The Body: A Guide for Occupants

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  • Chapters 1-3
  • Chapters 4-6
  • Chapters 7-11
  • Chapters 12-15
  • Chapters 16-18
  • Chapters 19-23
  • Key Figures
  • Index of Terms
  • Important Quotes
  • Essay Topics

Summary and Study Guide

Widely known for his best-selling books A Short History of Nearly Everything and A Walk in the Woods, author and educator Bill Bryson published another bestseller in 2019. The Body: a Guide for Occupants is a tour of human anatomy and its wonders. 

Compiled for the general reader, The Body is a compendium of facts, many amazing or weird, about human anatomy and physiology. It explores the various organ systems—skin, brain, eyes, nose, mouth and throat, heart and blood, skeleton, lungs, digestive tract—as well as multisystem experiences like digestion and energy production, immunity and disease, sleep, sex, childbirth, old age, and death. The Body also contains dozens of anecdotes on the researchers, often unsung, who made the discoveries that led to the great advances of medicine.  

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Bryson begins with an inventory of the elements that make up the body: In purified form, they would cost over $150,000. These atoms are assembled by instructions from the DNA at the center of each of the trillions of cells that make up an adult human.  

The Body next examines the skin. One of its principal jobs is to keep out dangerous microbes , yet deep inside, trillions of good microbes colonize the gut, help with digestion, and influence body processes. 

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The next few chapters discuss the head, with its complexly lobed brain; major sensors the eyes, ears, and nose; and the mouth and throat. The latter take in food and air and send them down a shared tube, the pharynx, that manages eating and breathing so as to enable the miracle of human speech.  

The heart and blood distribute oxygen, food energy, and the various biochemicals generated by the body’s organs. The skeleton provides structure and the leverage to move about, but humans walk vertically on two feet, which puts unusual stresses on the spine and hips and can cause humans to experience pain and disability unique to them in the animal kingdom.  

Human survival depends on the immune system, which protects the body from pathogens that enter through the air, food, or cuts in the skin. The lungs, meanwhile, do an excellent job of keeping themselves clean but can be overwhelmed, especially from smoking and asthma.  

The alimentary canal absorbs and digests nutrients from food, delivering water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals to the body. Sometimes too much gets through when people overindulge, which leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  

Sleep is vital—without it, animals die—but exactly why remains a mystery. Modern civilization imposes constraints that can cause sleep deficiencies and insomnia. Less mysterious is sex: In surveys, people tend to lie about their sex lives and are ignorant of the anatomical details. It’s actually hard to get pregnant, especially given recent declines in fertility rates, but when it happens, mothers often must suffer great pain during childbirth because their infants’ heads are simply too big to deliver easily.  

The final five chapters deal with pain, disease, the failures of medicine, old age, and death. Despite tremendous medical advances during the 20th century, people still suffer from heart disease, cancer, and senility, the major modern killers. Testing of new drugs is a flawed process, and the benefits of modern health care are distributed unevenly around the world. In the end, growing old leads to death despite science’s best efforts.  

The Body emphasizes not only the wonders of human anatomy but also its strangeness: bones that hear, yawns and hiccups, guest microbes by the trillion. Perhaps most amazing are the large brain and hands and voice box and bipedal mobility that combine to make humans uniquely capable among the Earth’s creatures. 

The book also contains 41 images, an eight-page bibliography, and 25 pages of source notes. 

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A Guide for Occupants

by Bill Bryson

The Body by Bill Bryson

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  • Science, Health and the Environment
  • Contemporary
  • Adult-YA Crossover Nonfiction
  • Top 20 Best Books of 2020

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the body a guide for occupants summary

About this Book

Book summary.

Bill Bryson, bestselling author of A Short History of Nearly Everything , takes us on a head-to-toe tour of the marvel that is the human body. As addictive as it is comprehensive, this is Bryson at his very best, a must-read owner's manual for everybody.

Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body--how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, "We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted." The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.


Stopped. Last word of British surgeon and anatomist Joseph Henry Green (1791– 1863) while feeling his own pulse

THE HEART IS the most misperceived of our organs. For a start, it looks nothing like the traditional symbol associated with Valentine's Day and lovers' initials carved into tree trunks and the like. (That symbol first appeared, as if from out of nowhere, in paintings from northern Italy in the early fourteenth century, but no one knows what inspired it.) Nor is the heart where we place our right hand during patriotic moments; it is more centrally located in the chest than that. Most curious of all, perhaps, is that we make it the emotional seat of our being, as when we declare that we love someone with all our heart or profess a broken heart when they abandon us. Don't misunderstand me. The heart is a wondrous organ and fully deserving of our praise and gratitude, but it is not invested even slightly in our emotional well-being. That's a good ...

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Reader reviews, bookbrowse review.

With his characteristic wit, he takes his readers on a survey of anatomy that successfully outlines what makes us human. The book will certainly appeal to Bryson’s ever-growing fan base and delight anyone who enjoys acquiring new information about a topic they think they already know well. I've read everything he has written and believe it to be far and away his best work to date... continued

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Beyond the Book

Trivia about the human body.

  • According to calculations by Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry, 59 elements are needed to construct a human being. Just six of these (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous) make up 99.1% of our bodies.
  • Every day between one and five of your 37.2 trillion cells turns cancerous, but your immune system almost always captures and kills the malignant cells.
  • Our skin doesn't have receptors for wetness, only thermal sensors, which is why when you sit down on a wet spot you can't tell if it's truly wet or just cold.

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The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson – Book Review & Summary

Nov 8, 2021 | Book Review | 0 comments

Wondrous, Mysterious, Us

The human body is a wondrous miracle. From the way it functions as a whole, to the individual parts of the body, we never stop to think and consider how it works. Even scientists and doctors, who devote their lives to studying it, find it profoundly strange, complex, and even baffling at times. 

The Body: A Guide for Occupants  (2019), by Bill Bryson is an entertaining account of facts that try to explain the functioning of the human body. It helps discover more about the body, right from the various organs such as the heart and brain, down to the hormones that play a vital role in regulating emotions and the sex drive, how sleep plays an ambiguous, role in keeping one healthy. It tells us why it is tough to manage a diet, and what role millions of microbes, living on and inside us, play.

Moreover, it is a journey that each and everyone should embark on to understand their bodies better.

Can We Make A Human?

Scientists have been trying to figure out what would it take to create a human right from scratch. 

The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry took on a bizarre task in 2013 of estimating what it would take to build actor Benedict Cumberbatch. They calculated a requirement of 59 elements, with 6 elements – hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous – needed in large quantities. They estimated a cost of £96,546.79, just for the elements, not counting labour and tax costs.

Another estimate by the US PBS network’s science program Nova estimated the cost of building a human at a mere $168 in 2012.

While the cost of elements can be debatable, it is the actual act of building a human that is still baffling. Even with all the necessary material at hand, how does one create life? 

No one has been able to specify where life actually begins. While science has pegged the cell as the essential unit of life, it still cannot explain how they coordinate to make the body function, how the genes and chromosomes in the body have been transmitted from generation to generation in the DNA, how the body survives – like a machine – without needing many repairs for decades and how it runs only on water and food?

The fact that the human body is conscious is a wonder in itself, in addition to the fact that it had evolved from only a few cells in the ocean. The evolution of the human body is a series of wondrous accidents.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019), by Bill Bryson

A Trillion Microbes

Apart from water and food that the body needs for survival, it would never have even existed without the trillion microbes on and inside it.

About 40,000 species of microbes live in and on our body, of which 900 live in the nostrils alone. The microbes inside the intestines and gut are especially important considering that they give the body 10% of calories by simply breaking down the food we consume. While the human body produces only 20 enzymes, microbes can produce about 10,000 digestive enzymes. The sum of all the microbes on the human body, or the microbiota, practically functions like an organ in itself.

The microbiota contains viruses too. San Diego State University’s Dana Willner states that the human body has about 174 viruses, of which we know only 10%. The microbiota furthermore contains archaea or single-celled microorganisms, which thankfully, do not cause any diseases. It also contains fungi (that have very little effect on the body), and protists (all other microscopic organisms).

Of the trillion microbes that reside, only 1451 are known to be harmful to the body. While it is a good ratio of harmful to harmless, the 1451 disease-causing microbes account for about one-third of all deaths.

Penicillin proved to be an invaluable antibiotic for humanity. Produced in bulk in the US during WWII, it was a fungus that was scraped off a cantaloupe, proving to be highly potent in killing bacteria. All the penicillin we have today descends from that one melon.

While its bacteria-killing function is brilliant, its very efficacy in killing microbes has also proven to be detrimental. Penicillin works on the bad bacteria, true.  But it also kills the good bacteria the body needs. Additionally, since bacteria develop resistance over time, increased use of antibiotics render medications ineffective over time.

The real problem though lies in the fact that antibiotics are too commonly prescribed world-over. In the West, an average person receives antibiotics at least 5 to 20 times before reaching adulthood. Antibiotics are being prescribed to farm animals in large quantities too, adding to antibiotic resistance. This is a looming threat and humans are at the mercy of these microscopic organisms.

The Human Brain

There isn’t anything in the world that is more extraordinary than the human brain . The brain, hidden away inside the skull, is strangely soft and made up of 70-85% of water. It is unique and amazing both, by structure and function.

The saying that humans do not use more than 10% of their brains is a myth. Humans not only use the whole brain all the time but also spend about 20% of their entire energy on it. Babies use 65% of their entire energy to keep the brain functioning. 

In terms of its size and material, it is no different from the brains of animals such as dogs or hamsters, but its efficiency and uniqueness are attributed to the 86 billion or so neurons it contains that form trillions of connections with each other. 

The brain is divided into 3 main sections, 

  • The Cerebrum – The home of all sensory processing, personality, and emotion, it is split into 2 hemispheres.
  • The Cerebellum – Containing more than half of the neurons in the brain, it is responsible for movement and balance.
  • The Brainstem – Connecting the brain to the spine and the rest of the body, the brainstem regulates functions such as breathing and sleeping.
  • The Hypothalamus – Peanut sized, it controls the chemical functions of the brain and regulates sexual drive, hunger, and thirst, and how we age. 

Earlier in the 19 th century, the disciplines of craniometry and phrenology emerged due to the belief of some scientists that the size and shape of one’s head can help deduce some aspects of one’s personality. 

While these disciplines were termed bogus later on, it is still true that the human head has many amazing features.  The head houses the organs responsible for the 3 key senses – sight, smell, and hearing, which are in turn processed by the brain.

The face has the amazing ability of expressivity. While there is a multitude of expressions, there are 6 universal ones, namely – pleasure, anger, disgust, fear, sorrow, and surprise. Without to ability to independently control the muscles that generate these emotions, no human can fake them.

The Heart And All That Flows Within

Ironically, the heart symbol that is a unanimous expression of love world-over, has no connection to the human heart whatsoever. There is nothing romantic about its shape and neither does it have any connections with emotion. Our notion of its placement to the left of the chest is wrong too.

Yet its remarkability lies in the single, crucial job it does – pumping blood through the body.

Placed more towards the centre, the heart beats an average of 3.5 billion times through an average lifespan and pumps about 260 litres of blood per hour. One powerful thrust of the heart sends blood down 4 feet on average, and then travels back up against gravity, carrying oxygen, transporting chemicals, killing pathogens, eliminating waste and regulating body temperature, all at once! It is a multifaceted function, and a complicated one too, enabling doctors to gain a lot of information through just one blood test.

Blood is made up of four main components.

  • Plasma is the main component of blood, containing various chemicals in 90% of water.
  • The red blood cells are the oxygen delivery boys.
  • White blood cells are the infection-fighting army.
  • Platelets help the blood clot and also help in regenerating tissue.

Today, we casually throw around sentences discussing blood transfusions, without realising how complex the procedures that doctors perform really are. 

Earlier, blood treatments were emblematic of the lack of knowledge we had about blood. George Washington is an important example of this. During his treatment, doctors had let out about 40% of the blood within 2 days; while the world still thinks he died of a throat infection.

Today, our understanding of blood is much better, enabling us to transfuse, store, and even try to create artificial blood (though with little success). Medical advancements aside, we can rest in the knowledge that the heart will go on… pumping what some of the worlds finest cant completely reproduce yet!

Mysterious Hormones

Hormones are truly mysterious. Though they lie in one part of the body, they have the ability to cause effect in another part, by delivering chemicals to different parts of the body. Hormones are diverse and scientists have only recently begun studying them. 

Diabetes is a classic example of how hormones affect the body. Diabetes is caused when the body is unable to produce enough insulin, making the body unable to regulate sugar. Diabetics before 1920 lived a death sentence, with stopping eating being the only defence.

In his book The Discovery of Insulin , Michael Bliss calls the discovery and the ability of scientists to produce insulin, a resurrection for all mankind. The effects of administered insulin were miraculous – a medical triumph.

Robert Waldow of Illinois is another example of the wonders of hormones. Being the tallest person that ever lived, Waldow was over 8 feet tall when he graduated and 8 feet 11 inches tall when he died at the age of 22 of a septic infection he caught due to his leg braces, meant to support his height. He kept growing taller due to a problem in his ‘baked bean-sized pituitary gland that produced too much growth hormone. It is amazing to think that such a small organ can have such huge effects.

Hormones are still a mystery to humankind. While some effects can be explained, many remain mysterious. Oxytocin, for example, is known for generating feelings of affection. However, it also helps direct contraction of the uterus during labour and also helps in facial recognition. The how and why of the connections of these tasks are still a mystery.

The Unique Skeleton

The human body has 206 bones. However, one in every eight people has a thirteenth rib. Additionally, the body also has sesamoid bones – or bones that are sesame-sized – near the hands, feet, and the rest of the body that aren’t counted.

We know for sure that the bones give the body structure, protect the inner organs, store chemicals, and make blood cells. However, in the early 2000s, it was discovered that bones also produce a hormone called osteocalcin, the reason why regular exercise also reduces the risks of Alzheimer’s.

The hand has 29 bones, 17 muscles, 123 named ligaments, and assorted arteries and nerves. Additionally, the forearm has 18 muscles that control these. The manner in which all these are connected and function is so amazing that Sir Charles Bell, the 19th-century Scottish surgeon called flexibility that ensues from these connections proof of divine creation. 

While most primates have an opposable thumb, humans have a unique trio of muscles –the  extensor pollicis brevis ,  flexor pollicis longus , and  first volar interosseous of Henle – in the thumb that enables effective manipulation of tools.

Bipedal ability also makes humans uniquely different from primates, perhaps as important as the differences in the brain. Evolution, particularly of the long necks, suppler backs, and bigger knees than other primates has enabled humans to walk upright.

However, the same unique evolution of bipedal ability has evolved women to have narrower pelvises. Childbirth for humans is thus uniquely (and excruciatingly) painful and dangerous as compared to other primates. 

Evolutionarily, humans are made for movement. Being hunter-gatherers and being on the move always for procuring food used up a lot of energy. Thus, we can’t digest food while exercising. A positive excuse for couch-slouchers if there was ever one!!

We Are What We Eat

The digestive system of the human body works primarily to kill all the harmful bacteria we ingest. The hydrochloric acid in the stomach kills microbes and helps in further softening the cooked food that is chewed. The food then progresses down to the intestines, where nutrients are absorbed, and bacteria break down fibre.

What isn’t useful comes out of the body as faeces. Faeces are made up of undigested fibre, dead cells from the blood and the intestine, dead bacteria. From all that we consume, that is all that is left. The body is adept at using everything else.

Eating, today, is considered more as a way of satisfying one’s gastronomic pleasures; however, the primary function of eating is to attain energy. Cooking food helps in extracting more energy from the food we eat. Additionally, we need to eat to ensure the body gets its nutrients such as vitamins and minerals from outside sources, as it cannot make these itself. 

Today, the concept of dieting is immensely popular world-over. Despite the innumerable diet plans and methods available, dietary science is still flawed. The body needs the essential five – carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fibre, and it is impossible to ascertain who needs how much of these as every person has a different body make and lifestyle.

However, there is one thing certain. Humans consume much more sugar than they need to. Considering all that the body uses from the food consumed, we need to stop and think – how much sugar are we letting the body consume.

The problem lies not only in the fast-food culture that has taken the world by storm. Even the average fruit has been enhanced and produced to taste sweeter. The WHO recommends only five teaspoons of added sugar a day as the upper limit for consumption. The fact that the average American consumes 22, counting the amount consumed in processed foods is alarming. The odds are certainly stacked against humans, and habits are to blame!

Sleeping Right

We spend about a third of our lifetime sleeping. No one has been able to pinpoint the importance of it. Yet, sleep does so much for the human body. It helps reset the immune system, hormones, our memories, and much, much more.

We lose consciousness when we sleep. While there must be a sound reason for it, no one really knows it. Sleep researcher Allen Rectschaffen, says that sleep either does something very important or is an evolutionary mistake of unique proportions.

There are many processes that help indicate sleeping time to the body. Along with the rods and cones in the eyes, it was discovered in 1999 that the eyes have a third photoreceptor – the photosensitive  retinal ganglion cells. These detect brightness, telling the body when its night and day. These cells can also help some blind people know when light is switched on or off. 

The body also has a number of internal circadian clock s – chemical mechanisms found in the pancreas to the kidneys, that respond to the time of the day. Different circadian cycles have their own schedules: one such cycle, for example, prescribes that our reflexes are best in the middle of the afternoon.

The pineal gland in the brain tracks seasons, similar to hibernating animals. This makes the body function differently in different seasons. The faster growth of hair in the summer is one such example.

In addition, stages of life have different circadian cycles. The amount of sleep a human need decreases as we age. A baby needs about 19 hours of sleep, whereas, it is commonly found that the elderly suffer from a lack of sleep. Young adults need more sleep than they usually get, and hence, teenagers seem to be lazier than their parents. 

Women And Childbirth

Sexism has, unfortunately, affected gender sciences too. Women have been studied far lesser than men have. In fact, Nettie Stevens, the female scientist who discovered the Y chromosome that men have and women don’t, did not even get the credit for her discovery because a man discovered it too, roughly at the same time in 1905.

Until recently, a number of drug trials have excluded women due to the fact that menstrual cycles could skew their results. However, it is essential to account for menstruation in drug trial results. It is an important determiner why some drugs affect women differently.

While the male anatomy has been widely researched, the female anatomy is grossly under-researched. Menopause and menstruation were not studied at all.

Childbirth and pregnancy are under-researched too. For example, the placenta plays a vital role in the development of the foetus. It filters toxins, kills anything that could harm the foetus and even distributes hormones. Yet it is one of the least understood organs. Most of the problems women face during pregnancy result from problems in the placenta rather than the foetus itself.

Childbirth itself is miraculous and strange. Just as the womb drains away from the amniotic fluid, a baby’s heart and lungs start working. No one yet knows what triggers it. 

A newborn baby’s head is, on average about an inch wider than the birth canal, owning to why childbirth is so excruciatingly painful. 

Another wondrous thing about the body and childbirth can be seen in the long-term effects of birthing a baby naturally (through the birth canal) and via Caesarean section. Though still developing, research indicates that microbes present in the birth canal could be the reason why children delivered via the Caesarean section could have a greater chance of developing Type 1 diabetes and asthma. Exposure to a mother’s microbes may make a notable difference to the long-term health of individuals.

Fighting Diseases

We have treaded a long successful path when it comes to fighting diseases. In fact, 2011, a notable year in the history of fighting diseases, saw more deaths from non-communicable diseases than communicable ones. Deaths due to stroke and heart failure topped lists, whereas there were lesser deaths caused by viruses. This can be attributed to medical sciences as well as changes in lifestyle.

Earlier, communicable diseases wreaked hell on humanity. Diphtheria once killed as many as fifteen thousand people a year in the US alone. Today, deaths caused by diphtheria are rare. Medical sciences have been able to render smallpox – one of the world’s most rampant infectious diseases  – extinct as of 1980.

Science knows about seven thousand non-communicable genetic diseases. Furthermore, there are some non-communicable diseases, which are extremely rare. pycnodysostosis is one such example, where the growth of the legs stops after puberty. There have been only 200 known cases so far. Diseases such as pycnodysostosis , due to their rarity aren’t studied as much and thus have no effective treatments.

Professor Daniel Leiberman of Harvard also names a category of diseases mismatch diseases. These diseases are caused due to the discrepancy between current lifestyles and the evolution of the human body to match the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors. Cardiovascular diseases and Type 2 Diabetes are examples, where changes in lifestyles can help avoid them.

Another disease that instils fear among humans is cancer. The study of the uncontrollable division of cells that causes the body to attack itself is still in its nascent stages, despite having improved treatments year on year. Cancer, according to Neuroscientist Patrick Wall, is the ‘apogee of pointlessness’. The pain caused by cancer in the later stages, and chronic pain (though a veritable indication of danger) are examples of how the body, though wondrous and miraculous, can malfunction anytime.

The Inevitability Of Death

According to Harvard physiologist Lawrence Henderson, at some point between 1900 and 1912, the chances of a patient having a successful doctor’s visit improved by 50%. Medical progress kept improving from that point onwards.

British epidemiologist Thomas McKeon hypothesized that since the beginning of the 19 th century, in addition to improvements in medicine; there was a clear improvement in living standards such as better sanitation, better diet (owing to the fact that railways facilitated the delivery of fresher food to many places). The decline in deaths caused by a number of diseases including measles and tuberculosis started even before the treatments were available.

Scientists still do not know why humans age. However, treatment for diseases is only a temporary solution to stave off death. The lifespan of an individual depends on a number of factors. However, according to Lieberman a person, on average, can live till the age of 80 following a healthy lifestyle. However, the chances of an individual living longer than that depend on genes.

There are many theories stating that today’ younger humans will be able to live 50% longer in the future. But we are still a long way from turning these theories into reality.

The human race has come a long way in discovering some of the secrets of the human body. Medical sciences have unlocked the mysteries of many functions of the body. Despite the discoveries and the knowledge we have gained, it still amounts to a mere drop in the vast ocean. 

We still have much to learn and understand about the functioning of the human body, the diseases that affect us, and the world surrounding us.


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Bill Bryson returns with The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson will return this year with a new book: a wonderful successor to A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Bill Bryson: The Body

The Body: A Guide for Occupants  is an extraordinary exploration of the human body which will have you marvelling at the form you occupy. If you’ve ever wondered what really goes on inside your head, heart and beyond, Bill Bryson will help you understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.

In the bestselling, prize-winning  A Short History of Nearly Everything  Bill achieved the seemingly impossible by making the science of our world both understandable and entertaining to millions of people around the globe. Now he turns his attention inwards to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. 

Bill Bryson explains what inspired him to take on this exciting and ambitious project:  ‘We spend our whole lives in one body and yet most of us have practically no idea how it works and what goes on inside it. The idea of the book is simply to try to understand the extraordinary contraption that is us. What I learned is that we are infinitely more complex and wondrous, and often more mysterious, than I had ever suspected.  There really is no story more amazing than the story of us.’

The Body will be published by Transworld on 3 October 2019 and is now available to pre-order.

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The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill bryson.

450 pages, Hardcover

First published October 15, 2019

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Profile Image for Emily May.

" The fact is we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak today than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven't had another experience like that isn't because we have been especially vigilant. It's because we have been lucky."

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“The great paradox of the brain is that everything you know about the world is provided to you by an organ that has itself never seen that world. The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has no pain receptors, literally no feelings. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze. To your brain, the world is just a stream of electrical pulses, like taps of Morse code. And out of this bare and neutral information it creates for you—quite literally creates—a vibrant, three-dimensional, sensually engaging universe. Your brain is you. Everything else is just plumbing and scaffolding.”
“We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
“And that’s you gone. But it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

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"The back of your head is a modest ligament, not found on other apes, that instantly betrays what it is about us that allowed us to thrive as a species. It is the nuchal ligament and it has just one job: to hold the head steady when running. And running – serious, dogged, long-distance running – is the one thing we do superlatively well. We are not the speediest of creatures, as anyone who has ever chased a dog or cat or even an escaped hamster will know. The very fastest humans can run about 20 miles an hour, though only for short bursts. But put us up against an antelope or wildebeest on a hot day and allow us to trot after it, and we can run it into the ground. We perspire to keep cool, but quadrupedal mammals lose heat by respiration – by panting. If they can't stop to collect themselves, they overheat and become helpless. Most large animals can't run for more than about 15 kilometres before they drop. That our ancestors could also organize themselves into hunting parties, to harry quarry from different sides or drive prey into confined spaces, made us all the more effective. Fossil evidence suggests that early hominins were walking by about six million years ago, but needed an additional four million years to acquire the capabilities for endurance running and, with it, persistence hunting.
Unlike the rest of the body, the palms don't sweat in response to physical exertion or heat, but only from stress. Emotional sweating is what is measured in lie-detector tests.
Before penicillin, the closest thing to a wonder drug that existed was Salvarsan, but it was effective against only a few things, principally syphilis, and had a lot of drawbacks. For a start, it was made from arsenic, so was toxic, and treatment consisted of injecting roughly a pint of solution into the patient's arm once a week for 50 weeks or more. The (current) rate of antibiotic withdrawals – because they don't work any more or have become obsolete – is twice the rate of new introductions. The obvious consequence of this is that the arsenal of drugs we have to treat bacterial infections has been going down and there is no sign of it stopping. What makes this much worse is that a great deal of our antibiotic use is simply crazy. Almost three-quarters of the forty million antibiotic prescriptions written each year in the United States are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics..... Even more appallingly, in the United States 80 per cent of antibiotics are fed to farm animals, mostly to fatten them. Fruit growers can also use antibiotics to combat bacterial infections in their crops. In consequence, most Americans consume second-hand antibiotics in their food ... without knowing it. On some diseases penicillin now has no effect at all. In consequence, the death rate from infectious diseases has been climbing and is back to the level of about forty years ago...... As a doctor put it to me: ‘We are looking at a possibility where we can't do hip replacements or other routine procedures because the risk of infection is too high.’ The day when people die once again from the scratch of a rose thorn may not be far away. Antibiotics are about as nuanced as a hand grenade. They wipe out good microbes as well as bad. Increasing evidence shows that some of the good ones may never recover, to our permanent cost. Most people in the Western world, by the time they reach adulthood, have received between five and twenty courses of antibiotics. The effects, it is feared, may be cumulative, with each generation passing on fewer microorganisms than the one before. Producing new drugs is expensive. All but two of the eighteen largest pharmaceutical companies in the world have given up the search for new antibiotics. People take antibiotics for only a week or two. Much better to focus on drugs like statins or antidepressants that people can take more or less indefinitely.
Funk didn't discover vitamins but merely speculated, correctly, as to their existence. But since no one could produce these strange elements, many authorities refused to accept their reality. Sir James Barr, president of the British Medical Association, dismissed them as ‘a figment of the imagination’ There is disagreement over what precisely we do need. In America, the daily recommended dose of vitamin E is 15 milligrams, but in the UK it is 3 to 4 milligrams – a very considerable difference. Even today vitamins are an ill-defined entity. The term describes 13 chemical oddments that we need to function smoothly but are unable to manufacture for ourselves. Though we tend to think of them as closely related, they mostly have little in common apart from being useful to us.
Smell is said to account for at least 70 per cent of flavour and maybe even as much as 90 per cent. "When you eat, most of the aroma reaches you not through your nostrils but by the back staircase of your nasal passage, what is known as the retronasal route – as opposed to the orthonasal route up your nose. Many tests have been done to demonstrate how easily we are fooled with respect to flavour. In a blind taste test at the University of Bordeaux students in the Faculty of Oenology were given two glasses of wine, one red and one white. The wines were actually identical except that one had been made a rich red with an odourless and flavourless additive. The students without exception listed entirely different qualities for the two wines. That wasn't because they were inexperienced or naive. It was because their sight led them to have entirely different expectations, and this powerfully influenced what they sensed when they took a sip from either glass. In exactly the same way, if an orange-flavoured drink is coloured red, you cannot help but taste it as cherry.
The appendix, has no certain purpose but kills about 80,000 people around the world every year when it ruptures or grows infected..... Now the best thinking is that the appendix serves as a reservoir for gut bacteria.
It isn't just a big brain that allows us to speak, but an exquisite arrangement of anatomy. One reason chimpanzees can't talk is that they appear to lack the ability to make subtle shapes with tongue and lips to form complex sounds. The bottom line is that we ended up with brains big enough to handle complex thoughts and vocal tracts uniquely able to articulate them." Stuttering affects 1 per cent of adults and 4 per cent of children. For reasons unknown, 80 per cent of sufferers are male. It is more common among left-handers than right-handers, especially those who have been made to write right-handed. For many, the stammering miraculously ceases when they sing their words, speak in a foreign language or talk to themselves. The majority of speakers recover from the condition by their teenage years and females seem to recover more easily than men .
Most other mammals never suffer strokes, and for those that do it is a rare event. But for humans, it is the second most common cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization. Why this should be is something of a mystery.
The 18th & 19th centuries were very bad....medicine sank into a kind of dark age. You could hardly imagine more misguided and counterproductive practices than those to which physicians became attached in the eighteenth century, and even much of the nineteenth. Bleeding people was one of those aberrations. It may seem to us self-evidently foolhardy to bleed and pummel a person who is already severely ill, but such practices lasted an extraordinarily long time. Bleeding was thought to be beneficial not just for illness, but to instil calm. Frederick the Great of Germany was bled before battle just to soothe his jangled nerves. Bleeding bowls were treasured within families and passed on as heirlooms.... Why did bleeding persist for so long? The answer is that until well into the nineteenth century most doctors approached diseases not as distinct afflictions, each requiring its own treatment, but as generalized imbalances affecting the whole body. They didn't give one drug for headaches and another for, say, ringing in the ears, but rather endeavoured to bring the whole body back into a state of equilibrium by purging it of toxins through the administration of cathartics, emetics and diuretics, or by relieving the victim of a bowl or two of blood. George Washington was probably killed this way by his doctors.
Altogether humans are afflicted by some fifty types of autoimmune disease, and the numbers are rising. Take Crohn's disease... When it was recognised in 1932 it affected on person in 50,000..... Then it became one in 10,000, then one in 5,000. Today the proportion is one in 250 and still rising. Why this has happened no one can say. Daniel Lieberman suggests that the overuse of antibiotics and the consequent depletion of our microbial reserves may have made us more susceptible to all autoimmune diseases, but acknowledges that the 'causes remain elusive'. Equally bewildering is that autoimmune diseases are grossly sexist..... Altogether, 80 per cent of all autoimmune diseases occur in women. Hormones are the presumed culprit but how exactly female hormones trip up the immune system when male hormones don't is not at all clear.
A person who smokes cigarettes regularly (about a pack a day) is fifty times more likely than a non-smoker to get cancer.... Yet it took for ever to gain consensus that smoking caused lung cancer. It seems crazy to us today but it wasn't so crazy to people back then. The problem was that a huge proportion of people smoked – 80 per cent of all men by the late 1940s – yet only some of them developed lung cancer. And some people who didn't smoke also developed lung cancer. So it was not especially straightforward to see a direct link between smoking and cancer. When lots of people are doing something and only some of them are dying from it, it makes it hard to impute blame to a single cause. Things have changed. Today just 18 per cent of Americans smoke and it is easy to think that we have pretty much solved the problem. But it's not quite as simple as that. Nearly one-third of people below the poverty line still smoke, and the habit continues to account for one-fifth of all deaths. It is a problem we are a long way from rectifying.
"According to one study, the number of bacteria on you actually rises after a bath or shower because they are flushed out from nooks and crannies. The problem with antibacterial soaps is that they kill good bacteria on your skin as well as bad. The same is true of hand sanitizers

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“A study in Switzerland found that flu virus can survive on a banknote for two and a half weeks if it is accompanied by a microdot of snot.” “If you’ve ever wondered why no one wants to kiss you first thing in the morning, it is possibly because your exhalations may contain up to 150 different chemical compounds” including “methyl mercaptan (which smells like very old cabbage), hydrogen sulphide (like rotten eggs), dimethyl sulphide (slimy seaweed)”, etc. “Even with the advantage of clothing, shelter and boundless ingenuity, humans can manage to live on only about 12 per cent of Earth’s land area” “Altogether there are about seven thousand rare diseases – so many that about one person in seventeen in the developed world has one, which isn’t very rare at all. But, sadly, so long as a disease affects only a small number of people it is unlikely to get much research attention. For 90 per cent of rare diseases there are no effective treatments at all.”

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Our bodies are a universe of 37.2 trillion cells operating in more or less perfect concert more or less all of the time. ... The miracle of human life is not that we are endowed with some frailties but we are not swamped by them. ... You truly are a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.
As with so much in life, getting the balances right is delicate business. Suicide by lifestyles takes ages.
... photons of light have no color, sound waves no sound, olfactory molecules no odors. ... All the richness of life is created inside your head. What you see is not what is but what your brain tells you it is, and that's not the same thing at all. ... color isn't a fixed reality but a perception.
The paradox of genetics is that we are all very different and yet genetically practically identical. All humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA. "People act as if skin color is a determinant of character when all it is is a reaction to sunlight. Biologically, there is actually no such thing as race - nothing in terms of skin color, facial features, hair type, bone structure or anything else that is a defining quality among peoples." - Nina Jablonski

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The Body Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Body helps you become smarter about how to take care of and use this mechanism that lets you have life by explaining how it’s put together, what happens on the inside, and how it works.

Favorite quote from the author:

The Body Summary

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When was the last time you stopped to think about your body and how miraculous it is? It’s pretty wondrous if you think about it. Our bodies are mysterious and complex, even to those who spend their lives studying them. Bill Bryson ’s book The Body: An Occupant’s Guide  reveals some of the surprising details that cutting-edge science has told us about our bodies. 

You will be both entertained and fascinated as Bryson explores the human body and explains many of its remarkable abilities you probably don’t think much about. You’ll learn about everything from the ambiguous need we all have for sleep to what we know about the role of the millions of microbes that reside inside our body. By the time you’re done reading, you will marvel at the weirdness and utter brilliance of your human body. 

Here are the 3 coolest lessons I got to discover about our bodies:

  • Your body is not your own, you share it with trillions of microbes that are vital to your survival.
  • The brain is a mysterious and extraordinary organ you probably take for granted. 
  • The new challenge for us as a species now comes from chronic diseases instead of communicable ones, but death is coming for us all anyway. 

How do our insides work? Let’s find out!

If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.

Lesson 1: Trillions of tiny microbes share your body with you wouldn’t be able to live without them.

Most of us probably don’t like to think about the trillions of microbes living inside and on the outside of us. But really, we should be grateful for them. After all, we not only need them to function but to exist. 

One place they are particularly invaluable is in our digestive system. They not only help us break down food to make energy, but they make the vast majority of our digestive enzymes. In truth, microbes in our bodies are basically another organ.  

In addition to bacteria, we also have viruses. It’s okay though, because of the hundreds of thousands of viruses we know of, only 263 of them make us sick . We also are home to archaea, fungi, and protists, other microscopic organisms that do us little to no harm. 

With the advances of medicine in the last century, we have the ability to fight microbes with antibiotics. Unfortunately, antibiotics come with a weakness: they kill our good bacteria too. Also problematic is the fact that the more they are used, the less effective they get due to bacteria’s ability to develop resistance to them. 

Because of this, we are essentially in a crisis in modern medicine where antibiotics are prescribed too widely, leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs.” Combine this with the problem of people not taking them as directed and the rise of antibiotics in farm animals we consume, and it is becoming a mounting threat for society.

Lesson 2: Your brain is a mysterious and sometimes misunderstood organ that has a miraculous design.

The whole body is really brilliant in its design, but one particularly remarkable component is your brain . It’s also a strange and isolated organ that is sealed off from the outside world. Around 75 percent of it is water , making it a soft, spongy ball that somehow makes us who we are.

There is a myth you often hear that we only use a small portion of our brain’s capacity. This isn’t even a little bit true. We use the whole thing, and it takes 20 percent of our energy to do so. But it’s also really efficient and only needs as many calories as a muffin to function every day.  

It’s composed of 86 billion neurons with trillions of connections between them. In short, there are three main sections: the cerebrum, cerebellum, the brainstem. The cerebrum is the two hemispheres that are responsible for personality, sensory processing, and emotions. 

This is where three of our key senses are based including hearing, sight, and smell. The cerebellum helps us balance and move. The brainstem makes sure that we stay alive by regulating breathing and sleeping. 

Our expressions, which come from the brain, are amazingly broad. Each of us has the ability to produce thousands of different expressions. The six that scientists believe to be universal include fear, surprise, pleasure, anger, disgust, and sorrow.

Lesson 3: We are now more threatened by chronic diseases than infectious ones, but our death will inevitably come either way.

In the year 2011, we crossed a threshold where there were more deaths from non-communicable diseases like heart disease than communicable ones like viruses. This shows us two things: we have come really far with medical science and fighting infectious disease, but we are also letting lifestyles play a bigger role in our deaths. 

Infectious diseases like smallpox used to be rampant in society. Smallpox took around 500 million lives in just the 20th century. But with advances in modern medicine such as vaccines, antibiotics, better sanitation, and a clearer understanding of diseases has helped us overcome the majority of these communicable diseases. 

Now, because of lifestyles changing to be more sedentary and unhealthy eating habits more present, we face different challenges like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. These are known sometimes as mismatch diseases because they are the result of a discrepancy between modern life and our hunter-gatherer genes passed down through evolution. 

But avoiding death eventually becomes impossible for even the healthiest of us. Scientists tell us that it’s possible to get to the age of 80 with a healthy lifestyle alone, but after that, it’s mostly down to your genes.

Today, only one in ten thousand of us gets to the age of a hundred. Around 60 million people die a year. Of those deaths, one-fifth will be sudden, and another fifth are short notice. As for the other three, they will be more slow and gradual as conditions worsen.

The Body Review

This is one of those book summaries where I feel like I was only able to scratch the surface! The Body is jam-packed with fascinating facts and mysteries about our bodies. It’s also very well-written and witty, making it an easy and enjoyable read for anyone and everyone. It will leave you both fascinated and in awe of the body you probably don’t think much about.

Who would I recommend The Body summary to?

The 59-year-old who loves science, the 39-year-old doctor, and anybody that wants to know how their body works.

Last Updated on July 23, 2023

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Luke Rowley

With over 450 summaries that he contributed to Four Minute Books, first as a part-time writer, then as our full-time Managing Editor until late 2021, Luke is our second-most prolific writer. He's also a professional, licensed engineer, working in the solar industry. Next to his day job, he also runs Goal Engineering, a website dedicated to achieving your goals with a unique, 4-4-4 system. Luke is also a husband, father, 75 Hard finisher, and lover of the outdoors. He lives in Utah with his wife and 3 kids.

*Four Minute Books participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising commissions by linking to Amazon. We also participate in other affiliate programs, such as Blinkist, MindValley, Audible, Audiobooks, Reading.FM, and others. Our referral links allow us to earn commissions (at no extra cost to you) and keep the site running. Thank you for your support.

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The Body by Bill Bryson

The Body Summary & Study Guide

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The Body Summary & Study Guide Description

The following version of this book was used to create this guide: Bryson, Bill. The Body: A Guide for Occupants . Doubleday, 2019.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is best-selling author Bill Bryson’s comprehensive tour of the body and its processes. The book contains 23 chapters focused largely on parts of the body, including “The Brain,” Chapter 4, “The Head,” Chapter 5 and the “Immune System,” Chapter 12. The book also contains a number of chapters that deal with the body’s processes and occurrences, including Chapter 10, “Bipedalism and Exercise,” and Chapter 20, “When things Go Wrong: Diseases.” The book serves as a sweeping tour of everything an ordinary person might want to know about his or her body. It includes recent scientific studies on everything from the human microbiome to the G-spot and uses a great deal of humor to impart wisdom. Bryson attempts to instill wonder in readers about their bodies while also dispelling common myths. In the end, he creates an image of the body as a mysterious, marvelous universe that might never be fully understood by medical science. He argues that modern lifestyles are harming human health and that we should all pay more attention to our bodies.

The book addresses a number of themes connected to medicine and human understanding of our bodies including how much medical science still does not know about our bodies. Bryson points out that although medical science has made incredible breakthroughs, we still have much to learn about many parts of our bodies including: the brain, the immune system, our microbiome and even why we sleep or cry emotional tears. The book deals with many episodes from medical science’s past, including a cast of eccentric scientist characters, many of whom made incredible advancements without adhering to ethics. Additionally, Bryson reveals that, in its past, medicine often confirmed dominant societal biases including sexism and racism. Medical treatment for women has long been unequal, Bryson notes, and rates of mother and infant mortality in the United States are still somewhat alarming. The book also includes a discussion of how some sought to use medical science to prove racist ideas that white male Europeans were superior to other races.

Several chapters use graphic detail to impart the cruelty of medicine in the past, including descriptions of painful breast cancer surgeries and lobotomies. Bryson notes medical advancements made at the cost of the lives of war prisoners during WWII when the Japanese and the Germans experimented widely and cruelly on them. The latter parts of the book deal with the cost of medical treatment, exorbitantly high in the United States, and why this does not lead to better care for patients. Bryson calls out the pharmaceutical drug industry for its role in the opioid crises and other breeches of ethics and tells the story of how cigarette manufacturers managed to discredit scientific information about the link between smoking and lung cancer for decades. In all, he shows how far medicine and understanding of the human body has come, while also pointing out we have a long way to go.

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