Yesterday, I finished reading Atul Gawande’s fascinating 2002 book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. This is the first of his four books – all of them bestsellers – and I read his other three books earlier this year. I’m staying on track to read by far more books than I had planned to as part of my New Year’s Resolution, so that’s nice. Also, unlike in December 2015, when I only discussed the top three books I read, in December 2016, I plan to cover all of the books I’ve read that year. I’ll do it in one blog post, with one paragraph for each book, plus some additional commentary. Complications is already the fourteenth book I’ve read in 2016, so that blog post will be super-long. (It’s currently in a draft state behind the scenes so that I don’t have to write it all at once.) Stay tuned until December 31, 2016, everyone!

But anyway, I wanted to comment on a particularly interesting portion of the book. In a chapter describing a pregnant woman’s intense nausea which mystified her doctors (hence the title of the book), the following text came up:

In 1882, the Harvard psychologist William James observed that certain deaf people were immune to seasickness, and since then a great deal of attention has been focused on the role of the vestibular system—the inner ear components that enable us to track our position in space. Scientists came to believe that vigorous motion overstimulates this system, producing signals in the brain that trigger nausea and vomiting.

My first reaction was: hey, this is pretty cool! And this was done in 1882? Really?

Just to give my personal experience: while I’ve occasionally had mild cases of nausea, I can’t recall ever feeling sea sickness1, or any kind of motion sickness. I’m a huge fan of roller coasters, for instance, and I can ride them often without feeling sick. To make the point clear: when I was in eighth grade, I rode the Boomerang Roller Coaster at The Great Escape twenty-five times – in one day. (Ahh … those memories of empty lines and being able to quickly exit the coaster and race to get back on.)

It’s pretty cool to think about being immune to something. My mind wandered to thoughts about whether deaf people might be immune to things such as deadly diseases. I remembered that passage at the start of The Death Cure when the Rat-Man told Thomas2: “The Flare virus lives in every part of your body, yet it has no effect on you, nor will it ever. You’re a member of an extremely rare group of people. You’re immune to the Flare.”.

I thought about some of these things as I read through the rest of Complications, so after I finished the book, I decided to briefly investigate further. Here is what I found.

  • First, it’s clear that it’s not deafness that causes the so-called “immunity” but, as Gawande points out, the condition of the vestibular system. I’m not sure as to whether a weakened vestibular system is the cause for my deafness. I was deaf since birth and as far as I know, there’s no explanation for it besides the randomness of genetics.

  • One of the most commonly cited sources for this fact (or “myth” as some might call it) is an old 1968 paper called Symptomatology under storm Conditions in the North Atlantic in Control Subjects and in Persons with Bilateral Labyrinthine Defects. Yeah, the title is pretty bad but the paper showed that in an experiment, a few deaf people did not experience seasickness.

  • The original source, William James’ 1882 “study” is called “the sense of dizziness in deaf-mutes”, but I can’t figure out a way to access it; it’s trapped behind several websites that restrict access (ugh). I can’t even use my Berkeley credentials. All of my knowledge about that paper therefore comes from third-party sources.

  • Almost all other sources about this topic are from really random and ancient research or (worse) newspaper articles. Here’s one example from a 1986 article on the SunSentinel, and it’s pretty lame. Also, I tend not to trust articles that appear on ad-heavy websites.

So yeah, there isn’t that much focus on deafness so far as the vestibular system. Shucks.

As I was reading through these ancient sources (well, the ones I could access), I also wondered about the evolutionary benefit of being deaf. I can’t think of any, unless deafness somehow came with another benefit to counteract its negative effects. I hope it’s some secret immunity.

I mean, think about how bad life would have been during the years humans have lived. If I had been born in 1800, for instance, I wouldn’t have had access to the high-quality hearing aids I’m wearing as I type this blog post. In fact, the best kind of “hearing aid” I could have used would be those terrifying (and ineffective) ear trumpets. Ugh.

Going further, consider the prototypical “cavemen”. For them, having good hearing would be more important than it is for humans today; there was no sort of disability law and little to no visible communication mediums (e.g. writing) to compensate.

This line of reasoning could also extend to other disabilities. Why do they keep appearing in our population? A quick Google search of “evolutionary benefit of disabilities” resulted in several random, small news articles after another, hardly convincing evidence. Another, non-disability related one might be homosexuality; indeed, that was one of the choices of text that Google suggested for me when I was typing “evolutionary benefit of”. It seems to be fairly accepted that homosexuality is not a choice, but then this raises the question: what is its evolutionary benefit? And what about, er, this kind of stuff? All right, that’s enough of this thinking for today.

  1. Admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of my time on boats. 

  2. The Death Cure is the third book in The Maze Runner series, and the Flare is a deadly disease that infected and killed most of the world’s population.