Integrating Learning Health Systems into Medical Education


The original concepts behind learning health systems (LHS) were meant to address myriad concerns within the field of Western medicine, ranging from the high cost of healthcare (and resulting need for clinicians to provide greater overall value of care to their patients) to the wasteful gap of time between scientific innovations and their implementation within clinical environments. Although LHS have displayed much promise, and have begun to hasten the pace at which new insights can be put into real-time medical practice, they have faced significant stumbling blocks along the way. The reasons for this slow progress revolve around the ways in which LHS demand that clinicians learn not only new skills, but also new ways of thinking and making inquiries. In this arena, clinicians entering the workforce for the first time have a distinct advantage. They learn the basic philosophy and applications of LHS as a part of their baseline training, without needing to unlearn ingrained mental habits that are the result of old practice models. The influx of a new generation of clinicians promises to expedite the growth of LHS into a universal standard.


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Our technological progress has outstripped the capacity for traditional Western medicine to access and make constructive use of its innovations. New medical knowledge is generated at such a fast rate that it threatens to overwhelm clinicians. Our health system is constantly confronted with more options than it has the capacity to implement. High healthcare costs, and concerns about the quality of care being provided, have heaped further strain upon its resources. Clinical directors feel a financial imperative to ascertain what really works in medical practice, to draw upon practice-based evidence, and to implement this knowledge quickly.[i] Within such a climate, clinicians find themselves struggling to provide better and more affordable healthcare to a growing population of patients while continuing to educate themselves about the newest procedures that scientific innovation makes available.

Background and Significance

The concept of learning health systems (LHS) was first conceived as a means of rapidly converting scientific evidence into medical practice. It also envisioned a scenario wherein the relationship between medicine and scientific inquiry would be more reciprocal – i.e., research would be more closely aligned with the sorts of questions that practicing clinicians urgently needed answers for. Nowadays, the LHS model has begun to prove its efficiency in moving scientific innovations into the real world of clinical application. Figure 1: Learning Health Systems Data Flow to Outcomes

LHS FlowchartThe idea of LHS has essentially arisen in acknowledgement of the fact that innovation in itself cannot fix our nation’s healthcare system. In order for new information and evidence to have value, it must be put into use. Both clinicians and their patients benefit from the assurance that they are accessing the most state-of-the-art procedures. For too long, medical researchers and clinicians have operated in vastly different environments with incompatible timelines.[ii] This fragmentation of the health care system has taken a grievous toll in some crucial ways. Many innovations in the field of health care have taken years to finally become assimilated into common medical practice.[iii]

It isn’t economically feasible for established medicine to achieve the best possible results through the procedures that it has long relied upon. Evidence-based medicine seeks to do more with the knowledge that is generated by research. It focuses upon innovation, quality, value and safety, and continually seeks areas that are in need of improvement. LHS strive to make the best evidence available when it comes time for healthcare providers and their patients to make crucial decisions. As matters stand at the moment, many of the decision-making models that Western medicine employs were created during a time when it had access to vastly fewer information streams.

Entering a New Era

The key challenge inherent in implementing LHS is the actual dissemination of the new knowledge and evidence that is being generated by scientific research. Performing both research and clinical functions within the same organization can facilitate progress in this area. New insights and approaches must somehow reach clinical directors directly – and quickly. One key tool that has enabled the medical profession to begin adapting to the pace of change is electronic health records (EHR). Large EHR databases have been the most crucial development in the evolution of LHS.[iv] Studies of large populations can be conducted quickly and with much less expense than previously possible. Gone are the days of consuming valuable time sifting through mounds of paper records. Now a veritable mountain of health data can be aggregated, analyzed, and then disseminated throughout the medical community.

With 5.3 million patients and over 1,400 sites, the Veterans Health Administration (VA) created the largest integrated EHR of its time.[v] The journey began in 1982 with its creation of the Decentralized Hospital Computer Program (DHCH), one of the first programs to pull together various healthcare settings from multiple databases into one location. A network of other sites contributed to the evolution of this program over the next few years. Now known as VistA, it handles a wide array of functions to serve administrative, clinical and financial needs. Advances in EHR technology enable healthcare professionals to cull data from large populations and/or target their inquiries into specific health conditions. They can more easily draw conclusions about population measures of health and disease as well as the efficiency of their own performances – all while respecting the privacy of patients. Healthcare can be better coordinated between different branches of an organization. This is vital to optimizing resources within the medical infrastructure – i.e., improving the overall health of its patient constituency while reducing costs.[vi] It could be said that the overarching goal of LHS is to create an environment wherein clinicians are able to learn the best applications of new technologies at the same pace at which those technologies are being produced.

Current computer technology has opened avenues towards this reality in several ways. It’s become easier for different organizations to synchronize their efforts, both in research and implementation. This creates a kind of architecture for LHS on a national level. The evidence base that clinicians have access to has expanded significantly. Also, EHRs encourage patients to become more involved in the healthcare system. They can read their own records online as well as access other health information and online services. Some high-risk patients have in-home monitoring devices that can collect and transmit crucial information to care providers, enabling those providers to respond quickly in crisis situations. EHR also allow clinicians to identify more general trends that pertain to their practice. They can obtain a clearer picture of how well their care is working for a given individual over a period of time, for example. Data can also be cross-referenced to illustrate various drug interactions as well as low performance of certain medications across the board.

Short-Term Stumbling Blocks

EHR and other elements that are integral to LHS do not, as yet, compose a single system, but rather a series of interlinked systems – each with its own database. This limits a clinician’s ability to form general conclusions based upon all the evidence available in a certain area. Inquiries into the entire catalog of a particular patient’s history are difficult to make. Laboratory values have yet to be standardized across the field of medical practice, oftentimes making it hard to compare evidence between two or more systems. LHS can open up a much broader world of options and decisions for clinicians, and assimilate the constant stream of new evidence so that continual improvements can be made in the methods, philosophy and ideals of established medical practice. It is still in its nascent stages, however, and many changes must be implemented before it becomes a universal system. The question of data collection – particularly, when and how it may overstep a patient’s privacy rights – is one stumbling block.[vii] Concerns are often raised whenever clinicians desire access to data for any purpose beyond that of patient treatment (this is known as “secondary uses”).

Privacy laws on both state and federal levels govern how the healthcare system can collect and disclose identifiable health information. Determining when any disclosure contributes to the good of the general public is oftentimes a gray area. Federal research regulations can thus become an obstacle in the path of evolving LHS. Changes within any organization are oftentimes slow whenever they are profound enough to demand a shift in thinking. LHS represent a new model of the ways in which modern medicine can function. They essentially redefine every clinician’s role in the new paradigm. New kinds of patient-provider interactions fundamentally change the way in which medicine is practiced. How flexible can the medical profession be in examining its own belief systems and accepting new findings that contradict old “facts” – and thus call for new procedures? This can pose special challenges for clinicians who have been working in the field for a number of years. For such practitioners, old models of inquiry, research, education and procedure have become deeply ingrained. The process of unlearning must occur before the new system can be thoroughly accepted. For these reasons, LHS have not been broadly utilized by Western medicine, despite the fact that the Institute of Medicine and many prominent clinicians throughout the U.S. have long championed them.

A Possible Way Forward

These particular challenges won’t exist for clinicians entering the workforce for the first time, however. For decades, employment in the healthcare industry has been growing, undeterred even by our economic downturn. Health care opened its arms to 559,000 new employees between December of 2007, when the current recession began, and November 2009.[viii] The level of employment in healthcare-related occupations is projected to keep increasing, as well. Several factors can account for this growth. Technological advances in patient care allows for a greater number of health problems to be treated. Statistically, increasing numbers of people are seeking – and receiving – preventative care as well. What’s more, our nation’s population is both growing and aging. The baby boomers are entering a stage of life that typically involves more medical concerns and the need for added attention. Modern medical knowledge and procedure has extended the general life expectancy, creating a situation wherein our nation has a larger population of elderly people than it ever supported in the past. It is projected that by 2030 more than a fifth of the American population (70 million people) will be over the age of 65.[ix] This ensures the growth of career opportunities for geriatric health workers. The need for an influx of new employees in the field of healthcare is obvious. But advances in online educational opportunities have streamlined the training process for many people, as well, enabling them to qualify for certain positions much more quickly than workers of previous generations were able to. All of these workers entering into the field of healthcare will learn the fundamentals of LHS as part of their primary medical education.[x] [xi] This will include the increasing use of physics- and computer-based technology and training via simulation. They will not have to unlearn old mental habits before they assimilate these new models and procedures.

Using a computed health-knowledge base profoundly alters traditional roles and responsibilities within the clinical world. They demand changes in what a clinician needs to know as well as in the ways that he or she learns. But all of this is easier for people who are getting acclimated to the system for the first time, and are not steeped in older structures of medical thought. Such people will contribute greatly to the growth of LHS because they will absorb its basic principles as part of their fundamental medical education and then build upon that knowledge base for the remainder of their careers. Unhampered by previous (and now outdated) models and practices, they’ll be able to move forward with this new approach to medicine without having to fight against old ingrained habits. They will be more comfortable than their predecessors would have been in a working environment where new research constantly influences and changes existing practice.


  1. Etheredge, L. (2007). A Rapid-Learning Health System Health Affairs, 26 (2) DOI: 10.1377/hlthaff.26.2.w107
  2. A ‘learning health system’ moves from idea to action,”, August 2012.
  3. McGraw, Devin (2012) “Paving the Regulatory Road to the ‘Learning Health Care System’”  Stanford Law Review Online.
  4. Etheredge, Lynn M. “Envisioning a Rapid-Learning Healthcare System”, Institute of Medicine (US) Roundtable on Evidence-Based Medicine; Olsen LA, Aisner D, McGinnis JM, editors. The Learning Healthcare System: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2007. 4, New Approaches—Learning Systems in Progress.
  5. Chou, A., Vaughn, T., McCoy, K., & Doebbeling, B. (2011). Implementation of evidence-based practices Health Care Management Review, 36 (1), 4-17 DOI: 10.1097/HMR.0b013e3181dc8233
  6. Elmore, Rich (2012) “Toward a learning health system” The Allscripts Blog.
  7. “The Common Rule and Continuous Improvement in Health Care: A Learning Health System Perspective,” Harry Selker, Claudia Grossmann, Alyce Adams, Donald Goldmann, Christopher Dezii, Gregg Meyer, Veronique Roger, Lucy Savitz and Richard Platt. October 2011. P.6.
  8. United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Health Care, 2009.
  9. “America’s aging will increase demand for geriatric health workers,” Explore Health, 2009.
  10. The case for knowledge translation: shortening the journey from evidence to effect,”  Dave Davis, Mike Evans, Alex Jadad, Laure Perrier, Darlyne Rath, David Ryan, Gary Sibbald, Sharon Straus, Susan Rappolt, Maria Wowk, Merrick Zwarenstein. BMJ. 2003 July 5; 327(7405): 33–35.
  11.  “Training the Learning Health Professional.” Institute of Medicine (US) Roundtable on Evidence-Based Medicine; Olsen LA, Aisner D, McGinnis JM, editors. The Learning Healthcare System: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2007. 7.

Beliefs and Questions About the Paranormal


While people of different beliefs from all over the world believe in an afterlife, many of them can’t seem to agree with each other or accept views other than their own. Yet, men have talked about the supernatural since the beginning of time. Recently, authors like Bill Guggenheim, Dr. Raymond Moody, and Dr. Eben Alexander have written books that explore the existence of the consciousness after death. Read More →

Mind Over Evolution: An Alternative Vision of Humanity


Part of the reason why fierce debates rage around the origins of man – in the conflicts between Creationism and Darwinism that we see within many schools, for example – is because our beliefs about where we came from can strongly influence our sense of identity and our feelings of self-worth. It’s impossible to separate our self-image from our life philosophies in that regard. The stories we cling to will paint our inner pictures of who we are, where we come from and what our race can achieve.

Unfortunately, the stories that we’ve inherited in our culture paint a fairly unflattering picture that does little to inspire us to discover and express our true potential in this world.

Science spins its own version of reality. If you believe that the sky is blue because of the chemical composition of the gases that exist up there, and the way that light refracts off of them, then that’s all you’ll ever see. You won’t perceive the unfathomable mystery of it all. What is the true nature of light, or gases, or the color blue? Questions like these are beyond our ken. The theory of evolution teaches us that it’s useless to ask such questions anyhow, though. This theory, which forms the backbone of so much scientific thought and of our very definitions of humanity, maintains that matter came first and consciousness emerged later – almost as an afterthought; and certainly by accident.

consciousness (1)What if the mind formed matter? What if consciousness preceded everything else, and created form? Our scientific indoctrination has convinced us that reality works the other way around, but we’ve been offered little actual proof of this. What is obvious, however, is that the belief that consciousness always comes first would do much more to uphold the beauty, grace and potential of our natures than does the belief that our existence was the random result of accidental evolution.

We would do well to adopt stories that inspire us and offer us a new vision of what humanity can aspire to. When trying to grasp the nature of our reality as human beings, and drawing upon the resources that civilization offers us, we’ve thus far been essentially left with a choice between atonement (the predominant religious thinking of the West), accepting that the world we exist in is illusory (the predominant religious thinking of the East), or the theory of evolution. Typically, we are never taught or encouraged to believe that we are, ourselves, divine.

None of the arguments that uphold a notion of a barren and sterile universe can hold water. Most children know better than to believe in those wet-blanket descriptions of reality. Sadly, though, they eventually learn to accept them. How could they not, when our cultural beliefs make their survival virtually dependent upon it?

Love has to come from somewhere. But within the world’s established religions, love always has its conditions; and within the world of science, love can be explained away in terms of neurological transmissions and chemical interactions. It seems that our race, by and large, is willing to accept practically any belief except for one that maintains that what we are is something miraculous.

Most scientists or religious scholars would dispute that we are miraculous, by virtue of being conscious beings. Could it be that consciousness came first; that we did not become humans by accident? What if consciousness created our world in order to express all that it is, and to become better acquainted with itself? If this is true, how might it change the idea that consciousness will arise in machines once we’ve reverse-engineered the brain?

The Sources of Violence and Conflict Within Us

By and large, humanity has forgotten the relationship between thoughts and reality. The world that we experience is the reflection of what we carry inside us. Mystics, sages and shamans throughout the ages have tried to remind us of this fact. Western culture has largely turned its back upon such notions, however. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve increasingly viewed the world as something separate from ourselves, and thus not responsive to our inner life – something to be manipulated, tamed and conquered. Within the reality painted by such beliefs, thoughts appear to have no influence; and violence seems like power.

When we’re involved in a conflict, it is because something has touched upon an internal wound and/or we’re trying to draw energy from those around us in some way. You could apply this to personal strife as well as to larger global conflicts. Both of these stances are fueled by one underlying assumption: That we do not create our reality for ourselves, but are rather at the mercy of an exterior world separate from us.

The acknowledgment of our personal power to create reality is the key to all forms of healing and problem solving; and the misunderstanding of it is the source of all our problems and sufferings, both individually and collectively. When a country wages war upon another for the sake of resources, it is because of an underlying conviction that abundance is not really created from within. Conflict is always fueled by our ignorance of our own divinely creative natures.

This can be an empowering truth. The next time you feel overwhelmed and insignificant in the face of wars and other predicaments on a mass scale, remind yourself that this world is the mirror of your inner condition. You can then take personal responsibility, explore that inner reality, and see where you are contributing to the light and where you are creating darkness. There is no God to thank or Devil to blame. Tracing everything in our life experience back to their sources within us empowers us to direct our lives in the most positive and expansive way. It also implies that all of our conflicts and dilemmas, collectively, can be conquered with the knowledge and application of our true creative power.

No militaries would exist anywhere in the world if we did not carry the seeds of violence within ourselves. Ages ago, the use of force to settle conflicts was inspired by deep fear within our race. Some of that fear persists today, and is projected upon foreign lands that are then proclaimed our enemies. But much of the persistence of war – of the veritable addiction to violence that afflicts so many people in this world – can be attributed to an underlying sense of powerlessness.

From the standpoint of our separation from our deeper selves, hate seems more powerful than love; and war seems more effective than compassion and understanding. If we don’t understand and feel the connection between our thoughts and our outer experiences, then it seems to us that manipulating the physical environment is the only way to achieve goals and create change. In that arena, so much of the true thrust of love and consciousness becomes invisible. It seems so ineffective alongside a bomb or a machine gun. In reality, it is so much more powerful. Human consciousness created bombs and machine guns in the first place, long before human hands invented them.


Pearson DG, Ross FD, & Webster VL (2012). The importance of context: evidence that contextual representations increase intrusive memories. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 43 (1), 573-80 PMID: 21867664

Grof, S. (1996). Consciousness evolution and planetary survival: Psychological roots of Human violence and greed World Futures, 47 (4), 243-262 DOI: 10.1080/02604027.1996.9972599

Machines and Music Education

When people talk about social software, they are almost always referring to social networking. Most teachers wouldn’t want their students to check microblogging (i.e. Twitter) updates while they’re in class. On the other hand, there are some interesting uses for search algorithms that might bring technology into non-technical classes.

Recommended Reading (PDF):

Computers know very little about music. While they can reproduce tones fairly well, they usually can’t compose symphonies. Even the most synthetic electronic music isn’t truly artificial. Skilled DJs are in control when dance beats are laid down. Most music teachers use fairly basic music software in the classroom because of this fact. However, this might change in the near future.

Recommendation programs are usually associated with online retailers. Social recommendation software can actually be used to learn a great deal about people’s musical preferences. Students could spend time exploring what sort of music their classmates like to listen to. This could eventually lead to a much deeper study of musical theory. Even if computers will never be popular recording artists, there’s nothing that says they can’t be up on popular music. There’s also nothing that says that teachers shouldn’t use these algorithms to help their students understand the development of different musical genres.

Additional Learning Resources:

Lawrence Henderson’s Views Examined

Professor Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942)

Professor Lawrence J. Henderson is a fairly well known scholar in some circles. This might have to do with the fact that his lecture on astronomy was included in the Harvard Classics (1909-14). That work has now passed into the public domain, which means that readers might start to explore his work once more. Read More →

Using Public Domain Materials in Classrooms

Old public domain material has made a major comeback online in recent years. There are countless classics for people to read. For instance, anyone who would like to explore the collected works of William Shakespeare, or countless poets, is free to do so at no cost to them. Ironically, this material has yet to make any real inroads into the field of education.

One would think that schools would jump at the chance to get all the free digital books they could ever want. Some innovative teachers may already be doing this but it’s certainly not commonplace. And think of how often old computers are regularly thrown out. In a perfect world, anyone who wants a computer should be able to have one at little, or no cost to him or her. In a perfect world, schools could receive computers that would have otherwise been thrown away and use them to serve up free content to their students. So why isn’t this happening in schools around the country?

All students should get an opportunity to explore the great books of yesteryear. Technology is making it possible to allow them to do so without the need for printing. That saves a great deal of resources as well as money. The best part about it is that the technology to give children these opportunities has existed for years. Schools simply need to apply the tools that they’re already gifted with.

Sources for Free Public Domain Downloads:

  • Adobe Sample eBook Library – Features free sample eBooks including entire books and preview chapters from leading publishers. Adobe Digital Editions software is needed.
  • Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts – Collection of public domain documents from American and English literature as well as Western philosophy.
  • – A private nonprofit project to convert into electronic format and publish the Armenian literary heritage. Also provides information on Armenian culture, history, religion.
  • – Etexts, focusing on classics and general reference works.
  • Bibliomania – Houses an extensive online collection of texts ranging from fiction and poetry to general non-fiction and reference works.
  • Bookstacks – Free online texts in several languages.
  • Classic Bookshelf – Free electronic books to read online.
  • Classic Reader – A collection of classic fiction and non-fiction, poetry, and children’s stories.
  • – Includes archives of now public-domain works by various well-known American and British authors.
  • Classics at the Online Literature Library – Archived electronic texts indexed by author.
  • E-texts and Women’s History – From, listing of electronic versions of books, poetry, speeches, and other writings that illuminate women’s history.
  • – Public domain novels, short stories and plays in HTML format.
  • Free Electronic Books – Educational texts.
  • Free Online Books – Caters books for online reading. Browsed through genres, authors and titles.
  • Free classic e-books – A site with 1000s of free e-books (in pdf format) of the classics and other out of copyright books
  • Full Text Archive – Large free and searchable collection of classic books, novels and poems.
  • – A free online collection with thousands of books.
  • – Collection of free downloadable ebooks in a variety of popular formats and categories.
  • Great Books for Free – Classic English literature published in blog format, one chapter per book per day.
  • Gruntose – Features selected electronic texts, including Doyle, Dumas, and Dana.
  • Hypertexts in American Studies – American literature including works by Poe, Jefferson, Madison, and Twain.
  • Online Texts – Selected online texts on a variety of topics.
  • Kids4Classics – Free classic literature books, with kids picks highlighted.
  • Knowledge Rush – Book lover community, vanity postings, directory of free ebooks, biographies, encyclopaedia.
  • Learn Library – Offers books, poems, speeches, plays and essays; includes reader discussion forums.
  • Library of Southern Literature – There is a collection of approximately 100 texts in HTML and XML. Documents the riches and diversity of Southern experience as presented in its most important literary works.
  • Literature Collection – Contains a searchable collection of timeless literature classics.
  • Literature Online – Links to third party sites, plus literary and reference databases including English and American poetry, drama, and prose, and The Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature. Requires paid subscription.
  • Literature Project – A collection of classic books, poems, speeches, and plays. Site offers online chapter-indexed hypertext that can be easily read and searched and each piece includes downloadable e-text of the work.
  • Literature of the Fantastic – A fair-sized collection of classic works of fantasy/sf, along with fantasy/sf-related websites.
  • Making of America – A digital library of primary sources in 19th-century American social history from the antebellum period through Reconstruction.
  • Medieval and Classical Library – Collection of literary works of classical and medieval civilization.
  • Open Shakespeare – Aims to provide the complete works of Shakespeare along with textual apparatus (introduction, notes) and tools (concordance, search, annotation, word frequency, etc.) in an open knowledge package that allows for easy deployment, redistribution and reuse.
  • PDFreeBooks Library – A small collection of free public domain and copyleft books. Read online on iPaper or download free full text versions as PDF.
  • PSU’s Electronic Classics Series – Classics of literature in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.
  • Page by Page Books – Hundreds of books in the public domain, divided into HTML pages.
  • Perseus Project – Includes texts from the classical and Renaissance world.
  • Project Runeberg – Archive of free ebooks of classic Nordic (Scandinavian) literature.
  • Public Bookshelf – A collection of books in the public domain which can be downloaded.
  • – Contains novels, poems, and religious texts with audio.
  • Read Easily – Digital online library provides book lists by author or subject with a “set display” feature for the partially sighted and visually impaired.
  • Selected Sources for Electronic Texts – Provides links to electronic texts and archives in a variety of formats ranging from plain text to digital audio and digital braille. Compiled by the National Library Service.
  • The Classics in ASCII – Public domain fiction and non-fiction etexts at
  • The EServer – Includes a variety of literature-related materials, including etext archives of prose, poetry, fiction, non-fiction; links.
  • The International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) – Provides free access to children’s books from around the world. Some books are public domain, others are used by author’s permission.
  • The Internet Archive: Million Book Project – Carnegie Mellon University project to compile digitized texts into a free, searchable digital library.
  • The Online Literature Library – A small, but easily-navigated selection of online etexts from English literature.
  • The Society for the Appreciation of the Post-Dialogic Novel – For theories on the status of the contemporary novel, reviewing texts in print form, with an eye toward the form’s evolution via hypertexts and immersive environments.
  • World eBook Library – Public domain books in HTML, usually one file per chapter. Offers PDF books to members only.
  • Yahshuan Archives – Akashic Infinitum – Preservs Books from world religion, sects, history, philosophy, health, self-help, self-sufficiency, biographies and old Children’s materials. Including Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Gnostic writings.
  • – Free, online illustrated children’s stories, 20 best out-of-copyright novels of the 20th century, out-of-copyright nonfiction of the 20th century. Also children’s stories.
  • – HTML collection of online classic e-books.


Cosmism in Ancient Rome

While some individuals might try to tie cosmism to the theory of cosmic evolution that was interpreted by John Fiske, ancient civilizations were equally interested in this vital next step of human development. Ammianus Marcellinus (325/330–after 391) was a 4th century Roman historian who had a deep interest in both classical and Christian philosophy. Read More →

Why I Love Reading Literature

I love literature. I can never have too much and my library will never be large enough. Literature has impacted my life in countless ways. As I’ve grown older, stories written by individuals long dead (but not forgotten) have stimulated my interest in history and many other subjects, while simultaneously influencing my personal development along the way. Literature is powerful and has the ability to shape who we become throughout our lives. It certainly has shaped the person I’ve become. The focus of today’s post is a short examination of literature – what it is, and why it has the ability to profoundly influence and affect the lives of so many.


Mention literature to any average person from any part of the world and more often than not, the first name on his or her lips would perhaps be that of William Shakespeare. The thought that the work of one single individual, who lived so long ago, could create such an impact over time is indicative of the power of literature. More than four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare lives on in the form of his writings, not only in the country he lived in, but in many parts of the world. Such is the power of literature.

So what is literature?

Most simply explained, it is a body of written work. But do all words that are written get the literature tag? They do not. Does this post count as literature? I think not. Reams of newspapers and magazines may have discussions on literature, but they aren’t literature per se.

Post 19th century, literature has come to be related to written works with imaginative, creative, or artistic value. However, that firmly excludes your TV’s user manual or even the copy of the latest magazine you’re reading (digital or print).

Literature has been around since man invented language and began the rich tradition of story telling. In the absence of the written word, the earliest form of literature must have been poetry that was easy to remember, and drama, that was interesting to watch and reproduce. That was the way stories of memorable hunts and wars were passed from generation to generation. And this early literature had the power to move ancient tribes. It had the power to pass on valuable information helping future generations better their own lives and understand the world around them.

With the advent of writing, literature was preserved better and in its original form.
The power of literature is awesome. It can make you feel and understand things totally alien to your otherwise mundane world. It can make you laugh or move you to tears. You can live every detail of tragedies real or imagined, just as you can forget your every day troubles in a world of happiness and delight. Literature lets you understand the minds of men long gone and gives you the vision to imagine fantastic shapes of our future. It can make you feel the first autumn chill on a sunny June afternoon and to smell a freshly baked mince pie in an aseptic hospital ward. Literature has power. It is power.

To get a feel of the power of literature first hand, pick up a good book from children’s literature. Now read it out loud to a child. No television or video is needed to see the child live each and every scene as fully in his mind as if it was happening in front of him, as if he were a part of the happenings. Who has seen a fairy, an elf, or a goblin? But every one of them dances in front of the child’s eyes. Making him laugh or clap or even maybe frown and look over his shoulder.

If such is the power of literature on a child, consider how it can move the minds of adults. How it can get them to act and change their own lives, and the lives of those around them. It not only catalogs the culture and civilization of different eras, but serves as the starting point of many modern thought processes as well. In the East for example, the vast literary works of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions were first orally passed and later written. Though hundreds of years old, these forms of literature continue to have a profound influence on the lives of many individuals today.

How has literature touched your life or perhaps even shaped the person that you are today? Have a great weekend everyone!

Confronting the Unknown

I try my best to keep a close eye on developments within science and technology to share on here (and for school/work purposes as well). For instance, I closely follow the current debate regarding the legitimacy of climate change happening within the U.S. The current debate over the legality or morality of gay/lesbian marriage is another one that fascinates me. Theories I’ve researched and written about regarding the technological singularity and human evolution each have proponents and opponents.

What causes seemingly rational individuals to ignore actual facts or scientific proof? What might cause some individuals to hide behind their religious beliefs or other belief system to form an opinion on something? Conversely, what might cause individuals to simply form an opinion simply because it “feels right”?

I’ve written quite a bit on the probable existence of intelligent life beyond our own and even explored UFO phenomena and alien abduction accounts. Naturally I think quite a bit about the future of humanity as well (I’m dedicating my life to this in fact), and I often worry that perhaps we’re regressing at the intellectual level in spite of the many wonderful technological and scientific advances occurring all around us. When exploring issues such as climate change (or any other controversial issue for that matter), I try to look past the banter and determine what exactly may be causing individuals to choose one side over another. Is it a lack of education? Perhaps their religious beliefs are influencing their thought processes one way or another? I believe that the answer most often lies within a fear of the unknown. Granted while these other things mentioned may influence our beliefs to an extent, I propose that when one delves down to the true heart of the matter, our fear of the unknown is the true culprit. Today’s post explores this hypothesis further.

Each of us exists at the crossroads between darkness and light, knowledge and the unknown, existence and non-existence. At a conscious level, we primarily remember only a fraction of our own experiences and dreams. We cannot even trust the blood flowing in our veins and we know less about the after-life that we are heading towards than about the pre-birth from which we first appeared in the world. In our futile flight from darkness we often fall back on erotic love, of which the instinctive goal is most often to fight the unknown with new birth. Even in the short moment of an orgasm lurks the dark possibility of betrayal.

Pre-historic Man and the Fear of the Unknown
In Pre-historic times, when man did not yet understand the wonder of birth, it was attributed to female magic. In those days, the rituals and festivals attributed to a mysterious and occult female deity was connected to the fear of being destroyed by an unpredictable nature. Fear of the unknown was the underlying motive for rituals and sacrifices marking the end of winter and the beginning of summer. Mid-winter rituals that would in Christian times become the very Christmas celebrations of today were intended to satisfy the spirits of the ancestors. People prayed to the ancient earth goddess presiding over life, death, prosperity, disaster and jealously. They pleaded to the earth goddess, responsible for hiding the future of mankind under a veil of the unknown, to reveal the more merciful side of her nature to them. These pre-historical rituals along with sculptures, rock drawings, words, songs, fairy tales, and customs each would plan an influential role in the evolution of modern civilizations and religions in the years ahead.

Ancient Philosophers Confronting the Unknown
The ancient Greeks confronted the fear of the unknown through rational reasoning long before their “barbarian” neighbors came along. The philosophy that underlies the history of knowledge and the birth of Western Civilization is in reality based upon man’s early confrontation with, fear of, and wonder at the unknown.

The Greek Philosopher Thales, who lived in 624-546 B.C.E., was the first to discuss the secrets of the origin of the cosmos. Thales regarded water as the origin of all things and believed that everything was born out of the ocean. According to Thales, everything must have moved from water into some other form, which is why he viewed movement as the soul of all things (Dreyer 27, 28).

Xenophanes was the first to state that the human soul is not capable of obtaining complete knowledge (Dreyer 38).

Medieval Man and the Fear of the Unknown
It was widely believed during medieval times that Christ would return to Earth ten centuries after his departure, that all humans would be judged, and that each person would consequently go to either heaven or hell. During medieval times the fear of the unknown was manifested in an unprecedented fear of God, by which philosophy, art, science, religion, politics, law, and social life were regulated. People who worshipped foreign gods were subjected to the wrath of the Christian doctrine, whose word was the only law, and to which all human behavior was expected to conform.

While the medieval Roman Catholic Church would not tolerate any scientific discoveries contradicting the Christian doctrine, it ironically paved the way for scientific discoveries that took place during the Renaissance and later periods. By forcing the Western mind into obeying a single law, the scientific method that is based upon the reduction of things to a single principle, was eventually created. The emphasis on the inner life also trained mankind in the practice of abstract thought that would form a vital part of scientific thought from the Renaissance onward (Hoffding 3).

Scientists Confronting the Unknown during the Renaissance and Enlightenment
While Renaissance scientists confronting an unknown universe were still restricted by the Church, scientists believed during the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) that human reasoning could save mankind from fear of the unknown.

Two very important Renaissance scientists and philosophers were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun (Höffding 173), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who invented the telescope and scientific method (Höffding 103). Both were severely restricted by the Roman Catholic Church during their lifetimes.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727), arguably one of the most important scientists of all times, discovered the workings of the law of gravitation throughout the known universe (Höffding 407).

Scientists Rediscover the Strangeness and Unpredictability of the Unknown
The Law of Relativity discovered by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) posed serious challenges to the mechanical Newtonian world-view. According to the Special Law of Relativity, weight and time are changed by motion. Additionally, the General Law of Relativity states that the movement of starlight is influenced by gravitation. Einstein’s work would later lead to research of black holes and many other areas of astronomy/physics (Henbest 147).

Newtonian physics were also radically challenged by discoveries at the sub-atomic level by Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976). Heisenberg believed that the less a researcher knows about the momentum of a particle, the more he/she knows about its position, and vice versa (Hilgevoord 1).

21st century scientist Stephen Hawking (1942-) is trying to reconcile quantum physics with the rules of gravity and relativity dominating the macro-universe. Ultimately, his conclusions play havoc with the singularity of Newtonian physics by stating that the universe was created in many different ways and that many different universes (multiverses) may exist. To be able to shed light on why our specific universe is the way it is, a theory of wave functions at the sub-atomic level will be required (Highfield 1).

After more that five thousand years of research and scientific discovery, we are still confronted with universes that can’t be viewed and were created in ways that can’t be imagined. This conclusion is a subtle reminder that despite phenomenal scientific discoveries thus far, the unknown is still as impenetrable as ever.

Being confronted with a fear of the unknown is an integral part of the human condition at all times. We can either allow ourselves to be paralyzed by that fear, or we can react to it by bringing our own individual set of religious, philosophical, scientific, or creative contributions to life for the benefit of humanity. Perhaps in the process we will discover that elusive part of the unknown potential that lies hidden within each of us, while simultaneously confronting our fear of the unknown in our own individualistic way.


  • Dreyer, P.S. Die Wysbegeerte van die Grieke:  Hollandsch Afrikaansche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1975
  • Henbest, N. The Exploding Universe: Marshall Cavendish, 1979
  • Highfield, R. “Stephen Hawking’s Explosive new Theory”:, 2008. Web
  • Hilgevoord, J.  “The Uncertainty Principle”: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published 8 October 2001, revised 3 July 2006. Web
  • Höffding, H.  A History of Modern Philosophy, Dover Publications, 1955
  • Lehane, B. The Enchanted World, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1986