Grey Matters

Grey matter is the tissue in the brain containing cells that forms the cerebral cortex. Myth has it that this crucial entity has been temptingly tweaked by the big guy in the sky to make the Parsis an irresistibly insane lot.


Science believes that it is with this grey matter that we are able to think, analyse, and rationalise. (We, the Parsis, believe it is used to laugh, curse and dramatise). The ‘science’ of medicine comes from this very grey matter. The ‘practice’ of medicine is quite another matter.

In the olden days, the practice of medicine was bullishly barbaric. Alcohol was used as general anaesthesia (which, if given a choice, the Parsi would still prefer to this day), heroin was used to cure cough (some of the youth at Dadars’ Five Gardens still believe in its purity as potential cure), electric belts treated impotence (the BPP can bring it back to style and popularise it as a solution for our dying numbers), and holes were drilled into the head to let evil spirits out.


In today’s day and age, it’s unethical to practise medicine without strong evidence that it works. The art of medicine may be eminence-based, but the science of it has to be evidence-based. Despite our methodical evolution, in all likelihood, today’s medical practices will be scoffed at a hundred years down the line, like we are doing now to some practices of more than a hundred years ago. Scary thought, isn’t it?


All giant leaps in medicine have been acts of courage, conviction and sometimes luck. Jenners’ injection of the smallpox vaccine in an 8-year-old, Kochs’ discovery of tuberculosis (reports claim that some of this work was done in our very own JJ Hospital), and Flemings’ identifications of the anti-bacterial drug penicillin are events in history that have changed the world. Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, but not stability. For stability, we need to be backed by reproducible evidence and strong knees.


Unfortunately, not all evidence is reliable. Even though the publishing standards in the field of medicine are very stringent, we still find certain astonishingly amusing research articles around: cows produce more milk while listening to REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’; the patterns of different kinds of head injuries sustained in the Asterix comic book series; people who think they have foot odour do, and those who don’t, don’t; symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride; it takes an average man eight seconds to pee after he stands in front of the urinal, but if another man comes into the bathroom, it takes an extra five seconds. (I bet you’re ready to put on your stopwatch after reading this, but don’t forget to put down your copy of the Jame before doing so!)


The other drawback of progress is that it’s unevenly distributed in a country like ours. While, at one end, we have super and sub-specialisations, at the other, we are struggling with sanitation and clean drinking water — the root cause of so many illnesses. Today, we want to know more and more about less and less, eventually ending up knowing everything about nothing. A few discerning folks call this ‘spiritual philosophy’; most others call it ‘Twitter’.


Gone are the days when one surgeon could open up someone’s head in the morning, take care of his relative’s hibernating hernia in the afternoon and set a neighbour’s fragile fracture in the evening.  Today, we have found treatments for the tens of thousands of conditions that plague humans. We’ve discovered 4000 medical and surgical procedures, we’ve got 6000 drugs that we can prescribe, and we’ve reached a point where we can’t do it all by ourselves.


In 1970, it took an average of two full-time clinicians who could take care of a patient during a hospital visit, but at the end of the 20th century, it took about 15 full-time doctors to sort out the same typical hospital patient, who, in the end, is left fatigued, frustrated, and holding a large bunch of hospital bills in his poor hands. One of my professors can sum up the situation in one sentence: the cause for multi-organ failure is single-organ doctors. What this means is that we have sub-specialised, specialised and super-specialised, but we have not synchronised our efforts well enough. What we actually need, perhaps, is a specialist who can communicate ‘between’ all those other specialists. We are making so much progress, and yet we don’t have most of the answers.


To overcome these challenges and more, we’ve been endowed with the greatest gift of humankind to experience the mysterious — our brains. It is the source of all true art and science. We have more than a hundred billion cells which can process more than a million messages per second (though, in our community, the speed varies a little bit from person to person). We can take in all the colours and objects we see, the temperature around us, the pressure of our feet against the floor, the sounds around us, the dryness of our mouths, and the warmth of our hearts. Our brains hold and process all our emotions, thoughts and memories. Let’s use it to make a difference. Let’s use it to do good for the community. Let’s use it not to bicker and fight but team up and take flight. The community needs some healing; let’s make it a better place.


Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hope; the kind of truthfulness that sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human mind. It is in these difficult times that one often falls back on the true power of the human spirit… yes, the power of grey matter, which is the dwelling place of our spirit, our soul (and not the heaving heart like most cardiologists would like us to believe).


When Michael Jackson crooned the famous line, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white”, what he was really trying to say is, “Grey matters!”