I’ve always been interested in the different ways in which scientific knowledge is discovered and then explored. In particular, I love stories about accidental discoveries – those great insights which sometimes spring from the observation of everyday events by someone with a slightly different perspective or by someone who asks a different question about a familiar phenomenon.
Sometimes that someone isn’t a scientist or a researcher of any sort, often it’s just the person commenting on their everyday experience in a certain environment. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M Sapolsky illustrates this with a very apt imaginary proverb which states:
“If you want to know if the elephant at the zoo has a stomach upset, don’t ask the veterinarian, ask the cage cleaner”
One of my favourite examples is in my own field of stress and its impact upon health. It’s about the discovery of the impact of personality type on heart disease risk. The discovery was made in the mid-1950s and was the result of what happened when two cardiologists setting up a private practice found themselves having to spend a very large amount of money on reupholstering the chairs in their waiting rooms.
This was something which, other than their frustration at the cost, did not really concern them. However, on one occasion they called in an upholsterer that they had not employed before. On coming in to look at the chairs, he asked the cardiologists, “What on Earth is wrong with your patients? People don’t wear out chairs in this way!”
What he had noticed was that the chairs in the waiting rooms were worn out at the very front of the seat and that the arm pads at front of the armrests looked like they had been clawed away. This was not how chairs were worn out in the waiting rooms of other specialists. The cardiologists didn’t think about, or understand the relevance of, the workman’s question at the time.
It wasn’t until a few years later when, after a few more clues, the cardiologists developed their theory of the Type A personality – impatient, ambitious, hostile, reacting to normal situations as if they were stressful -- and its association with a higher risk of heart disease. That’s when they remembered the upholsterer’s question, and finally knew the answer; those patients were wearing the seats out in that way because they were always, literally, on the edge of their seat and ready to leap up at the slightest thing. These were the people who ended up needing to see a cardiologist!
Luckily, we also now know that a Type A personality is not necessarily forever and, with the help of some therapies (including hypnotherapy) the risks associated with it can be reduced.
What these sorts of stories tell us is that often the best way to find an answer to a problem is to look at it from a different perspective and ask a different question of it. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to involve an objective observer – someone less likely to be making assumptions about the situation itself, and maybe more likely to notice what else is going on in the environment that can provide clues to the solution. Someone who can see a pattern in the environment which those inside the situation have missed.
Robert M. Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is one of the best books on stress and its effects on health. It is available from Amazon.co.uk