Thursday, 15 December 2011

Why blog, why? Maps, Aliens and brains...

I love this age!! I'm very new to blogging, but I always loved reading other people's. I love that it is possible, in today's world. It's a magical medium; where people can write about whatever interests them, getting it out there in the world, sharing the knowledge. I never saw myself as a journalist, nor did I think I had something interesting to blog about. Sure I've always written my journals: travel journals; thoughts and feelings. But I always saw myself writing a book, rather than a blog. 

However of late, I've noticed just what a bore I've become. My long suffering family and friends, always listening to me whinging about my arms, about the pain. There was nothing they could do to change it, and a decade of it meant that they often hear me complaining about the same things. I've become one of those annoying repetitive people always whining about the same stuff. It would become rather boring for them, for me too. For my other friends, I try not to talk about it too much. Partly because I've never been entirely comfortable with what I have. I hate admitting to weakness. They ask me what is wrong with my arms, each explanation comes up short. It's complicated, many different processes at work. When I do go more in depth and detail with the pain and limitations, they end up either not understanding, or shocked... 

So, this seemed the perfect medium. A place to talk about it; what I go through every day. A place to share all the crap, all the funny things and to unwind. To be the "Jane in Pain" and not the Jane of my normal life; where I try very hard to keep it invisible.

Plus, there is always a funny side to things. Sometimes I feel utterly ridiculous, some things that happen seem too absurd to be true. Like I'm in a cartoon. Last week, I was reaching up to get the flour down from a shelf in the kitchen. My left hand slipped, and I ended up wearing a container of flour all over me like some sort of weird, powdery ghost! Or the endless plates and cups that have slipped from my hands, the bottle of water that I knocked over my computer last week, making me employ the old bag of rice trick to dry it out! And that's not to mention all the times where I would be mid-sentence, talking about how my arms are bad on a particular day; and then I end up knocking my arm against the table, the door frame, or whatever else that makes the pain a hell of a lot worse (or gives a good bruise on my shins!) The universe likes to play tricks on me!

After a decade of pain and limitations, I have my own bag of tricks at my disposal. I've figured out alternative ways of doing even the simplest of tasks that previously eluded me. I have gadgets, tricks and hacks to pull out of my hat; which means that there isn't really much that I cannot do! 

As an artistic type, a good part of my recovery had a lot of drawing and reconnecting with these hands, my enemy. Painting pain often creates some of the best creations; and by turning pain into art, it soothes the soul. When I was teaching myself to write with my left hand, I was often frustrated by the childish scrawl I was producing. It was so much more difficult during those early years, when I didn't really know what I was dealing with. Back then, I certainly couldn't imagine my life down the track, I never knew I would be able to survive for so long with the pain.

One night, I was so frustrated with my efforts, wanting to give up. I decided that perhaps the best way for me to tackle it would be to try drawing. I used to draw, and quite well. My first scribbles were devastating, I was so disappointed I wanted to cry! But I kept at it, and in some ways drawing was easier to me than writing, because I didn't have to have such fine control in order to create legible script. I could go over previous lines, refining them; the shapes make themselves from my eyes.

I managed a series of self-portraits; not quite Frida Kahlo, but decent sketches which were obviously of me (or someone, at least!). What was evident to everyone else but me; these drawings had NO RIGHT ARM. I was Venus de Milo! Where the hell was it? I didn't even notice. I didn't consciously draw like that, I was just desperately trying to do get pencil to paper. It was like someone got a big eraser and rubbed-out my arm. It was no where to be found. I could see it when it was pointed out to me, but at the time I did those drawings, I saw all my limbs in the places where they were meant to be! 

So, where did my arm go? When the body is in chronic pain, the brain goes a little loopy. From the work of the American-born Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891-1976) in treating epilepsy patients; he was able to build maps of the sensory and motor cortices of the brain. This man was really something, his approach was way ahead of its time, very practical and groundbreaking. His life work was based upon the functioning of the mind and whether he could find scientific basis for a soul. His legacy, among other things; was the "cortical homunculus", which is a pictorial representation of the the body; still in use today. A map, if you will; of how the brain makes sense of all the sensory (and motor) nerves in our bodies. It's not a literal representation, but it illustrates the relationship between the parts of our bodies that have lots of nerves and that we use all the time and therefore need more connections with; and the parts that have nerves, but are further down on the priority list. 

It's a freaking alien map too! Like someone drew it without knowing where the parts of the body go; a Mr Potato Head put together by someone with a blindfold and gloves!! Legs higher than ginormous hands, lips and tongue. What it conveys is the sensory connections between those parts of our bodies and our brains. Lips, fingers, thumbs (and  of course genitals) in particular, are somewhat bigger because there are more sensitive nerves to convey sensations. They often are parts that we use all the time (and hence, we need to interpret a lot more information from those parts of our bodies). The parts of our bodies that we don't need a lot of information from, like thighs or trunk; are represented much smaller. We don't need to know how to type with our toes, or turn a key with our knees!! 

In drawing myself without arms, the picture my brain has of my body has been distorted from the pain. My brain cannot sense my arms properly, because all it gets from that part of my sensory map is pain. The other input, the touch and proprioception (where is my arm in relation to my body) are lost within the cacophony of pain signals. How cool is that? My brain has a much different picture of my body than what the world sees! And to draw myself during a desperate moment in order to stop going crazy, I end up with these crazy pictures. 

"Where is your arm?" "What arm?" Haha! Neuroscience is pretty damn cool! I just hope I don't sneeze one day and have this freaky armless alien pop out of my nose!! 

More info:
Cortical homunculusTopographic map (Neuroanatomy) (wikipedia)

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