By Maya Groff
We often think of the world in opposites: morning and night, good and bad, left brain and right brain, life and death. We separate the world into dichotomies in order to make it more navigable, often thinking about opposite features in silos. The same holds true for the disciplines of science and the humanities. We view the two as separate entities, failing to recognize the ways in which science, math, and medicine may intersect with literature, art, and music.
The Health Humanities Grand Rounds recently featured Dr. Cindy Weinstein– professor of English at the California Institute of Technology– and Dr. Bruce Miller– professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. They shared stories of how their unexpected partnership came to be, beginning with Weinstein’s desire to memorialize her father, Jerry, and empower readers with scientific knowledge regarding Alzheimer’s disease.
In their book Finding the Right Words: a story of literature, grief, and the brain, Weinstein and Miller beautifully merge the worlds of the humanities and sciences as they explore the personal and neurological facets of Alzheimer’s disease. The narrative presents as a conversation between Weinstein and Miller; Weinstein reflects on her father’s experience with early onset Alzheimer’s and Miller provides neurological insight. Together, they utilize personal anecdotes to examine the disease and its impact on an individual and their loved ones.
Their experiences working together and converging disciplines highlight the ways in which exposure to and integration of the “opposite” discipline benefitted their own. Miller highlighted the significance of bionarratives in a medical context– actively listening to and engaging with the personal story that a patient has to share– in order to fully comprehend and analyze their disease. In a complementary manner, Weinstein highlighted the ways in which the presentation of scientific information empowers individuals and their families struggling with illness. Their collaboration exemplified the ways in which open-mindedness and the integration of both disciplines fosters a holistic, sensitive, and empowering understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.
Weinstein and Miller shared excerpts from their respective chapters of the text. In Weinstein’s section, she described a vivid memory of being with her father– one in which she and Miller have traced back to the early stages of Jerry’s forthcoming diagnosis. They were in the midst of a grocery store scavenger hunt, searching to find the obscure salad ingredient Jerry desired but could not name. It was croutons, Weinstein reveals, concluding her story with a touch of humor. Matching her tone, Miller offers a factual, yet comical, analysis of complex words and word-finding difficulties often apparent in cases of Alzheimer’s. Using humanitarian and scientific lenses, the authors explored another dichotomy: memory and forgetting. Through the examination of Cindy’s father’s loss of memory, they honored his life and death. This insight highlights the ways in which both disciplines can be used to address disease, memorialize individuals after death and cope with grief, empowering readers with thought provoking insight.
Finding the Right Words embodies the significance of combining the humanities and medicine to benefit others; it is an emblem of the merging of dichotomous entities to humanize illness and equip individuals with the scientific tools to cope with its impact. Through their exploration of science and humanities, memory and forgetfulness, life and death, Weinstein and Miller challenge the binary nature of our world and highlight the good that comes from the intersectionality of opposites.
Maya Groff is a junior majoring in Chemistry with a minor in Medicine, Literature, and Culture. Her interest in health humanities is rooted in the desire to help others in a holistic manner through the intersection of literature and science. She is particularly inspired by the way in which personal narratives can be used to improve health care and create a patient-centered approach to medicine. Immersed in the worlds of health humanities, public health, and clinical medicine, she hopes to seek ways to merge these disciplines to create a cohesive understanding of patient experiences.