Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Health and Illness I
GA 348

VII. Spiritual-Scientific Foundations for a True Physiology

20 December 1922, Dornach

Gentlemen, this time let us finish answering a question raised the other day.

By virtue of his skin, man is an entire sense organ. The skin of the human being is something extraordinarily complicated and truly marvellous. When we trace it from the outside inward, we find first a transparent and horny layer called the epidermis. It is transparent only in us white Europeans; in Africans, Indonesians and Malayans, it is saturated with coloured granules and thus tinged with colour. It is called “horny” because it consists of the same substance, arranged a little differently, from which the horns of animals and our nails and hair are fashioned. Our nails actually grow out of the uppermost layer of the skin. Under this layer lies the dermis, which consists of an upper and a lower layer. So we are in fact covered and enclothed with a three-layered skin: the outer epidermis, the middle layer of the dermis and the lower part of the dermis.

The lowest layer of the dermis nourishes the whole skin; it stores the nourishing substances for the skin. The middle layer is filled with all kinds of things, but in particular it is filled with muscle fibres. Everywhere in this layer are myriad tiny onion-like things, one next to the other; we have thousands upon thousands in our skin. We can call them “onions” because the distinguishing feature of an onion is its many peels, and these little corpuscles have such “onion peels”; the onion skin is on the surface, and the other, thinner part is on the inside. They were discovered by the Italian Pacini and are therefore called “Pacinian corpuscles.”

Around these microscopic corpuscles are from twenty to sixty such peels, so you can imagine how small they are.

Figure 1

Man is constituted in such a way that he has these microscopic little bulbs over the whole surface of his body. The largest number is found—in snakes as well as in men—on the tip of the tongue. Yes, it is almost comical, but most are found on the tip of the tongue! There are many on the tips of the fingers, on the palms of the hands and on other parts of the body, but most are on the tip of the tongue. For example, there are seven times more such little nerve bulbs on the tip of the tongue than there are on the finger tips.

A nerve fibre originates from each of these corpuscles and finds its way into the brain via the spinal marrow. All these nerve fibres radiate from the brain, and everywhere in the body they form such nerve bulbs on its surface. So these nerve fibres in the brain go everywhere and eventually form the onions within the skin or dermis. It is interesting to realize that just as real onions grow in the ground and form onion blossoms above, so do these onions grow in the human body. There (pointing to his sketch) are the onions and the stem within. In those nerves of the tongue the stem is rather short, but in other nerves it is sometimes quite long. The nerve fibres going from the feet into the brain through the spinal marrow are extremely long. Everything that we have as onions in our skin actually has blossoms within our skull. You may imagine, then, that in regard to his skin man is a kind of soil; it is strangely formed, but it still is a kind of soil. On the surface is the epidermis, in which various crystal substances are deposited. Below are the solid masses of the body, and above is the layer of “humus.” Going from outside inward, beneath the hard, horny layer of the epidermis lies the dermis, which is the soil. From it grow all these onions that have blossoms in the brain. Their stems pass up into the brain and have blossoms there.

Figure 2

Well, gentlemen, in us older fellows things are such that only during sleep can we properly trace this network, but in a child it is still much in evidence. The child has a lively nerve bulb activity in the nerves as long as its intellect is unawakened; that is, throughout its first year, and just as the sun shines over the blossoms of the onions, so shines the light into the child that as yet does not translate with the intellect what it receives with its eyesight. This is indeed like the sun shedding its rays inside the head and opening up all the onion blossoms. In the nerves of the skin we carry a whole plant kingdom around within us. Later, however, when we enter grammar school this lively growing comes to an end, and then we use the forces from the nerves for thinking. We draw these forces out and use them for thinking. This is extremely interesting. Ordinarily, it is assumed that the nerves do the thinking, but the nerves do not think. We can employ the nerves for thinking only by stealing their light, so to speak. The human soul steals the light from the nerves, and it uses what it has taken away for thinking. It is really so. When we truly ponder the matter, we finally recognize at every point the independently active soul.

Figure 3

We have such inwardly growing onions in common with all animals. Even the lowest forms, which have slimy, primitive shapes, possess sensory nerves that end in a kind of onion on the surface. The higher we ascend toward man, the more are certain of these nerve onions transformed in a specific manner. The nerves of the taste buds, for example, are such transformed skin nerves.

Now, we possess these sensory bulbs at the tip of the tongue and that is why it is so sensitive. We taste on the back of the tongue and on the soft palate where such little onions are dispersed. Actually, they sit there in a little groove and within these grooves an onion penetrates into the nerves and pushes into the dermis as a nerve corpuscle. First, a tiny groove forms behind the tongue, and then an onion pushes itself into this groove. The root of the onion penetrates all the way to the surface of the tongue. On the base of the tongue are a tremendous number of tiny grooves, and in each little groove a “bulb” grows up from below. This accounts for our experience of taste.

We can be aware of everything with the sense of touch, or these onions located on our body's surface. Now, you know that what one feels one does not remember so well. I know with my feeling that a chair is hard because I feel its hardness with a certain number of nerve bulbs that constantly change, but my memory is not strained by this sensation. With the sense of taste it makes a little, though unconscious effort. Gourmets, however, always know beforehand what is good, not afterward when they have already tasted it, and that is why they order it.

So the nerve corpuscles pass through the spinal marrow directly into the brain and form blossoms there. Everything that we want to taste, however, must first be dissolved by the saliva in the mouth; we can taste nothing that hasn't first been transformed into fluid. But what is it that tastes? We would not be able to taste anything if we did not have fluid within us. Our solid human constitution, everything that is solid in the body, does not taste. Our inner fluid mixes with what is dissolved of the food. Thus, we can say that our own fluid mixes with the fluid from without. The solid part of the human organization does not taste anything. Our constitution is ninety percent water, and here, around the papillae of the tongue, it is in an especially fluid state. Just as water shoots out of a geyser, so do we have such a spurting forth of fluid on the tip of the tongue.

Saliva that has been spit out of the mouth is no longer part of me, but as long as that fluid is within the little gland of the tongue, it belongs to me as a human being, just as my muscles belong to me. I consist not only of solid muscles but also of water, and it is this fluid that actually does the tasting because it mixes with what comes as fluid from without. What does one do when one licks sugar? One drives saliva from within toward the taste buds. The dissolved sugar penetrates the fluid, and the “fluid man,” as it were, permeates himself with the sugar. The sugar is secreted delicately in the taste buds of the tongue and spreads out in one's own fluidity, giving him a feeling of well-being.

As human beings we can only taste, but why is this so? If we had fins and were fishes—which would be an interesting existence—every time we ate, the taste would penetrate right through our fins. But then we would have to swim in water, where we would find everything even the delicate substances well-dissolved. The fish tastes all the traces of substances that are in the water and follows the direction of its taste, which is constantly penetrating into the fins. If something pleasant flows in its direction, the fish will taste it, and its fins will immediately move toward it. We men cannot do what the fish can because we have no fins; in us they are completely lacking. But since we cannot use the sensation of taste to move around, we intensify it within. Fishes have a highly developed sense of taste, but they have no inward sense of it. We human beings have the taste within, we experience it; fishes exist in the totality of the water and experience taste together with the surrounding water. People have wondered why a fish swims far out into the ocean when it wants to lay its eggs. They swim far out, not only into the Atlantic Ocean, but also into other parts of the earth's oceans, and then the young slowly return to European waters. Why is this? Well, European fishes that swim around in our rivers are fresh-water fishes, but the eggs cannot mature in fresh water. Fishes sense by taste that a trace of salt flows toward the outlet of a river; they then swim out into the sea. If the sun shines differently on the other side of the earth, they taste that and by this sense swim halfway around the globe. Then the young taste their way back again to where the parent fishes have dwelt. So we see that fishes follow their taste in every way.

It is extremely interesting that the water that flows in the rivers and is contained in the seas is full of taste, and the fact that fishes swim around in them is really due to the water's taste. It is actually the taste of the water that makes them swim around; the taste of the water gives them their directions. Naturally, if the sun shines on a certain portion of water, everything that is in the water at that spot is thoroughly dissolved by the heat of the sun. It is changed into another taste, and that is why you see a lot of fishes swimming around there; it is the taste.

It is really a strange matter, gentlemen, because we would actually be swimming, too, if we went only by our taste. When I taste sugar the fluid man within me wants to swim toward it. The urge to swim is indeed there; we want to swim constantly according to our taste, but the solid body prevents us from doing so. From that element that continually would like to swim but cannot—we really have something like a fish within us that constantly wants to swim but is held back—we retain what our inner soul being makes out concerning taste. With taste we live completely within the etheric body, but the etheric body is held fast by the water in us, and that water in turn is held by our physical body. It is the most natural thing to say that man has an etheric body that is really not disposed to walking on the earth. It is suited only for swimming; it is in fact fish-like, but because man makes it stand erect it becomes something different. Man has within him this etheric body that is actually only in his fluid organization, and it is indeed so that he would constantly like to swim, swim in the elements of water that are contained even in the air. We would like to be always swimming there, but we transform this urge into the inner experience of taste.

You see, such aspects really lead one to comprehend the human being. You cannot find this in any modern scientific book because people examine not the living human being but only the corpse, which no longer wants to swim. Nor does it participate any longer in life. We participate in life because actually we are the sum of everything existing in the world. We are fishes, and the water vapor that is similar to us is something in which we would like to be constantly swimming about. The fact that we cannot do so results in our pouring it into us and tasting it. The fishes are really cold creatures. They could taste things marvellously well that are dissolved in the water, but they do not do so because they immediately move their fins. If the fins would disappear from the fishes, they would become higher animals and would begin to have sensations of taste.

The nerve bulbs that I told you about last time are differently transformed “onions.” They penetrate into the mucous membrane of the nose, but they do not sit within a groove from which fluid seeps out; they reach all the way to the surface. That is why these nerve bulbs can perceive only what comes close to them. This means that we have to let the fragrance of the rose come up to the nerve bulb of our nose before we can smell it. Thus, one part of the human body has the function of fashioning in a special way these nerve bulbs, which are spread out over the whole skin, in order to sense smells permeating the air.

Not only does the outer air waft toward man, but also the breath streams out from within him. The breath constantly passes through the nose, and within this breath lives the air being of man. We are water, and as I told you earlier, we are also air. We do not have the air within us just for the fun of it. Like the water within me, my breath is not solid. Just as when I reach out my hand and feel that I have stretched out something solid, so I stretch what I contain in my air organism into my nose. There I grasp the fragrance of the rose or carnation. Indeed, I am not only a solid being but continually a being of water and air as well. We are the air as long as it is within us and is alive. When we stretch our “air hands” through the nose and grasp the fragrance of a rose or carnation—bad odors, too, of course—we do not touch it with our hand but rather grasp it with the nerve bulbs, which attract the breath from within so that it can take hold of the fragrance.

This is something that is manifest also in the dog. I have told you that as soon as the nose smells, the tail wags. Just as with fishes the fins start to move about, so, too, with dogs the tail starts to move. But what does this tail that can only wag really want to do? This is most interesting. The tail can only wag, but what does it really want to do? You see, gentlemen, the dog would really like to do something quite different. If it were not a dog but a bird it would fly under the influence of smell. Just as fishes swim, a dog would fly if it were a bird. Well, of course, a dog has no wings, and so he uses the substituted organ and just wags his tail. It isn't enough for flying, but it involves the same expenditure of energy. In human beings it is the same. Because we always have delicate sensations of smell that we do not even notice, we would constantly like to fly.

Think now of the swallows that live here in summer. What arises as scents from the flowers is pleasing to them, and because it is pleasing to their organ of smell they remain here. But when autumn comes or is just approaching, the swallows, if they could communicate among themselves, would say, “Oh, it's beginning to smell bad!” The swallow has an extraordinarily delicate sense of smell. You remember that I told you that people are perceptible to savage tribes all the way to Arlesheim. Well, for swallows the odour arising in the south is perceptible when fall is approaching; it actually spreads out all the way to the north. While in the south it smells good, up north it begins to smell of decay. The swallows are attracted to the good odour and fly south.

Whole libraries have been written about the flight of birds, but the truth is that even during the great migrations in spring and autumn the birds follow the extremely delicate dispersion of odours in the whole atmosphere of the earth. The organ of smell in the swallows guides them to the south and then back again to the north. When spring arrives here in our lands, it starts to smell bad for the swallows down south. When the delicate fragrances of spring flow southward to them, they fly back north. It is really true that the whole earth is one living being and that the other beings belong to it.

In our body, things are so organized that the blood flows to the head and then away from it. On the earth, things are so arranged that the migratory birds fly to the equator and then back to their point of departure. We, too, are influenced by the air because the air we breathe drives the blood to the head. Insofar as we are beings of air, we are completely permeated with smell. For example, a person who walks across a field that has just been fertilized with manure is really going there together with his airy being. The solid man and the fluid man do not notice the manure, but the man of air does, and then there arises in him, understandably enough, the urge to fly away. When the manure's stinking odour rises from the field, he would actually like to fly off into the air. He cannot do so because he lacks the wings and thus reacts inwardly to what he cannot fly away from; it becomes an internal process of the soul. As a result, man inwardly becomes permeated with the manure odour, with the evaporations that have become gaseous and vapor-like. He becomes suffused with the bad odour and says that he loathes it. His loathing is a reaction of the soul.

In the fluid man there exists the more delicate airy form that, in a way, he takes from the fluid organization of himself. It is through this that he can taste. Likewise, something lives in this airy form that we constantly renew in us through inhaling and exhaling. Each moment it is expelled and reborn; it is born eighteen times a minute and dies eighteen times a minute. It takes years for the solid form to die, but the airy form dies during exhalation eighteen times a minute and is born during inhalation. It is a continuous process of dying and being born. What is extracted within is the astral body. As I told you the other day, it is the astral body that reverses the forces of tail-wagging that should really be down below. Because these forces are pushed up and against the sense of smell, we are able to think. The brain grows to meet the nose under the influence of the astral body, and no one can really understand the brain who does not look at the whole matter in the way I have just done. This understanding results from a correct observation of our senses.

On account of our sense of smell we would always like to be flying. The bird can fly but we cannot; at best we have these solid shoulder blades. Why can the bird fly? Gentlemen, the bird has something peculiar that enables it to fly; it has hollow bones. Air is inside them and the air that the bird absorbs through its organ of smell comes into contact with the air that it has in its bones. Indeed, the bird is primarily a being of air. Its most important aspect consists of air; the rest is merely grown on to it. The many feathers a bird may have are actually all dried up. The most significant thing, even in the ostrich, is that a bit of air is still contained in each downy feather and all this air is connected with the air outside. The ostrich walks because it is too heavy to fly but, of course, the other birds do.

We human beings have only our shoulder blades attached to our back, which are clumsy and solidly shaped. Although we would constantly like to fly with them, we cannot. Instead, we push the whole spinal marrow into the brain and begin to think. Birds do not think. We have only to observe them properly to realize that everything goes into their flight. It looks clever, but it is really the result of what is in the air. Birds do not think, but we do because we cannot fly. Our thoughts are actually the transformed forces of flying. It is interesting that in human beings the sense of taste changes into forces of feeling. When I say, “I feel well,” I would really like to swim. Since I cannot, this impulse changes into an inner feeling of well-being. When I say, “The odour of the manure repulses me,” I would really like to fly away. But I cannot, and so I have the thought, “This is disgusting; this odour is repulsive!” All our thoughts are transformed smells. Man is such an accomplished thinker because he experiences in the brain, with that part I described earlier, everything that the dog experiences in the nose.

As human beings, we owe a lot to our nose. You see, people who have no sense of smell, whose mucous membrane is stunted, also lack a certain sense of creativity. They can think only through what they have inherited from their parents. It is always good that we inherit at least something; otherwise, if all our senses were not rudimentarily developed, we could not live at all. A person born blind also has inherited the interior of what the eye possesses. He has this primarily because he is not only a compact man but also a man of fluid and air.

We have now seen how strange all this is. We perceive solid substances with our sense of touch through the nerve bulbs that penetrate the skin everywhere; we become aware of watery substances with our sense of taste; what is of air, the vaporous, is recognized by us through the nerve bulbs that penetrate into the mucous membrane of the nose. We also sense something else around us, though in a more general way; that is, heat and cold. So, as human beings we are partly solid, water, air, and warmth, since we are usually warmer than the surrounding world.

You see, science does not really know that the aspect of tasting concerns the man of water and that the element of smell pertains to the man of air. Because the nerves of taste come into the taste buds, it is the scientific opinion that these nerves actually taste. But this is nonsense. In the mouth, it is the fluid of the watery organization of man that tastes, and in the nose, it is the element of air that smells. Furthermore, the part of us that is warmth perceives heat and cold. The internal warmth in us directly perceives the external warmth, and this is the difference between the sense of warmth and all the other senses. Warmth is produced by all the organs, and as human beings we harbour a world of warmth within us. This element of warmth perceives the other world of warmth around us. When we touch something that is hot or cold, we naturally perceive it just on the spot where we have touched it. But when it is cold in winter or hot in summer, we perceive this coldness or heat in our surroundings; we become a complete sense organ.

We can see how science errs in this regard. According to scientific books, the human being is some kind of compactly shaped form. All the bones are drawn on the paper; the muscles and nerves are all there. But this is utter nonsense because it represents no more than one tenth of the human being. The rest is up to ninety percent water, and then we must account for the air and the warmth within. In fact, three more persons—of water, air and warmth—should be sketched into the figures drawn up by materialistic science. Man cannot be comprehended in any other way. Only because we are warmer than our surroundings and are also a portion of a world of warmth do we experience ourselves as being independent in the world. If we were as cold as a fish or a turtle, we would have no ego; we could not speak of ourselves as “I.” We could never think if we had not transformed the sense of smell within us, or, in other words, if we had no astral body. Likewise, we would have no ego if we did not possess a portion of warmth within us.

Now, someone might say that the higher animals have their own body temperature, too. Yes, gentlemen, but they are burdened by their warmth. The higher animals would like to become an “I” but cannot. Just as we cannot swim or fly, the higher animals would like to become an “I” but cannot do it. You can discern that in their forms; they would really like to become an “I,” and because they cannot they assume their various shapes.

So, as human beings we have four parts in us: the solid man, which is the physical, material part; the fluid man, which carries the more delicate body—the life body or etheric body—within itself; the air being, the man of air who constantly dies and is renewed in the physical realm but who contains the astral body, which remains throughout life; the portion of warmth, the ego man.

The sense of warmth is distributed delicately over the whole human being. Here science does something peculiar.

When we examine the human being from a purely materialistic standpoint, we discover these nerve bulbs that I have described to you. Now, people say to themselves, “If I touch this box, I feel it and its solidness because of the nerve bulbs. If the box were cold, I would also feel the cold through such a nerve bulb.” They constantly look for these nerve bulbs of warmth and these nerve bulbs of feeling, but they never find them. Someone will examine a piece of skin, and because some of these nerve bulbs for feeling look a little different he thinks that they belong to something else. But it is all nonsense. There are no nerve bulbs sensitive to warmth because the whole human being is perceptive to warmth. These nerve bulbs are used only for sensing solid, water and vaporous substances. Where the sense of warmth begins, we become extremely “light-sensed” beings, that is, no more than a bit of warmth that perceives exterior heat. When we are surrounded by an amount of heat that enables us properly to say “I” to ourselves, we feel well, but when we are surrounded by freezing cold that takes away from us the amount of warmth that we are, we are in danger of losing our ego. The fear in our ego makes the cold outside perceptible to us. When somebody is freezing he is actually always afraid for his ego, and with good reason, because he pushes the ego out of himself faster than he actually should.

These are the aspects that will gradually lead us from the observation of the physical to the observation of the nonphysical, the non-material. Only in this way can we begin to comprehend man. Having mentioned all this, we shall be able to continue with quite interesting observations next time.