A couple weeks ago, I went to my neurologist’s office early for my annual MRI. It’s never a pleasant experience. Even after 14 years, it’s still as unsettling as it was the first time. It’s not the tightness of the space that gets me or the sensations and sounds. It’s the “what if.”
What if this time they find something bad? What if this time I discover that something I tried to explain away was actually my MS?
I lay there for 30 minutes or more, my body perfectly still and my mind racing. And though I know the truth, that I’m not confined by this machine or defined by what it discovers, that nagging thought keeps pounding in my brain, as consistent as the bangs and boops of the contraption I’m in.
This time around, I learned that I have a new lesion on my left cerebellum. For those of you who aren’t in the know, the cerebellum is the “little brain” at the base of your cerebrum. It is responsible for essential instinctive functions like breathing, circulation, digestion, sleeping, and swallowing.
Moments like this make it impossible to forget I’m not “normal,” that I’m one of 2.3 million people around the world who has multiple sclerosis. Like Linus said when he raps his knuckles on the aluminum tree, “This really brings Christmas close to a person.”
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Thankfully, there have been no major physiological problems caused by this lesion, as far as I can tell, but the revelation got me thinking about the brain and how it works. Without a doubt, it’s “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Even after hundreds of years of study, we’re not close to fully understanding it.
Recently, I read a fascinating article by Michael Egnor. A neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery and pediatrics at Stony Brook University, he has long sought to understand how the mind relates to the brain, and still the truth eludes him.
His studies of split-brain patients (typically epileptics who have had their corpus callosum severed) have led him to believe that, “The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.” (If you want to read an account of one of the side effects of that surgery, I highly recommend “Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M.,” by Suzanne Corkin. The prose is a little dry, but the story is fascinating.)
It’s like Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Though a green puppet spoke these words, there’s great truth in them. There is something to us beyond our physical brains. Sometimes, I get so focused on the scan and what it reveals that I forget there is something in me that can never be codified, that can’t be seen on a cross-section. No machine, no matter how powerful, can ever see my soul. My intellect. My will. Multiple sclerosis can attack my physical brain, sure, but thankfully, it can never get at those things. I may lose the ability to walk, to see, to talk, but I will always be me. Always.
The neuroscientist seems to agree with the little Jedi master. Egnor writes that “human beings have two powers of the soul that are not material—intellect and will. These transcend matter. They are the means by which we reason, and by which we choose based on reason. We are composites of matter and spirit. We have spiritual souls.”
Yes, souls, the great mystery given to us when the breath of life is blown into our nostrils. The part of us that is in tune with the divine and that longs for communion with the Almighty. The part that science — thank goodness — can never understand.
Egnor, toward the end of his article, states, “Neuroscience, pursued without a materialist bias, points towards the reality that we are chimeras: material beings with immaterial souls.” And I think that is the best way of seeing ourselves. We human beings aren’t either/or — brain or soul — but both/and. Our physical minds matter, yes, but so, too, do the intangible parts of us, those things that don’t show up on a scan.
So, if you’re going into your next MRI or just coming out of one like I am, don’t let the results plague your days. Put the results in their proper perspective. Your physical brain is just one part — and perhaps the least important part — of who you are.
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