Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Thursday, January 22, 2009

You're Out of Your Mind. No, really.

Leave the Lights On reminded me of the tenuous wonder of the beginning of life in the post How Human Fertilization Takes Place.  And then the post hearkened back to my high school biology class where I originally learned what "haploid" and "diploid" meant.  Then forgot.  But it also hearkened back to a book called "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made" by Dr. Paul Brand and Phillip Yancy.  And when I hearkened back to that book, I hearkened back to the chapter on neurons*.  

The authors discuss a very strange, yet amazing aspect of our nervous system.  And that is the hierarchy and delegation of tasks in our body's nervous system.  Your brain controls many aspects of movement.  But not all.  There are other "wills" or "minds" located throughout your body.  

You can consciously tell yourself, "Hey!  Chump!  Pick up that spoon and pack down that entire pint of Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream."  So, at your brain's direction, you stroll to the freezer and enjoy the peanut buttery-chocolatey-pretzely-malty bliss. That is one level of the hierarchy of your nervous system: direct commands from your brain to your body.  

Midway through the pint, your stomach might say, "Hey! Buddy!  I'm a bit crammed down here.  Why don't you step away from the ice cream, just put the spoon down.  That's it.  Slowly now."  But then your mind says, "Nuh uh!  Deal with it pal! Because I want more and I'm making this spoon dig out that huge chocolate chunk and shove it down your maw!"  And then shoulder, arm, and hand and fingers obey the brain.  Much to your stomach's dismay.**

But your body has other control centers, apart from your brain.   Let's say that on the way to the freezer, there's a rusty nail poking up through the floor board.  And let's say you step on the rusty nail.   Your foot, by it's own control and volition, apart from your brain, instantly registers the pain and immediately withdraws. Completely on its own accord.  The pain signal was not sent to your brain, processed, then a signal sent from the brain to the foot instructing it to withdraw.  That would take way too long.  And this happens with not only your foot.   In a sense, there's a "mind" or "will" in your hand too.  Because as you were hopping up and down, hollering in agony from stepping on the nail, you tried to steady yourself by placing your hand on the stove.  Which was still on.  So now what happens?  A pain signal sent from your hand up to the brain, processed, then a signal sent back to the hand to withdraw?  Nope.  The hand controls itself (!) and withdraws immediately. Soon after, the brain might signal your hand to punch the counter in anger and for how stupid you feel.   But the initial reflex occurred independently.

Yet both the foot and the hand have their own "minds" or "will" located in just a few nerves attached to a few muscles.  To a significant degree, you are not controlled by your brain.  You are out of your mind.    But, as Dr. Brand shows, the will of one "mind" can over-ride the will of another.  If you're trying to escape a burning airplane, your head can tell you to run across broken glass, jagged metal, burning shards in order to save your life; overriding the will of your feet that would otherwise recoil in a normal situation to such stimuli.

You could argue that each cell within the body is autonomous and has a mind of its own.  It receives instructions and participates in various feedback loops, cooperates with other cells, but at any time could decide to act on its own, depending on the stimuli that it receives.

I consider "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made" to be essential reading if you're fascinated by the workings of the human body.   Do yourself a favor, grab a pint of Chubby Hubby and read the book cover to cover.  You'll not be disappointed (in either the book or the ice cream).  

And if you're not fascinated by the workings of the human body, well... you're out of your mind!!!

The Fine Print
*I realize that by this time you're probably hearkening back your hand ready to slap me upside the head if I use the word "hearken" just one more time.  I know.  It's just that some words are so delightful, and under-used that I just have to give them some love from time to time.  I promise I won't use the word "hearken" any more in this blog.  Nay, more than promise.  I vow to not say "hearken" again.  Yup.  You can count on me that "hearken" might as well not even exist, because my keyboard will not type the letters H E A R K E N in that order anymore.  Five Bonus Points if you come up with other delightful but neglected words.

**Later, the stomach might get it's revenge with it's own will and revolt.  But in the meantime, the brain is totally in control.  Oh yeah!  Now dig out that big ol' pretzel.  Oh yeah!  So much crunchy malty goodness in that bite!!

1/23/08 Update: I'm giving "Leave the Lights On" 10 bonus points for some Paint graphics.  Not because the graphics are spectacular, but because they are exactly what I would've done and I'm glad the bar wasn't set too high.     ;)

1/23/08 Update: Boris corrected me in the comments that the withdrawl reflex originates in the spine.  Much thanks!  10 bonus points to him.  Now if only Chubby Hubby could be purchased with BPs...


  1. My mind (the one located within my skull) and my body have a very nearly impossible time saying "no" to Chubby Hubby. My own hubby, however, and I won't provide any cutsie derogatory adjectives, can say "no" to it quite easily. Go figure.

  2. Yes, but can he say "no" to the drive-thru diet pepsi? Honestly, every time he calls me he's scoring a sacarine frosty one. I suppose we all have our weaknesses, chinks in the armor, flies in the ointment, sogginess in the cornflakes.

  3. I feel bad critizising you again, but the reflex is actually triggered in your central nervous system, in the spine in the case of an involuntary withdraw reflex . Although it is of course true that it is involuntary.

    I will check out the book you mentioned, though!

  4. Thanks Boris! This is what happens when a geologist stops banging on rocks and wanders into the medical field. The book may be outdated, or I misunderstood in a case of BWT*.

    Folks, don't try this at home.

    *Blogging while tired.

  5. Lol, I am beginning to like the word hearken, I know what you mean I love the word conjunction, and use it quite frequently, it roles off my tongue and I can type it fast now with no spelling errors.So have we decided the involuntary actions are still caused by the brain? I found that to be very interesting if not.

  6. I had my heart set on ME being the one to correct you on the reflexes but Boris beat me to it (couldn't comment on your blog again today). When reading Emotional IQ by Daniel Goleman, I was quite impressed with the ability of the amygdalae in concert with the hippocampus, could effectively short circuit the rational part of your brain, something he called an "emotional hijacking." The book is a fascinating read and I recommend it, especially to anyone who deals with people with emotional issues or children.

    And I can recommend a good book on neurology.

    Which I would have included earlier if I could have gotten on to this blog. *Sigh*

    Which, of course, leads me to my all time favorite almost never used word "irk" and "irksome". I've not only been using it myself for years, I've infected my family so they get strange glances in public as well (instead of just me getting them).

    I also like vex, garrulous, noisome, frolic, cacophony, and kluge. I'm sure there are others, as well.

  7. Stephanie, it is quite possible that there is a hacker on the site, trying to deny you bonus points because of your position on the leader board. I warned you that there might me a target on your back.

    "Irk" is outstanding as a verb, a rarity indeed.

    Googling kluge....

    Got it.

    Well it looks as if the sinister plot to halt your juggernaut is coming to naught, because I see another 5 BPs heading your way.

  8. Bob, if the word "conjunction" were a landscape, it's topography would be pretty wild, plenty of relief! Lots going on phonetically. Probably make a great snow sledding hill.

    I'm curious about other involuntary functions of the body that aren't related to the withdraw reflex. Some come to mind that seem very localized: blinking, sneezing, coughing, hiccups, salivating.

    Can anybody shed light if these originate locally of if they're tied either to the spinal cord or brain?

  9. In general, the medula oblongata controls autonomous functions. To the best of my knowledge, except for reflexes which hit the spine and come back, all functions are performed in the brain.

  10. Why, thanks! Even though that was a veiled insult against my lame graphics. They looked better in Microsoft Paint than on the blog, I promise.

    You should make a widget so people can display how many BPs they have. Yeah, that's right, I'm suggesting you do some programming. I have no idea whether you know how to do this. I certainly don't, but that's YOUR problem.

  11. I was being sincere about the graphics Ginko100. Sometimes I get a bit intimidated by the intense graphics on some blogs (Blackholes and Astrostuff, for example). I'm relieved when some stuff pops up that I can do, and is effective! (Am I just digging myself a deeper hole here?)

    In fact, there is something on the left side bar of the blog for the bonus points!!! See the Bonus Points Leader Board. There could be much more elegant way to do this, and I'm all ears if somebody knows.


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