Niall Galloway, author of Seeking Symmetry: Finding patterns in human health, shares insight into Leonardo da Vinci’s famed drawings ‘Vitruvian man’ and their recognition of symmetry as a key feature of human form and scientific understanding. Vitruvian man features on the cover of Niall’s book, which encourages individuals and therapists to seek, understand and appreciate the symmetries in our bodies as an important element in our pursuit of health and wellness…
‘Leonardo da Vinci made a lifelong study of human form, seeking pattern and symmetry; his artist eye captured them in the iconic drawings known as ‘Vitruvian man’. Standing upright with feet together, the figure fits perfectly inside a square, because the distance across his body, from fingertip to outstretched fingertip, exactly matches his height from head to heel. In the center of the square lies the seat of sexual anatomy. By spreading out the arms and legs, fingers and toes again touched the outline, now a perfect circle resting on the base of the square, and the midpoint of the figure in the circle rises instead to the umbilicus.
Vitruvian man holds lasting appeal because Leonardo’s careful representation of human proportion illustrates something we intuitively know, that the human body has an elegant balance and symmetry to it. Biological proportions are balanced with mathematical precision. Champion athletes tend to be highly symmetrical, with the complete balance of Vitruvian man. To speed faster than others in a straight line, sprinters or swimmers need equal power for full muscular effort on both the right and the left. Many of the rest of us have one leg that is physically stronger than the other, and we may even have trouble finding shoes that fit, because one foot is longer or wider. Funny feet, it turns out, are part of the human condition, not the general mammalian one. To understand why, we need to ask Vitruvian man to assume a new position: sitting, with his legs out in a split, arms folded across his chest.
In this unfamiliar pose, the figure reveals a new truth about our human condition. The five centuries between Leonardo’s time and our own are but a moment in human history, not long enough for any fundamental evolutionary variations to try themselves out and take hold or fall away, so the human body has not changed significantly since then, and Vitruvian man is still a fine depiction of human symmetry. What has changed, and is a primary subject of this book, is our knowledge of the inner workings of the body, in particular the growth and development of the human embryo. Pressing our figure down into the triangle presents the human body in the configuration true to our embryology and fetal development.
Toes still reach to the margin of the figure, but now the pelvic floor rests at the very boundary of the shape. The figure in a triangle reaches from head to tail, like the nervous system. Its spinal cord, which extends nerves stepwise to all the parts of the body, first to the upper limbs, then torso, lower limbs and finally to the pelvic floor and anus. So feet and toes are ‘higher’, and nerves to the pelvic floor and anus are the very last nerves in the human spinal cord. So the form and function of your feet will mirror your pelvic floor.
Human evolution has prioritized heads over tails; human heads and brains are larger than ever, yielding great progress for the intellect, reason, and imagination. But, as we will explore, those same forces of selection have created problems for the tail end of our bodies – some of which we can manage better if we understand how to spot the signs, even from the outside, that something may be amiss. If you have especially funny-looking feet, for instance, you should be prepared for pelvic floor problems, because the nerves that shape the form and function of the feet also shape the perineum, so one will mirror the other in predictable ways.
Seeking Symmetry: Finding Patterns in Human Health invites you to go beyond the familiar outer surface of our human bodies to explore deep inside, seeking symmetry. Expect to find forms, both internal and external, that are made to a pattern: surprisingly similar, but not the same, symmetrical but not identical. Because all living structures start small – not just small, but as one tiny microscopic fertilized egg cell – every species begins as an infinitesimal packet of instructions to be used over and over again. With stunning economy, nature packs all her know-how into this cell, using the same laws of physics and chemistry, the same tools for growth and development, the same constraints, within each organism and across species. So we are not made of different as much as we are of the same. In this book, we will ask you to step back as far as you can from the details, to see them within the context of the big picture, to seek out and recognize patterns in the whole, of which humans are a part.
Niall T McLaren Galloway, 2019
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