercise make us feel that we are at our best each day.

The same instinctive consciousness will guide the health seeker through the maze of health teaching, and will allow him to appropriate from each doctrine its modicum of truth. If a low proteid diet clears his brain, he will reduce his proteids. If vegetables, rather than meats, bring about more power for work, he will become more or less of a vegetarian. If 3,000 calories seem better for his occupation than 1,500, he will use the former quantity. We wish that instinct could teach him not to recommend what he has found to best suit his own needs, as the best and only thing for all others.

The test, then, of low proteid and high proteid, of few calories and many calories, of an animal or vegetable diet, and of whether we need to walk ten miles a day or to lie on a couch, is the effect these things have in lifting us to our fullest capacity for physical and mental work. The one prime condition for this test is that we be physically and mentally busy as best we may in some useful and unselfish direction.

Where the instinct for health is not sufficient—and with those injured by accident or disease it can not be quite enough—the health seeker should throw the responsibility of choosing what is best for him upon one who has schooled himself for the purpose and who knows, or should know, the body-mind in order, as well as in disorder. He should let the physician do any worrying or serious thinking that is to be done, for now-a-days that is what the physician is for. In the meanwhile he can go forward with life's daily endeavor, content with his physical limitations, and only caring to do his best.

The instinct for health can be cultivated until it is as good a guide as in the lower animals. A semi-conscious instinct, of course it is, but with our growing knowledge of health matters from day to day we can add to it, and so make it fit into our civilized manner of living.

Thinking eternally about health without making health a response to our outward striving, will as surely interfere with, or derange this guide, as the thinking about a telegraph pole will lead the learner on a bicycle to bang into it. If one thinks of the middle of the road, of whether he is up to par in his daily work, the telephone poles of dyspepsia and neurasthenia will take care of themselves; while, if listened to, the health instinct will guide him through the distracting midway of health fads without fretting because he does not find in each show all that is advertised by the barker, or just what is suited to his own particular needs. While strength is a good thing, no amount of exercising will make us all Sandows, and though chewing is important to the process of digestion, no amount of time spent in masticating food will develop in each of us the phenomenal inborn endurance of a Fletcher. It is not "in us," and it is just as well we are not all alike. All that is required of us, and all that we should require of ourselves, is that we develop our innate possibilities until we are conscious that we are at our best, our own best and not another's.