Monday, March 25, 2013

Part 2: The Brain; Your Best Frenemy

By the time a fetus is three weeks old, the brain is fully functional. That doesn't mean full formed, but functional. It is in operational control of the autonomic system (heart, lungs, etc) and is sending nerve impulses to the extremities. It is also able to learn.

During this time the brain learns that it is warm, it is cared for, it has no worries. Then it's kicked out into this cold dry environment where it has to fend for itself. Put me back! Don't make me do this! Depending on the circumstances, a child quickly learns to cry when it's uncomfortable. The brain learns that in order to get what it wants all it has to do is make a fuss. Lovely thought.

But the brain is unformed. It doesn't understand cause and effect, doesn't understand that once it starts a chain reaction it can't choose the consequences.

And this, unfortunately, it will never learn.

Now understanding that this is all my own opinion, what would happen if you started getting a cold and told your brain out loud, "Brain, I do not have time for this cold. Put it off to the weekend."

Skeptical? You might find yourself surprised.

What if you said (again out loud) "Brain, I want to climb Mount Everest." Well, the brain doesn't really know what Mount Everest is. It might have pictures, it might have a vague understanding of "Big," but it can't carry you bodily to Mount Everest so that you can climb it. What it can do is push you into seeing ways that your dream might be possible. Or it might send you a nightmare of climbing some unknown mountain in the dark.

Your brain is your best frenemy. It makes everything possible, from the feeling in the soles of your feet to the playing of a concert. It also makes (or at least starts) every reaction that creates illness or health in the human body.

But as I said before, it doesn't understand cause and effect. "She needs down time" might seem to the brain to be a perfect excuse to let microbes run rampant, resulting in a cold that lasts weeks and puts you flat on your back. "He's doing something he doesn't like" might seem sufficient to create a chemical reaction that results in repeated panic attacks. Once these things start, it's much harder to make them stop. The Brain does not understand this. It's a computer, and can only put out what goes in. Most rational cognition takes place on another level entirely.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Part 1: Mind Games

Can I just say I hate needles? Still, one of the simplest ways to serve other people is to give blood or platelets.

I started giving blood regularly when I was eighteen, just barely starting college. Years later I learned that I could give platelets and watch a movie while donating. Fun! Then one day, I went to give blood and the woman asking all the questions asked me if I'd been feeling weak.

No. I had a lot of energy, felt completely fine, but she said my iron count was so low that if it went down any more they'd send me to the emergency room.

Wow. Um... So I walked away (deferred for the first time) and halfway back to class I suddenly felt weak and tired. I sat down on a bench and slept for three hours, missed several classes. Until that moment, I had no idea that being low on iron might be any kind of problem. She said I should feel weak--I started feeling weak. She said I should be tired--I started feeling tired.

Years later I was giving platelets and one of the phlebotomists (which sounds like something that grows in a diseased swamp) told me about a citrate reaction--she becomes short of breath, her fingers and toes go numb and start to cramp...Can you see the punchline? Half an hour later, boom, I was having the identical reaction. It had never occurred to me previously that a reaction to donating platelets was possible. I think it stems from my dislike of needles....and the brain's desire to give me what it thinks I want.

The role of the brain in our health is interesting, and I think it has far more to say on this subject than most of us want to admit.

1 The Brain is lazy. If there's a way to get out of doing something, it will take that path
2 The Brain is in control. Not only in control of the autonomics but also pain impulses, the use of nutrients and many other processes
3 The Brain is not an autonomous organ. If you tell it what to do, it will try to obey
4 The Brain will try to give you what it thinks you want or need

When I was going to college I always got sick over spring break, without fail. For some reason I never got sick during the school year. Always on the breaks. Was this because the germs were only present during the two weeks prior to the breaks? Somehow I don't think so. Was it because my immunity slowly ground down during the school year? Maybe, but that doesn't account for the fact that I was always healthy again by the time classes started.

The fact is, I knew I didn't have time to be sick. I had classes to be to, tests to take. I couldn't be down for any length of time. So if I started to get a sniffle, I told my brain to stop it and forged on.

Did it work? Is illness all psychosomatic? If we knew how, could we stop illness, aging, diabetes, cancer?

I think to some extent this may be exactly the case. The problem is, where do we draw the line?

Next week I will discuss "The Brain: Your Best Frenemy"