Hey you, WHO, CDC, OECD: go stuff your endless texts!

There are many kinds of literacy. One that we all recognize is the ability to read and write in a native language. The average adult literacy, of that kind, in the United States, is utterly abysmal.

So bad, in fact, that health information should be written at no higher than an eighth-grade reading level (13-14 years old). That’s according to the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as reported by Wylie Communications.

You might say: it is what it is, we do the best we can. But publishing health information, at the level of younger adolescents, is bound to reinforce health inequities. The reason for that? Even when information is dumbed-down thus, about half of all adults still won’t understand it. Not because they’re morons, of course, but because they lack reading skills.

This is a problem for anybody who produces health information, health education, or health promotion. Those are three pillars of self-determination, for controlling and improving health. They are meant to empower people. Problem is, most of what gets published under those headings is text. It must be read rather than watched, heard or experienced.

Ergo: no read, no learn; no learn, no improve.

There’s an additional problem for those who have proficient reading skills. Shown text that is written for juvenile eyes, they are more than likely to be bored. People tend to check out when boredom occurs. They don’t pay attention. They don’t engage. They don’t learn.

If we add the 50% of the adult population, who can’t understand the basic text of health information, with the 15% of the adult population that gets bored reading Golden Books, that leaves only 35% in the crosshairs of epitomic health information, health education and health promotion. No wonder the pillars are wobbly!

(Literate persons reading this may have noticed that health care is not listed as a pillar — for obvious reasons, to anybody who has received health care on a regular basis. It doesn’t empower through self-determination. Just the opposite, with rare exceptions. For better or worse, usually for worse, health care is a system of command and control.

However, I digress.)

The ability to read and write is a foundational literacy. It must be present in order for other literacies to flourish. Two others that are particularly important to Humaginarium are health literacy and scientific literacy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health literacy is the ability of individuals to access, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), scientific literacy is the ability of individuals to engage with science-related issues (including medicine), and with the ideas of science.

Each of these definitions, in their contexts, requires proficient foundational literacy to understand. The language is tortured. But for me they refer, somewhat allusively but inevitably, to reading skills: in one case, reading the rhetoric of medicine, in the other, reading the rhetoric of science.

Professionals spend decades in school and training, acquiring health or scientific literacy. And the 85% of adults in the United States, who have less than proficient reading skills? They don’t have a clue or a chance. They are sitting quietly, in the last row, waiting for the bell to ring.

That’s a problem that feels like an opportunity, at least to me.

Humaginarium has an opportunity to solve that problem. After noticing that the literatures of health information, health education and health promotion are banal and ridiculous for adults who are not morons (i.e. almost everybody), we cut a new path to empowerment. We obviously can’t develop the reading skills of folks with chronic illness, so instead we made reading optional. In fact, we made reading unnecessary. To be clear, people who come to our brand read nothing.

Instead of reading, they do what comes more naturally, no matter what level or kind of literacy they have attained. They get to:

  • Look at beautiful pictures
  • Play with amusing things
  • Crush thorny brain-teasers

In other words, they play video games. Our novel video games are health promotion in disguise.

Nobody will recognize the health promotion, because there’s no command-and-control text on the screen telling them what to think or do. Instead there are persuasive voices asking them to explore and act according to their own self-interest, their intimate wants and desires.

And for what? To win the game. To control the illness. To increase their share of well-being.

So hey, you, WHO, CDC, OECD: go stuff your scrolling pages of text already! Read my lips. The work needs to be about much more than information. It needs to be about empowerment!

Nurse Nancy, a Little Golden Book, now available from Amazon, and others since the 1950s


We breathe, we metabolize, we live.

A pathway is a technique, a course of action, a series of steps, a way forward. Once a pathway is recognized it may be observed or used with predictable results. Until then, it’s just an idea.

Diabetes Agonistes introduces folks to metabolic pathways. Which folks? Adults with poor health and science literacy, who risk metabolic syndrome and diabetes type 2, and happen to like video games. About 87 million Americans fit that description at present.

Folks can’t see or feel their metabolic pathways, but can (and do) ignore them. Metabolism is autonomic, kind of like breathing, you don’t have to think about it. It just happens.

Metabolic pathways are exquisitely ordered chemical reactions in all 30 trillion cells of the human body: every cell, every moment, 24/7/365. They’re also present in 100 trillion bacterial cells that colonize the human gut, feeding each person’s metabolism like a vast supply chain, starting the minute they are born and continuing, never ceasing, for as long as they live.

You know without being told: if you stop breathing for any reason, your life will soon be on the line. You know this from experience, you didn’t have to learn it in school. Likewise if any of the chemical reactions churning through your cells quit or misfire, your life may sooner or later be at risk. You may become sick, but unfortunately you don’t know that, because unlike breathing, you haven’t consciously experienced it. You haven’t learned it. You’re allowed to ignore it.

Yet people who play Diabetes Agonistes are aware their metabolic risks, because they have consciously experienced them in a simulation, and striven to correct them, and vowed to avoid them, and practiced how to control them when faulty biochemistry wrenches health from their body, like juice from a ripe apple.

So then: we breathe, we metabolize, we live. To be frank, breathing is part of metabolism. The oxygen that flows into our lungs when we inhale, the carbon dioxide that flows out when we exhale, these are the gaseous fuel and exhaust fumes of our constant metabolism.

Metabolic pathways keep us alive. It’s been argued that they are life itself, the essential difference between a human body and, say, a marble statue. Life on earth began more than three billion years ago, long long before any human was conceived: in the toxic swirling tides of a cooling planet. What made life start in that chemical broth, after billions of years of cosmic deadness and nothingness? What made Homo sapiens eventually show up on earth with our big ideas about some ethereal spark? Was it God that started it? Nope. It was the earliest metabolic pathways randomly oxidizing compounds in a primordial muck. That was our real Garden of Eden, properly evidenced and understood.

Diabetes Agonistes is a video game about the modern incarnation of those pathways inside our bodies. The game is a complex scientific simulation, a stroke of genius for regular folks, helping them understand and enjoy something that may make them healthier and happier and live longer.

Diabetes Agonistes is also a pathway of a different kind, a new idea that is about to be proven with evidence, or dashed to smithereens in failure. We’re nearing that crossroads.

You see, Diabetes Agonistes is a cloud-based app that transforms people who play it. Makes them smarter without teaching them. Helps them create knowledge and intuition and skills from their own experience, from trial and error and deliberate practice and fooling around and making stuff up. It creates understanding as subtly and organically as their cells synthesize proteins. Not by telling them what to do or how to do things, but encouraging them to figure it all out on their own. Nudging them up the path. They can do it if they try.

Unlike any entertainment I know, Diabetes Agonistes challenges folks to figure out some of the hardest problems ever faced by scientists and clinicians and educators and health policymakers, and use their discoveries to change the quality of their lives.

Step by tiny step up a crystal scaffold that penetrates the clouds of not knowing, and emerges into sunlight and starlight of truth and beauty about the human body, about the mind, about the spirit, about the difference between existing as a lump of clay and living as a noble human being.

Diabetes Agonistes is a new and different kind of pathway: a technique, a course of action, a series of steps, a way forward, an engine of predictable results. It is fast becoming more than a cool idea.

Solace of Art

People do what is good only when they want to.

Last week, when I found myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary didn’t come to me. She was in a different neighborhood of Minneapolis with other matters to attend.

The trouble I found that day was not racist murder in the street, but mass murder in the air. Not perpetrated by four deranged police officers, but thousands of passive-aggressive shoppers and sales associates at The Home Depot. Most of whom were utterly indifferent to Covid-19. I watched as they crowded into and out of the big box emporium, with checklists and parcels, without face coverings or hand sanitizers — NIH and CDC be damned! I watched and wondered: have I witnessed a more convincing demonstration of ingrained stupidity? Ever? I have not.

I sometimes refer to regular folks like those at The Home Depot as Joe and Ms. Sixpack — thus trying to dignify a condescending meme coined by a political moron more than ten years ago. I have claimed — without much evidence — that the Sixpack clan will overcome their acute health illiteracy and risky habits, their blimpy form factors and medication maladroitness, and they will take better care of themselves and their families, if only they are better informed about the science of the body and nudged to wellness. My self-appointed job is to inform and nudge; their job is to be happy and live in peace.

As a passionate health promoter, I have watched for months as governments and the fourth estate flooded the entire population with health information (scientific and otherwise), across all media, at all times of the day and night, from every conceivable point of view. A sentient adult cannot by now be ignorant of the incurable and unpreventable Covid-19, nor of the potentially mortal consequences of being infected or infecting others, nor of the ONLY ways to control it: social distancing and personal hygiene. According to my understanding of the Sixpacks, this worldwide tsunami of health promotion delivered more than enough information to warrant their high health literacy and acumen from coast to coast, at least when it comes to communicable disease.

To judge by my observations in Minneapolis, I was wrong. The Sixpacks were blithely committing mass murder in public and private spaces like The Home Depot in Minneapolis, where coronavirus can freely swirl into faces and smear onto the hands of every incautious person who happens to be present, and afterwards into and onto everybody else they meet. Given the quality of health promotion that preceded this dreadful historical moment, the pandemic should not be continuing now. Yet more than 100,000 deaths and more than a million infections later, with dire predictions of a nasty resurgence coming in the autumn, the evidence so far seems to show that health promotion doesn’t work and doesn’t matter in the United States.

I don’t accept that conclusion, but at the same time concur that it’s reasonable. After all, Humaginarium was founded on a premise that traditional health promotion — including health education — doesn’t work and has never worked well; that a different approach is needed to produce a different outcome. The rationale being that people will do what is good for them and others only when they want to. This new approach is conditioned by the solace of art.

Art is using the imagination to create and experience beautiful things. Art has existed as long as Homo sapiens; it is arguably what makes us human. Solace is the comfort we give or seek in grief, the alleviation of pain or fear or anger or anxiety. As a word for being cheered up and amused despite sorrow, solace has been around since the 12th century.

A few hundred years after solace entered the Middle English lexicon, a poet named John Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). In these lines, he both defined and exemplified the solace of art: its power to heal and encourage, no matter what the circumstances are.

How does art do this? By writing a prescription? No. By telling the Sixpacks what to do? No. By making them oblivious or stupid? No. By improving their healthcare? No. Art works by facilitating understanding, choices and decisions to do what is right and good for ourselves and for others we rely on, and who rely on us.

I’m giving you a particular Devotion below without further explanation; you’re an adult, you’ll figure out what it means without my help, if you want to. But I’m giving it to you with an earnest request in these times of trouble: that you read it slowly and slowly think about its meaning. What it means not to me or to society or history or Ernest Hemingway, but to you individually and personally, right now.

Because believe it or not, you yourself are the most beautiful and wonderful thing in all of creation, and you deserve to be happy and healthy, and you have the right to demand it, and the power to achieve it. And now in memory of George Floyd and with love for every person who will someday come to Humaginarium with an illness that may never end, I declare and insist that no person is an island; and that even one person’s needless suffering or death diminishes us all.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


What one observes and what one imagines are mutually reinforcing.

Last week I poured a dollop of health literacy and a gobbet of health acumen into a shaker, and shook. Shaken thus (not stirred), they yield a heady cocktail known as self-determination. Why does that matter? Because the self is the most instrumental determinant of health outcomes. Literacy and acumen each by itself informs and weighs; together they empower.

I always call this cocktail “scientific entertainment,” an oxymoron that evokes what Humaginarium is about. We know what entertainment is: it is art; it is artifice that tells the truth and gives pleasure; it is amusement, enjoyment, fun that replaces what actually is with what might or should be in a world of our own making. Everybody knows what entertainment is because everybody needs it, wants it, pays for and uses it; goes out of their way to get it and feels anxious or frustrated when they don’t get enough. But what about scientific? Most of us use that word without knowing (or maybe even caring) what it means.

Science is knowledge; or more precisely systematized knowledge; or more precisely still, systematized knowledge that results from observation and investigation, and that is consistent with evidence. That last bit is the main difference between science and art. Both generate knowledge, but science is empirical while art is philosophical. No big deal. Many people believe that one is more valuable, practical, truthful, influential than the other, but they are wrong. Not only are science and art equal in importance, but each is incomplete and hobbled without the other. Art and science together are another heady cocktail whose parts may also be enjoyed separately, but why on earth would you?

The usual answer is, because science is hard whereas art is easy. Science is technical whereas art is creative. Science is boring whereas art is exciting. Scientific insight resists and eludes discovery and application, whereas artistic insight just lies there waiting to be apprehended, and is useless. All of these contradistinctions are drivel: they just aren’t true. Yet we organize many civilized endeavors, including health promotion, according to our beliefs in them.

I say “scientific entertainment” to prevent the two concepts from coming apart at Humaginarium. My oxymoron is a frank declaration that empiricism and philosophy are not, or should not be, distinguishable. I push this to the farthest extreme by dovetailing the most erudite of all sciences (biomedicine) with the silliest of all arts (fantasy). For Humaginarium, when it comes to health and well-being, what one observes and what one imagines are mutually reinforcing. Always! I am, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am. (Descartes got it half right.)

You will not find health acumen mentioned by the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their campaigns of health promotion. Only health literacy. The reason for that is probably because literacy is scientific; acumen is fluff. Consequently, because of this scientific bias, their institutional essays on health literacy are generally unsatisfactory, futile, trivial, beside the point. Humaginarium hopes to improve the balance.

Nor will you find WHO and CDC tipping their hats to the arts as they bow to science, except on very rare occasions. Artists have no seats at the table of health promotion; all of the permanent seats are occupied by scientists and clinicians. Is that right and proper? No, it isn’t; it is disastrous. At Humaginarium we hope to do something about that as well.

Our hopes are not effusions of a company that has a dissociative identity disorder. Humaginarium is not trying to meld things that don’t belong together. We are not trying to be clever by getting funky with subject matter that is essentially technical. We are merely doing what needs to be done to break the cognitive chains that hold down the 98% whom I mentioned last week. Science can’t do it alone.

Or to put it a different way, we are making a heady new cocktail that is greater — far greater — than the sum of its parts. Shaken thus (not stirred).


88% of American adults have reading skills equal or inferior to a child in middle school.

Literacy is the ability to read a vernacular. In the United States, about 18% of all adults are functionally illiterate. Either they can’t read at all, or their reading skills are less than basic: at best, equivalent to a competent third grader’s, 8-9 years old.

About 34% of American adults are basically literate. They can glean simple information from printed matter, but not make much use of it. At best, their reading skills are equivalent to a competent fifth grader’s, 10-11 years old.

About 36% of American adults are functionally literate. They can understand the meaning of straightforward text, but can’t parse or interpret it for implications and consequences. They have workaday reading skills, at best equivalent to a competent eighth grader’s, 13-14 years old.

All of that said, about 88% of American adults have reading skills equal or inferior to a child in middle school. Leaving only about 12% with purported “adult” literacy. Hold on, that’s actually an overstatement.

About 10% of adult Americans have adolescent literacy: reading skills equivalent to a competent tenth grader’s, 15-16 years old. Only a tiny 2% of all Americans have genuine adult literacy, the kind of reading comprehension that is mandatory for higher education and professional endeavor.

I had to give this context in order to introduce the topic of health literacy: an ability to read the vernacular of health care. The vernacular of health care is the text printed on forms, handouts and signage in clinical and pharmaceutical settings. It’s the text in books, articles and websites with health-related subject matter. Most health-related subject matter is applied or theoretical science. For example, it’s not about how to use soap (function); it’s about why soap produces better health outcomes (cognition).

The vernacular of health care varies quite a lot — from papers in the New England Journal of Medicine at the high end to printouts stapled to prescriptions at Walgreens — but all of it has this in common: it is practically unreadable and therefore useless for around 98% of American adults.

When Humaginarium announced, at its founding, that it will promote health literacy at scale, it rose to an enormous challenge that generally goes unnoticed, despite its gargantuan economic costs and impact on health disparities. We had to come up with a way to promote adult health literacy across a population that overwhelming lacks adult literacy of any kind. Now we have done that. We have invented a way that should work well for the first 87 million adults who use it; and we are preparing to build and test a prototype of this amazing innovation. That is kind of exciting.

However our research also exposed some deflating limits of health literacy. Even if and when we demonstrate and prove exquisite technology that increases the health literacy of most American adults, will their newfound literacy effectively ameliorate health disparities among them? Put another way, will mastery of the vernacular of health care actually make most people healthier, happier and more secure?

The answer is no, it will not. The best outcome we (or anybody) can expect from adult health literacy is more participative medicine. By that I mean better quality of communication between patients and their clinicians and makers of medicines. That’s a pretty good outcome, but not good enough. It is not the game changer we seek.

To finish the job we started, we also have to promote health acumen. That is the key to medical self-efficacy. Acumen is an ability not just to read, but to exercise good judgement; to make healthy choices in the absence of external direction and authority; to possess keenness and depth of perception when observing what is obvious to any inquiring mind; to discern what is going on below the skin and the palpable symptoms in a body; and to discriminate between meaningful and false signals from blood, flesh and bones.

Understood thus, health literacy is no guarantor of health acumen. It’s just a prerequisite. Because without mastery of the vernacular of health care, critical thinking that fosters acumen must be so profoundly impaired that it’s practically impossible. People cannot exercise good judgement if they are grossly ignorant of the relevant science; and biomedicine is not the stuff of middle school.

This is why I no longer say that Humaginarium promotes health literacy at scale. Instead I say that Humaginarium promotes health literacy and health acumen at scale. Not just for the 2% who already have their linguistic ducks in a row, but for the 98% whose ducks are paddling aimlessly around the pond while the sky over their heads darkens; those who foolishly hope or expect the health care industry to make healthy choices for rather than with them. To have health acumen is to believe that “I will figure this out; I will decide; and I will make my decisions stick, come hell or high water.”

Like Gandalf, Humaginarium has found a way. We found our version of Thrór’s Map and a key that opens the door in the Lonely Mountain of health care. Beyond that adamantine door, Smaug is dreaming atop a gleaming horde of stolen treasure. After a long and perilous journey, Humaginarium is coming for him.


Healthcare treats health literacy as noise on its uneconomical fringes.

The mission of Humaginarium is health promotion. Yet strangely, there’s no market for health promotion. People aren’t buying it.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Health promotion enables people to increase control over their own health. It covers a wide range of social and environmental interventions that are designed to benefit and protect individual people’s health and quality of life by addressing and preventing the root causes of ill health, not just focusing on treatment and cure.”

The emphasis here is on “individual people,” meaning consumers or patients – those I call regular folks. They are the targets and beneficiaries of health promotion.

The emphasis is also on “control,” meaning medical self-efficacy among those selfsame individuals. Health promotion is not supposed to benefit the healthcare or wellness industries that sell services to consumers. It benefits the people who have or risk illness.

The specific pillar of health promotion that concerns Humaginarium is health literacy. WHO says that health literacy enables people to “acquire the knowledge, skills and information to make healthy choices, for example about the food they eat and healthcare services that they need. They need to have opportunities to make those choices.”

Thus health literacy is not knowledge or skill or behavior, and certainly not health outcomes. It’s merely the ability of regular folks to learn, in order to make sense and use of their own choices.

In effect health literacy is a competence rather than an outcome, and it’s one that never comes naturally. It must be learned, and there’s the rub. Most folks may be educated, but few have even the most basic health literacy. They didn’t learn it in school. They didn’t learn it in clinic. They didn’t learn it from friends and family. They didn’t learn it by surfing the Internet. Why is that?

Well, I know of two reasons. One is biology as a second language. We must dismiss the advertising we’ve seen and remember that healthy choices are not consumer packaged goods in the supermarket. They are expressions and perceptions that employ the semantics of science. Healthy choices are really hard! The second reason is the information itself: the intelligibility and utility and consequences of choices even after you know what the words mean.

For example, you probably know the word bacteria, but what good is that without knowing how certain pathogenic bacteria got into your mouth and throat and lungs; and how they managed to thrive; and what they’re doing there; and how your body is coping with them? You cannot gain health literacy – you cannot become an individual who exercises control – without some level of scientific acumen that makes you aware of things like this going on in your body.

Mundane health promotion doesn’t make you aware in that way. It typically doesn’t increase your ability to understand and use scientific information. That privilege is reserved for denizens of the laboratory and clinic. Consumers get to pay the salaries of those professionals, with taxes and co-pays and health insurance. That’s mostly where their role ends, for now.

Taking a new approach, Humaginarium promotes health literacy by helping folks experience and play with science of the human body, so they can discover their own truth and make meaning personal. Few health promoters have inspired regular folks to believe they can do that. Maybe Humaginarium has found a way.

However there’s a problem. Remember what I said about the market for health promotion: there isn’t one. Humaginarium can’t go selling health literacy where nobody is buying it. We’ll have to sell it where customers are likely to show up and pay.

That isn’t in the healthcare industry, which treats health literacy as noise on its fringes. Healthcare rarely addresses or prevents the root causes of ill health, but focuses on treatment and cure. That’s understandable; it’s how companies create shareholder value. As a healthcare executive once said to me: “We’re not interested in wellness; we make money from illness.”

Thus the fringes of healthcare are littered with low-budget crap like self-help books and infomercials. Humaginarium doesn’t like fringes; we want to be the center of attention. So we turn to entertainment, where there is a huge market of individuals seeking to exercise control: the market for commercial video games.

In the video game market we know we can render scientific health information visually and dramatically, without bewildering language. Not to teach but to inspire many individuals with the experience of discovering and controlling healthy choices. First in enjoyable, escapist fantasy chock full of risky adventure; then with the real and persistent challenges of their own body and life.

Scientific entertainment. Male Nude, with Arms Up-Stretched (1828-1830), by William Etty. Pictured with small polymorphic bacteria which cause pneumonia, genital and urinary infections in stressful situations like this one.

Biology as a Second Language

We understand the body about as well as we understand my first paragraph.

When the amygdala perceives sensory information from the thalamus to be threatening, it engages the paraventricular nucleus in the hypothalamus resulting in the stimulation of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which begins the stress hormone cascade. This hormone then stimulates the pituitary to release another hormone called adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels down to the adrenal cortex gland, which produces the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol in turn will feedback to the hypothalamus and the pituitary.

I’m quoting above from a book named The Science of Stress. The authors explain to the general reader how the HPA axis responds to internal and environmental stressors of the human body. I bring this up here for two reasons.

First, the axis is implicated in metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus type 2, the subject of our prototype projects Diabetes Agonistes and Metabolic Genii. The HPA axis is a kind of tripwire: the cause of and the mechanism for incredible biological activity in our bodies: every body, every hour of every day. The axis keeps us healthy or makes us sick depending on forces that we, rather than it, control. If the axis didn’t work properly, with phenomenal speed and precision, we would suffer and even die. Yet most of us willfully undermine the axis with some of the behavior typical of our personalities.

Personality is a vague concept, but I think it’s fair to say that personality or self (ego, id, superego) is neither inherited nor determined by environment. It’s a product of the individual imagination – a creative projection of the mind – that tends to take the body for granted. “I think therefore I am.” Until – inevitably – the body breaks down and it’s hard to think straight. We choose to behave as we please, often dangerously, because we understand the body about as well as we understand my first paragraph; i.e. we’re clueless.

My second reason for quoting The Science of Stress is to make a point about health literacy. We know that literacy is the ability to write and read language. And in our society, basic literacy is purportedly equivalent to eighth-grade communication skills. In other words, to be nominally literate in America, in 2019, is to communicate like an adolescent.

That is why my first paragraph is a challenge for regular folks. It is written in English that a scientist or clinician, with abundant education, easily understands. It is not written in the English that the vast majority of their fellow Americans can even read, and none could ever write. For that reason, the meaning of the paragraph doesn’t exist for them. They can’t interpret or use it, and that’s a problem.

You could say those scientists and clinicians are certified BSL: biology as a second language. They’ve been trained to read and write the language of biology. Not for its own sake of course, but in order to use biology in their professions. The humanities majors among us, and the greater number who never got past high school, are literate in that adolescent way. We are not BSL certified. We can’t understand and use biology because it’s wrapped in esoterica.

Or can we? Of course we can’t teach BSL to the masses. We could however extricate biology from its language wrapper and render it in forms that regular folks can easily understand – and even enjoy. That’s what Humaginarium is doing with the biology of chronic illness. Making it animated and visual with symbols and pictorial narrative. Making it tangible so folks can touch it, play with it, fight with it, figure it out and master it. Not biology as a second language, but biology in a visual language of color and shape that folks are already fluent in, and capable of probing for meaning.

Now, some would say that regular folks cannot understand biology, not because they’re baffled by the language, but because biology is way too complicated. This may be why most promotions of health literacy avoid science like a plague and focus on behavioral adherence to rules. I’m betting those promoters are wrong. Based on my experience as a parent, a patient and an educator, there is nothing in or about biology that is beyond the capacity of an average adult to understand.

All those average adults are organisms at the top of the food chain. They are outcomes of billions of years of evolution. Their minds are the most wonderful things that nature has ever made. They are not stupid! They certainly have the capacity and the motivation to understand, interpret and use science to fight chronic illness. Only first, they have to take off the gloves, and we have to take off those bewildering, jargony wrappers.

Scientific entertainment. Dante and Virgil in Hell, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau; pictured with histology of the pituitary gland.


Producing outcomes without being a healthcare company.

Humaginarium is not a healthcare company. We’re unlike startups whose therapies heal or cure; also unlike those who manage medical service delivery. Nothing we do for patients requires access to medical records or histories; nothing we deliver to patients requires prescription, clinical control or reimbursement. In fact we rarely think of users as patients at all, but as regular folks.

Likewise Humaginarium doesn’t cater to providers, payers or suppliers of the healthcare industry. We don’t make things for them to buy or ask them to finance what we make for consumers. True, we are working to earn their versions of the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval, but not because it has monetary value. The effort to gain healthcare industry blessing will simply make us a better company.

All of the foregoing seems rather odd and uneconomical positioning for a health tech startup, but hopefully it’s rational. I’ll try to explain.

Humaginarium is an entertainment company. We develop video games and ancillary apps that amuse and inform. We use our programs to educate and empower people; not about everything, of course, but about their bodies and health; in particular about chronic illness they have or risk getting. Why? So they themselves can actually do something about it!

The foregoing category description rests on four functional pillars known as health promotion, health literacy, health education, and health equity. With a difference. Most programming within those pillars is behaviorist. It’s about conditioning: what, how and when to do things in order to become healthier. It’s rarely about learning: why something is and why it can be different.

Humaginarium is all about that why. As artists and educators we know there is only a dotted line between understanding and making a difference in real life. Our project turns those dots into a solid line with an arrow pointing to personal empowerment.

Yet as a high-tech artist and educator, am I certain that Humaginarium won’t heal or cure? I’m really not sure of that, so I don’t claim that it will; but I think it’s possible. Moreover likely.

I say this because I believe, from study and experience, in causal connections between mind and body; between mental and physical. The clinical term for such connections is psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). Everybody experiences PNI throughout their lives, practically every day and certainly when enjoying great entertainment, but science is only beginning to recognize and explain it. Clinicians by and large don’t have a clue. But it’s real.

A palpable example of PNI is the placebo effect, by which perceptions and beliefs improve health outcomes. Peer-reviewed research has proven (beyond any reasonable doubt) that the way people think and feel about themselves and their environment alters the biochemistry of their bodies. In plain English, our state of mind can actually make us well or sick. Everybody knows that, but why is it?

“Theorists propose that stressful events trigger cognitive and affective responses which, in turn, induce sympathetic nervous system and endocrine changes, and these ultimately impair immune function.” Did you get that? So for example, job insecurity or marital difficulty can, and often does, make people literally frail, vulnerable and symptomatic.

But what are job insecurity and marital difficulty? They are types of stress produced by the same thing: a lack of control. The same kind of stress that occurs with chronic illness. You have it, you don’t understand it, you can’t predict it, you can’t avoid it. It feels like a bewildering constant threat, like an asteroid heading towards your personal planet.

As such chronic illness is a self-perpetuating condition. The more fearful and anxious and angry the patient gets, the worse the disease may become. That’s fact, not fiction.

Humaginarium answers that fact with fiction. Literally, with fantasy in which users can face and understand and oppose and overcome illness in their minds. Fantasy of this kind is not merely an escape from reality, it’s an engine for belief in oneself; belief that “I am the master of my fate.”

When discussing PNI in the context of his long medical career, Sherwin Nuland wrote, “The question that remains is how these three major networks – the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immunologic system – interact and, how, by understanding these interactions in precise quantitative terms, we can learn to predict and control them.”

That question is for scientists including positive psychologists, but not for artists and educators like me. We already know PNI works, though we can’t yet explain the molecular and cellular dynamics. If it works, we want to use it right now, not after decades of clinical trials, for the benefit of folks who have or risk getting a miserable chronic illness.

That is what Humaginarium is doing, and that is why I expect to produce meaningful outcomes without being a healthcare company.


Caring for a human body requires diligence, a force that is powered by health literacy.

My website says “Humaginarium is a systematic and evidence-based way to increase health literacy.” Let’s slow that down for a closer look.

For me at least, all literacy is a situated competency. There are no universal definitions and standards. Instead literacy is a personal, differentiated and evolving attribute. Yet somehow it always encompasses the same four generative acts: recognizing information, understanding it, relating it, and using it. If folks can reliably do these four things appropriate to their circumstances, they’re literate though maybe – probably – in dissimilar ways.

Recognizing information is knowing what something is. We naturally recognize information when encountering the source of it. Understanding is discovering and pondering the meaning of information. For example understanding why Ingres spent decades painting The Source (shown at the bottom of this post) in his unique way; and understanding why it is perfectly beautiful like that. Relating is assigning context to information so that it fits functionally or imaginatively into one’s world view. I related (and distorted) The Source by inserting a concocted cellular view of water, in order to reveal dangerous bacteria supposedly living in it. Using is working with information. My job with Ingres was to bridge an aesthetic divide between art and science. I tried to embody “scientific entertainment” – and also have fun (respectfully) with a great work of art.

Since I haven’t mentioned reading so far, I’ll pause now for a confession. I trained and practiced as a professor of English. Before technology barged into my life I taught college students how to learn from the literature and history they read. This was my vocation: increasing literacy by means of text. To this day I enjoy and learn more from reading than anything else I do, yet I don’t feel that literacy is fundamentally about scanning text. Reading is only one way to recognize information, often not the best way, and certainly not the way that Humaginarium promotes health literacy.

My notion of health literacy aligns with the four-part model of recognize, understand, relate, and use. Health literacy is all of that, only situated in health. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it isn’t.

First there’s the wrinkle of “health.” By that I mean the condition of a human body, the physical thing one calls “my life.” Health is neither illness nor wellness, diagnosis nor treatment, scheduling nor adhering. Health is the sum total of a human body and health literacy is a person’s ability to recognize, understand, relate, and use information concerning the body.

Next there’s the wrinkle of information. Information about the human body is extremely hard to take in because most of it is hidden in layered systems so complex and mysterious that they’re nothing less than magical. I’m using that term literally. Our living bodies are miraculous no matter what condition they’re in. They’re just very hard to make sense of.

There are more wrinkles with understanding, relating and using information about the body. Few regular folks ever even consider most of that information; they can’t understand the scientific and medical rhetoric used to express it, and they have little or no idea how to use it. Let’s be candid: for most folks, using information about the body is limited to consumption, procreation and labor – and most of that can be done well enough without health literacy.

Then why bother with it? Well, I think health literacy enhances acceptance of what the human body is, how it works, what it needs and why it’s in each person’s practical self-interest to care – with gobs of curiosity and courage. Caring for a human body requires diligence, a force that is powered by health literacy.

As health literacy increases, so does medical efficacy and the capacity for self-care. Those are two horsemen of a long-awaited apocalypse that may bring a failing health care industry to its knobby knees and replace it with the best health care possible. The kind that every individual with a chronic illness, regardless of educational or socioeconomic situation, constructs for themselves. Those are the folks who may benefit most from Humaginarium.

Scientific Entertainment. Variation on The Source (1856) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Pictured with Vibrio vulnificus, a type of waterborne, flesh-eating bacteria.


Corporate stakeholders like shiny new toys.

Soon after I joined the MATTER Healthcare Incubator in October, three partner organizations announced contests. None were a good fit for Humaginarium but I entered them anyway. Why? To learn more about the needs of corporate stakeholders; stretch my universal value proposition to the limit; practice my nascent pitch; and assess the competition. It was fun actually and I gained a few insights.

The partner organizations were Novo Nordisk (supplier), Advocate Aurora (provider), and Blue Cross Blue Shield (payer). Each called for innovations that serve a special interest:

  • The supplier wants to improve the treatment of diabetes
  • The provider wants to improve the quality of primary care
  • The payer wants to improve health equity in the community

Each contest attracted about 70 submissions from around the United States. I was surprised by the number and distribution because the prize in each contest was just a small amount of money. More than money though, the partners promised to commit human resources to the winners in order to advance their ideas to the next level.

As far as I can tell, I’m the only contestant who proposed a solution involving health education and literacy. Among the finalists, all of the others pitched technology that collects or generates data from patients. The data theoretically get used by clinicians to increase the speed and certainty of treatment.

The bleeding edge of these innovations is data analytics. “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Some contestants also preached the gospel of artificial intelligence. They coupled data analytics with expert systems in order to make their apps perform medical diagnosis and recommend treatments. Some contestants further broadened their scope by aggregating third-party technology into their architecture. So for example, after a patient enters a description of symptoms, the app crunches a universe of medical records and research to suggest a diagnosis and course of treatment. Assuming that you, as the patient, are sufficiently alarmed by that point because the signs point to cancer (like what often happens on WebMD), the app schedules an appointment with your doctor and calls a Lyft to get you there. You lose no time before experiencing the full curative force of our marvelous health care system. Providers capture more revenue from you, who would otherwise be oblivious to your condition; and they spend less time treating you because a lot of your health care has magically become self-serve.

I think all of the final pitches fit under a rubric of “connected health,” though there’s still a lot of variation. This overall pattern reinforced my perception that connected health is “hot” and shouldn’t be ignored in the design of Humaginarium. AI is likewise hot, but that makes me a little nervous because the science of AI is many years away from making life or death decisions about health, at least when it comes to mine. It’s a safer bet for pizza delivery. There’s a slight chance that data analytics and artificial intelligence in health care are digital lingo for “smoke and mirrors.” I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Anyway my takeaways from all three contests are:

  • Corporate stakeholders like shiny new toys
  • The top innovations solve provider problems, not patient problems
  • They want to automate health care to the extent possible
  • That pairs nicely with increasing capacity and efficiency
  • Patients themselves are objects rather than subjects of innovation
  • Self-care is a euphemism for medication adherence

Most of the finalists were pretty far along on their journey, with fully developed products, teams, pilots, partners, and customers. Thus their innovations were low risk because they were seeking support for execution rather than ideation. They have traction.

I was delighted to be the only contestant promoting health literacy, delivering health education that empowers regular folks to think like a consumer and not just behave like a patient. This brought to mind the Jungian gallery of archetypes. My brand archetype of sage is uncontested at least in these contests. The question remains though, can a sage attract investments and make boatloads of money? We shall see.