Sunday, May 4, 2008

THE DISEMBODIED LADY: Realizing the importance of our bodily functions

Most of the time, we take important things for granted. The small things that we do everyday have been so routinely that we tend to take them as they are without placing any effort to ask how and why they are there. The usual answer that I get when I ask how I am able to perceive the world the way I do is that, “I do not know, I just do!” And so I do not bother myself looking for the exact explanation, I just take them at face-value. Nothing wrong with accepting what has been there all along right? But after reading the “Disembodied Lady,” I realized that this should not be the case. I have come to terms that it is important to know the reason why things are there and how they play a vital role in our existence.

Taking Christina, as the anecdote would describe her, a “strapping young woman of twenty-seven, given to hockey and riding, self-assured, robust, in body and mind, has two children, works as a computer programmer at home, intelligent and cultivated, fond of the ballet and of the Lakeland poets,” as an example we can see that she exudes the common human being that does not trouble herself finding out the importance of her bodily functions. Then one day, an abdominal pain startles her which would start the twist and turn of her once blissful life. The be-and-all of this is that Christina suffered from neuritis, a general term referring to the inflammation of a nerve or part of the nervous system.[1] The unusual thing in Christina’s case however was that there was a proprioceptive deficit, going from the tips of her toes to her head. She has no muscle or tendon or joint sense whatever. The proprioceptive deficit according to the article was caused by a sensory neuritis, affecting the sensory roots of spinal and cranial nerves throughout the neuraxis.

I am not an expert to talk about proprioceptive deficit or anything about neuritis. The doctor in the article nevertheless mentioned that the sense of the sense of the body is given by three things: vision, balance organs (the vestibular system), and proprioception. These worked together and if one failed, the others could compensate or substitute to a degree. In Christina’s words, proprioception is like the eyes of the body, the way the body sees itself. If it is gone, it is like the body is blind.

According to this article of Shannon Lee, a student of Biology at the Bryn Mawr College, there are five common senses that are discussed and learned from an early age: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. The I-function, the conscious part of the brain, is very aware of these senses. It voluntarily checks information obtained by these senses in order to experience the environment, and also when a strong enough stimuli has signaled attention to these specific receptors. There are other equally important sensory systems set up that are essential for normal body functioning, but these are not so easily recognized by the I-function because the nervous system keeps the input unconscious.

One overlooked sense, known as proprioception, is as important, if not more important as the other senses, for normal functioning. Proprioception is "the process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces," by utilizing stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body.
Proprioception and kinesthesia, the sensation of joint motion and acceleration, are the sensory feedback mechanisms for motor control and posture. Theses mechanisms along with the vestibular system, a fluid filled network within the inner ear that can feel the pull of gravity and helps the body keep oriented and balanced, are unconsciously utilized by the brain to provide a constant influx of sensory information. The brain can then send out immediate and unconscious adjustments to the muscles and joints in order to achieve movement and balance.

Proprioception, also often referred to as the sixth sense, was developed by the nervous system as a means to keep track of and control the different parts of the body. A normal person is able to move a finger, knowing where and what the finger is doing, with little effort. The normal person could just volunteer the finger to move back and forth and proprioception would make this an easy task. Without proprioception, the brain cannot feel what the finger is doing, and the process must be carried out in more conscious and calculated steps. The person must use vision to compensate for the lost feedback on the progress of the finger. Then the I-function must voluntarily and consciously tell the finger what to do while watching the feedback.

The eyes have to also be trained to judge weights and lengths of objects. As a person attempts to lift objects there is no feedback on how hard to flex the muscles except from what clues vision gives. Studies support that through feedback from proprioception the brain is able to calculate angles of movement and command the limb to move exact distances. If vision is taken away, the lights are cut out, then that person will fall in a heap on the floor, with no ability to make successful voluntary movements. Without this sense humans would be forced to spend a great amount of their conscious energy moving around or would not be mobile at all.[2]
It appears that proprioception is a very important sense for humans to survive. I cannot imagine a world where people always watch out their actions. That is like switching an appliance on and off everytime you want to use it. Worst, if you do not watch after that appliance, it might result in a disaster for it might go wrong one way or another.

Apart from the proprioceptive deficit that the article tackled, I was intrigued by this philosopher named Wittgenstein. Who exactly is Wittgenstein? According to this site, he is considered the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He questioned the nature of philosophy making things complicated out of their simplicity. He argued that philosophy was still something that was basically superfluously troubled with unnecessary concerns over imaginary issues. Language was no longer something to represent a world of facts but a self-contained activity that determines itself. Languages, Wittgenstein famously decided, are "games"; and playing the particular language game is to engage in a certain "form of life." The rules of the language game are not determined by the nature of the world, but by the training provided by the corrections and example of other speakers. One cannot simply determine the truth for oneself, because it is not external reality, but the interaction with others that determines the correct statements. The role of this interaction rules out either a "private language" or an absolute truth independent of the standards of a linguistic community. Meaning, indeed, is just usage, and there are no independent senses which are to be matched up with reality to determine truth or falsehood. The theory of language is just a kind of human "natural history," describing one form of human behavior.[3]

In a way, Wittgenstein is an empiricist that questioned the validity of the reality produced by the senses. And it is this doubt that the article integrated Wittgenstein to the proprioceptive deficit in Christina’s case. All in all, I am quite enlightened to know that our senses is not just the usual sense that we know. There’s the vision and vestibular senses and our sixth sense that makes up our humanity and enable us to perceive the world clearly. It is terrifying to think that there might come a time that we could lost these senses. But I thank God that I still have mine. I now know the importance of my bodily functions.One setback that the article has is that it was not able to detail how Christina’s gallstone removal affected the neuritis that came up with the sickness. I still am wondering if there is a connection. And given that the setting still happened during the period of 1977-1980, there might be more discoveries that would explain further proprioceptive deficiency.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuritis
[2] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro02/web2/slee.html
[3] http://www.friesian.com/wittgen.htm