My aim in this particular blog is to challenge and – yes – hopefully, awaken you to and excite you with some genuine truths about yourself. The word “brain” incidentally, comes from an old English or Anglo-Saxon The word “braegen” meaning, “of the head”. The Greek word “encephalon” literally means, “in the head”: and in the head – your head, my head, everybody’s head – there resides a terrain in which every conceivable and possible idea, event and drama, has been, is being and will (quite literally in the imaginal sense) be played out. From this most unlikely (in appearance) organ of human control, with its curious folds, fissures and convolutions comes all of the world’s present understanding of the natural and life sciences; electricity and electronics: primitive inventions such as the wheel: radar: the jet engine: the nuclear bomb: historical developments, e.g. the mighty Roman Empire etc. happenings and events such as the holocaust: the first man on the moon and quite simply, every perception, thought and ensuing deed for good or ill, that has ever known existence, either in reality or in the imagination.
Herein is the source and site of every persuasion and passion, every like; every love: every thought, act and consequence of malice or hatred, altruism and compassion. It is from the head that whatever is pronounced right, wrong, good or evil has its beginnings and works out its every condition and consequence. Just as there are marvels of the world about us to behold, i.e. glorious landscapes, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges, lakes and seas, which have taken millions of years to form and to evolve, so it is with brain. It does indeed possess a landscape and hinterland, which can reveal more marvels and mysteries to the square millimetre, than can the earth to its square mile.
How therefore can we ever for so much as a moment, consider the business of day-by-day coping without making so much as passing reference to the organ which has given and gives shape, purpose, meaning and value to everything: our contact with and knowledge of the world, of each other: our capacity to enjoy music and painting that attributes such sublime meaning, be it to that soft and heartening touch of a little child’s hand or – perhaps at one and the same moment – the grandiose and awesome mysteries of a night sky. Here, in the brain, is the seat and centre of everything which ever was and ever will be “conscious”. Ought we not therefore to possess at least some perception and appreciation of what by birthright, is the precious asset of all who have risen to and achieved ‘state of the art’ brain status, and which is the key to coping with every vicissitude of life?
What is more – and so very much in line with the focus of our interest in this series of blogs – the human brain possesses a complexly refined potential to restore and heal, as well as to maintain health. Far from being helpless in face of the chances and changes of life, the brain can and does – admittedly in complex ways – facilitate empowerment in the pursuit of good health. Yet why is it that whereas one individual will perceive a development or a happening in his/her life as an enormous challenge, another will almost as avoid or cringe and shrink from what in his/her eyes is an insuperable burden and threat?
Also, why – as anecdotal account and even carefully designed research studies would have us believe – do people who approach life’s challenges and misfortunes with “fighting spirit”, or who use “denial” as a coping mechanism, appear to manage life-threatening illnesses with a greater degree of equanimity and even success, than those who by reason of temperament and disposition are regarded as “stoic accepters” or “hopeless/helpless” responders? (My problem with all of this is that I not infrequently have, in past days, met patients who in the morning were displaying decided tendencies toward “hopelessness/ helplessness” but who by lunchtime, were using “denial” with an apparently convincing measure of success and even efficiency. Around teatime, they seemed to be veering toward “stoic acceptance” and by evening, they were assuring their family members (and often, anyone else who might be listening) of their intention to “fight it all the way”). And why is it that an anti-emetic, i.e. anti sickness drug, may work well with only some patients, controlling the vomiting response at one time but not another, even in the same patient? If, by the way, you are expecting me to provide definitive and convincing answers to such questions, you are, I am afraid, going to be disappointed. However, that we do not know everything does not mean that we should not raise such questions, or that we have not worked things out to a point from which we may reasonably proceed further.
Thinking about the brain has often seemed to me to be rather like peering into the night sky during times of childhood. It holds little or no mystery for us, not because it isn’t there, but because the intellectual and emotional capacity and sensibilities to truly behold and wonder about it, have not yet dawned, much less found focus. Rather does it appear to us in those days of such innocence, to be like an extended and gigantic ‘ceiling’, somehow supporting distant lights which, “come out” at night and – depending on what appears to be size and intensity – shine and twinkle high overhead. Only over the course of time (and for some, study) do we progressively and increasingly come to realize that what we are seeing is but an infinitesimal beginning of something indescribably vast, incredibly exciting and rich beyond our wildest comprehension.
Truth to tell, there is a variety of legitimate perceptual levels at which one can pitch one’s account of brain. At the “sublime” end of things, one might I suppose, loftily compare one known numerical facts about the universe, with a superficially similar account of and about brain. We might, for example, point to the estimated number of atoms (one of the smallest elements of substance) in the universe, which is 10, followed by 100 noughts. We might then compare this with what is also apparently true of the brain; namely, that there are some 10,000,000,000 nerve cells and between 100,000 and 1,000,000 different chemicals in the average brain and – as the result of nerve cells interacting with other nerve cells – as many as 10 (followed by 800 noughts).
Away from the sublime and down at the “ridiculous” end of things, I recall a memory from my now far distant schoolboy days. One morning, we were considering the enlargement and enrichment of the nerve chord of a flatworm as possibly the first and most primitive brain. The ‘deliverer’ of the lesson happened to notice out of the corner of his eye, a boy engrossed, most probably in the latest adventure at that time of “Desperate Dan” of “Dandy”* fame! His response was swiftly and unerringly delivered: “That somewhere in the evolutionary story of man is the flatworm, I can readily believe when I have the misfortune to come across the likes of you…(name)…Yet I quite possibly do even the humble flatworm grave injustice, in that it is at least prepared to use what it has available to it, if only evidenced by its head-first motion”. (No, it wasn’t me; honestly! But then again, had the reading material in question in those days been the “Champion”· or “Wizard”·, it might well have been).
The story of the human brain then, is an incredible yet literal account of that very journey between the extremes of what we now rather haughtily regard as the “ridiculous”, to the truly sublime; century by century, eon by eon, from single cell to ganglionic assemblage; from primitive brain stem to the human brain in all its glory. In my next blog, I shall try to develop a credible, if necessarily schematic historical and developmental perspective of that journey; of what we, you and I, have available to us at much less than “arms length. It is an exciting, challenging and reassuring story of how man became man and – by his own inclinations and exertions, might beyond that become…who knows what! (C) SB.
* Popular Comics in the UK of the 1940s, 1950s.