The Human Body: A Beautiful Enigma
The human body is full of wonderful mysteries. Even as we delve deeper into technology, medicine, and the world in general, certain parts of humanity continue to baffle even the most learned scientists. And when you think about the questions that plague them, it’s easy to see that there really is no obvious answer to many of these.
Why, for instance, do people blush? The psychology of this act remains elusive, but researchers do understand the physical process involved. Blushing from embarrassment is controlled by the same system that activates the fight-or-flight response, the sympathetic nervous system. When you’re embarrassed, your body releases adrenaline, which acts as a natural stimulant to help you react to a dangerous situation. Your breathing and heart rate increase; pupils grow larger so you can take in as much visual information as possible; and digestive processes slow so all of your body’s energy can be directed to your muscles. Yet the real purpose of blushing remains unknown.
Another question that appears to have no concrete answer is this: why are some people altruistic? Researchers from the University of Zurich have provided an explanation that is confusing at best. They suggest people who behave more benevolently than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing, for the first time, a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity, and altruistic behavior.
But the volume of gray matter is also influenced by social processes. According to the study’s researchers, the findings raise the question of whether it is possible to promote the development of brain regions that are crucial to altruistic behavior through appropriate training or social norms.
Dexterity is an equally perplexing topic. Nine out of 10 people are right-handed, which begs two questions: why are southpaws so obviously the anomaly, and why do humans have dominant hands in the first place? One theory holds that handedness results from having more intricate wiring on the side of the brain involved in speech (which also requires fine motor skills). Because the speech center usually sits in the left brain hemisphere – the side wired to the right side of the body – the right hand ends up dominant in most people. However, this theory doesn’t hold water when you consider not all right-handed people control speech in the left hemisphere, while half of lefties do.
What purpose does the appendix serve? According to researchers, none. In some mammals this organ is a special compartment of the large intestine used for digesting cellulose. A grass-eating rabbit, for instance, has a very large appendix, where specialized bacteria have ample time to break down the fibrous material.
By contrast, ancient primates ate mostly fruits and insects. This substantial shift in diet means the appendix lost its ability to function, although humans have retained a miniaturized version. Today, research suggests the appendix may play a role in the human immune system, but it mostly just causes trouble. Appendicitis occurs when material becomes lodged in the tiny opening to the appendix and causes it to become inflamed.
The Mind-Body Problem
Finally, what is the difference, if any, between the brain and mind? What, exactly, is consciousness? Scientists believe the brain is likely involved in some way with our conscious thoughts, and, with the help of brain imaging, they can watch different parts of the brain light up. They can also alter the brain and stages of human consciousness with surgeries or chemicals, but they cannot determine at what stage a firing neuron becomes a conscious thought. The state of consciousness may be composed of parts scattered all over the brain, but how do these parts work together?
As you can probably see, answers to these questions are not going to come about easily. In fact, the answers may never come at all, because human comprehension can only go so far. After all, we hardly understand ourselves; how can we expect to fully understand each other?