Fuzzy brains

A month or so ago, my friend Beth was asked to speak to a gathering of over 150 trainee medics about her experience of living with Lupus. As I regularly give presentations in the course of my work, she asked me to help her put together a few slides to illustrate her main points and give the audience something to look at. We set to work one grey Saturday afternoon, sat side-by-side on her new sofa, with tea in hand and laptops – appropriately – on laps.

Beth wanted a picture to illustrate what she calls ‘fuzzy brain’, the unclear thinking that originates from Lupus and the sizeable collection of medications needed to treat its impact on different body systems. A quick trawl of t’internet turned this up, a hand-knitted brain, shown above. The lady responsible is a child psychologist who knitted the brain “because it seemed so ridiculous and would be an enormously complicated, absurdly ambitious thing to do.” She’s also gone on, with a friend, to create a whole museum-full of scientifically accurate fabric brain art inspired by research from neuroscience, dissection and neuroeconomics. One wonders how she ever finds time to study real brains.

However, it’s good to see the beauty of our construction being celebrated. I find anatomy textbooks fascinating – it’s easy to become engrossed in the curves and the corners, the gross structure and the detail, the interlocking functions of the human form. It’s also intriguing in that you can often look at a particular organ or system, realise what it does, and think “well, I wouldn’t have designed it that way”… and yet it works, even though it seems to take a rather convoluted route to get there and creates some strange, assymetric shapes on the way. There is an inherent beauty in our bodies, even if the logic of the design is far from obvious.

I’m also amazed by how our body systems can circumvent injury, work around disability, and  compensate for congenital limitations. There is flexibility and redundancy built in that allows us to survive and even flourish in the face of so many ailments and functional deficits. For example, I was born with one kidney, and only discovered this after I volunteered for a research project (involving an abdominal MRI) at the age of 21. Further scans revealed I’d probably only ever had one big kidney but it had been quietly doing the job of two all that time, its Herculean efforts in single-handedly filtering my blood going unrecognised for over two decades. I may never have known, had I not had that scan. There’s a kind of beauty in that too, the beauty of the brave body that hasn’t quite got all the bits it needs, that doesn’t look like the textbooks, but carries on anyway.

Beth’s brave body does its best but sometimes Lupus throws too much at it all at once and life is hard. I am going to honour her courage and perseverence by asking Beth to contribute a guest blog, summarising that talk (which incidentally, went down very well and was recognised with a lovely letter of thanks from the hospital’s leading Professor of Rheumatology). When it’s uploaded, I’ll link it in here.

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