body models and chemical spills

One of my inadequacies is an empty shelf of human physiology and anatomy understanding. I only know roughly where my spleen is because Karyn would poke at it when I had mononucleosis, just to see if it really was tender and swollen. (It was.) I think my appendix is on the other side, because where the hell else would it fit? But I don’t really know what either of these organs of unusual shape actually do. Nor do I know where they’re attached or how they fit into the context of other organs. A pancreas? I’m sure it’s important.

My models of the body sway between a few different versions. Most of the time I function with a metaphor of gears and pulleys, a system of which is connected to intricate relays in my brain and some parallel collection of circuits dictated by some free will and a few automated functions. I know it really isn’t like that, yet the alternatives are too complicated for me to make use of. Cells, all doing cellular things, each one a system but all collectively part of large organ systems which, again all collectively, comprise some body system. Biology is harder than I was thinking when I completed my 7th grade plant collection and dichotomous key.

My body model du jour is one in which there is a battery of small reservoirs with little plungers that push out different juices. To my mind, there’s a comic book sketch of multicolored fluids that are at the ready, and when there’s need they can be dispensed and mixed, perhaps by little cellular cartoon characters at the ready. (Draw little smiley faces on cells with arms, happily whistling as they turn up steam or squirt lubricant.) Recently, they’ve been collaborating to combine some extra doses, froth and foment within my body. This is my natural reaction to summer stress and disorganization, I’ve come to accept. So, not having control over it, I start to imagine the small internal elves pushing some piston on one fluid to mix with the emitted fluid from another piston, and although they each seemed harmless on their own, the mixing sets of the bubbling and exothermic reactions.

From my own experiences, enhanced and corroborated by similar tribulations of friends, colleagues, and associates, I’ve started to realize that the internals aren’t so much dictated by deliberate elves or smiling cells, but by random events. The insides that determine an ailment or activation seem to be non-metered. There are no prescribed doses in capsules. Rather, there’s a collection of water balloons, all filled, some leaking, bouncing around and rubbing about. And once in a while they burst, and it seems that the burst of one could set off the burst of another. If there are elves within the machinery, they spend most of their time mopping up the messes rather than dictating the controls.

In some research work, my collaborator asked me the same prompt he was going to ask some psychology students: Imagine that we could unlatch the top of the head of “Bob,” and from that extract his brain while everything is still attached. Now, point to “Bob.” Do you point to the body, to the brain, or to the combination? My first reaction was to point to the brain, just like if you asked me about where the information of the computer here, I’d point to the place where the processing and the memory is all contained. But I paused, and he looked at me with a raised eyebrow as I considered poor, brainless Bob. That brain isn’t independent from the rest of the body. The brain clearly does something and the body responds; but the body does stuff and the brain responds. We are not one or the other, but all of it.

And within the all of it are those leaky, filling, spilling, and bursting balloons of chemicals, and there they are churning and reacting. If there are elves in there, then their job must be focused on a lot of yelling. Yelling about the recent bursts, the frothing, the messes; yelling up to the control room to take a nap, go on a run, drink some coffee, drink less coffee, get out the martini shaker, or pet the dog. Or to start writing it down.


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