A Little Journey Through the Wonderful Strangeness of Brains
Last week I saw my brain. It was my first time, I was a brain virgin before that. It was a good looking brain, I think and apparently a healthy one, which is pretty good news. Even has an uncanny similarity to every stereotypical alien encounter image I’ve ever seen – I have an alien face in my brain – I’m pleasantly entertained by that. My only disappointment at this experience is that, although having a picture of my brain is cool as all hell, it hasn’t helped me to understand the science behind brains at all.
The human body is an interesting animal, it’s constantly doing things, incredible things, working while you sleep, reacting to the world when you’re busy thinking about cake. It’s pumping, pulsing, surging with activity while you sit quietly drinking tea. While I sit writing this, there is a muscle pumping with such force that it’s moving about 5.5 litres of blood around my entire body, blood that’s also busying itself with its own humble vibrations of activity, but I can hardly even tell. What a subtle muscle, so modest!
My bones are busy supporting my structure – veins and arteries, muscles, tissue, blood and skin – all are being supported and protected as my skeleton carries them around like some kind of flexible 4WD vehicle. A Hilux. I’d like to think of my skeleton as a Toyota Hilux.
My muscles are expanding and contracting with every tiny movement, even just typing is using my fingers and forearm muscles and the muscles around my eyes as I look from keyboard to screen and back again. They’re all working without a conscious thought from me, I know where I want things to go and so my body just gets it done, with very little instruction.
My skin is healing itself from the weekends sunburn and the healthy parts are probably breathing and buzzing with other tiny vibrations of life, vibrations that I only notice if I fill up on caffeine and try to sit in a meditative state for 20 minutes or so.
Nerve endings all over my body are picking up sensations from the atmosphere, I can feel the cool air from the breeze coming through the window on my left arm, I can feel my fingernails clicking at the keyboard, I can feel a dull ache in my calf muscles and ankles from a weekend of uphill walks and my throat is feeling sore because I haven’t had enough water to drink yet today (Don’t worry about me though, I hear gin helps sore throats).
All this not to mention my senses of hearing, sight, smell and taste which are constantly busying themselves with the next little event, whether I am consciously aware of it or not.
As I consider my next sentence, my brain floats words through my mind for me to consider them before choosing one, while thousands of important little neurons fire around, charging in all the right directions, mostly without tripping over each other, doing what they need to do to keep all of these complicated things happening at the same time. My brain is probably thinking about more than one thing at a time too and some thoughts are just more prevalent to my current activity than others. Like right now, I’m thinking about what to make for my lunch tomorrow, where to go this Friday night, writing about brains and somehow half listening to the Clangers which are, for some reason I can’t even imagine, playing on the radio… Actually, what the hell radio station is this?!
Even while we are sleeping, our brains are still extraordinarily active.
All of these tiny, but incredibly significant things are happening, because the human body has evolved to understand what it needs to do to survive this occasionally tiresome and mundane, and sometimes way too exciting life. Or, because your god made you that way… Feel free to ignore scientific theories of evolution if it suits you, your beliefs are not my business, but please, still marvel with me at just how incredible a job this mass of muscle and mucus is doing right now! It’s working so damn hard and when I consider all of these tasks it’s performing, I realise that it rarely makes a complaint about it in any significant way.
Well done body! I give you nowhere near enough credit.
This week, I approached a man at a crossing with two children, one in a pushchair. I approached from behind – from the West at 7pm, so the sun was behind me – so as I drew up just slightly behind them to wait at the roadside, my shadow stretched out alongside the pushchair. The child in the pushchair, who must have been not even two years old, saw a dark shadow next to him and immediately craned his neck around the edge of his comfy chariot to see who had rocked up next to his Daddy. I was amazed that at such a young age, this child seemed to understand the concept of shadows. When you put it into perspective, a child who can probably barely string two distinguishable words together has somehow learned that a dark shadow is formed when an object blocks the light, and he knew when he saw a shadow on the floor that the object blocking the light must be behind him and to the right hand side, because the light is coming from the sun, which is behind him. Is that not a remarkable thing for a brain so undeveloped to have mastered? Do you think some wise old owl sat him down earlier this week and explained the concept of shadows to him? I highly doubt it. So in my mind, that’s a big fat “WINNING” for basic human instinct right there. At what stage does that natural instinct develop? I would imagine that as a newborn, the same child would have been immediately confused by changes between darkness and light, and known only to pull faces at the strange darkness on the floor. So where along his short journey in the world so far did his brain develop that understanding?
Well done small brain, you’re remarkable!
I passed a gentleman yesterday who had crossed to my side of the road in busy morning rush hour traffic (a brave man, to be fair) and started walking in the same direction as me along the street, a little way ahead of me. He stopped for a second, turned around and walked back in the other direction. As he turned, saw me behind him and proceeded to walk past me, he lifted his hand to his forehead on the side closest to me, and scratched an ‘imaginary itch’. This might be an unfair assumption, that his itch was imaginary, he could have had a very legitimate itchy forehead which needed to be scratched right there in that moment, but for the purposes of this anecdote, I’ll assume not. We do it all the time, if we are nervous, embarrassed, feeling over-watched, we touch the one area where we know these emotions will show, to partially cover it. If we didn’t we would feel too self-aware. Some people will compensate by making a gesture like a noise or even in some cases a brief explanation as they pass, to acknowledge that they are aware of you as a witness, in attempt to reduce the tension of the moment, which is far more entertaining for the passer-by.
Touching parts of the body can generally be associated with areas of high nerve activity, it’s normal to place hands and fingers on the mouth when part of the brain is thinking ‘I have something to say’ while at the forefront of your consciousness, another grey, mushy pocket of your brain is ordering control over the spontaneous action of speaking your mind.
There is also a small surge of adrenaline that accompanies the feeling of embarrassment or nervousness which would, in some cases, result in additional blood rushing to the face and a little bit of blushing, so the brain has compensated by creating a small bodily movement to kill two birds with one stone. The hand movement is an attempt to expel the excess energy produced with the hope of stopping a blush, at the same time as covering the face, particularly the eyes from me as I pass, ensuring avoidance of the awkward moment for the dude having to acknowledge to a passing stranger that he made a little boo-boo.
It’s not always a nervous reaction. I notice that I use my hands to react to news in situations where either speech escapes me or isn’t appropriate. Three or four fingers pressed over the whole mouth could mean surprise, but a more relaxed version of the same gesture with the addition of a gentle frown and somehow I’m pulling the face that says “I’m listening and considering you seriously”. Bodily gestures are just as interesting as subconscious human instinct style reactions, but I’ll get away with myself if I keep on that topic, I already feel like I could talk for days just about natural self-protective instincts, so I’ll try to stay away from new tangents.
Also in this week’s news, I had a fairly painful experience. A friend, a professional masseuse, offered me a head massage, to try and locate the source of my head pain… and definitely found it. I lay on the floor, being specifically, brutally yet tenderly prodded at, causing me immense amounts of additional head pain. What’s weird about that? That’s all pretty normal so far. But I found myself lifting my legs every time she touched a particularly painful spot in my head. I did this as if it was going to combat the head pain in some way, as though lifting my knees towards my chest might save me. I was wrong, of course. Is this an example of human instinct getting a little bit confused? Or does my body know something I don’t? Was I attempting a foetal position?
So when I think of all of the very sensible things the brain is doing, things I can barely even scratch the surface of, it’s no wonder the brain has a little blow out now and then and influences us to do some fairly bizarre things in reaction to our situations and surroundings. It’s just got so many important things to do, it has to fuck up occasionally.
You’re right, this post is merely an elaborate excuse for some occasional crazy-bitch-behaviour.
You’re welcome, crazy bitches.
And to everybody else, give yourself a break, let your mind and body do something radical once in a while without giving yourself a hard time about it. Your hard working machine deserves a little TLC when it acts out of character, not a bollocking. When you get chance, let your body rest, but just as importantly, let your mind do the same.
Top Tip: Do not react by taking yourself off to the hospital and indulging in unnecessary and expensive medical testing, even though I know you all want a cool scan photo just like mine. Just chill out.