Posted in Life & Happiness

Exoskeleton

If you look at a crustacean, such as a crab or lobster, you will notice that they have a very tough exoskeleton. Unlike us, they have their skeleton on the outside to act as armour to protect their weak, soft insides. This allows for great protection against injuries and when battling.

But if they are contained in a rigid shell, how do these animals grow? The answer is that they moult. As they grow, crustaceans will periodically shed their armour, so that the growing inner tissues can create a larger exoskeleton to hold their body in. This is a critical period as the animal is most vulnerable, as the new exoskeleton is still soft and does not offer much protection.

Even though human bodies contain skeletons on the inside, we could consider our hearts as having an exoskeleton. Like all animals, we want to avoid pain – both physical and emotional. So as we grow up, we put up resilient walls to try to protect our weak psyche and ego, to prevent being hurt by others. But a heart with a rigid, hard shell cannot grow. Only when we lower our guard, climb out of our shells and allow ourselves to be vulnerable can we grow and mature.

Life is full of suffering and hardship. We all have our scars and traumas, but at the end of the day, we survived. If we decide to shut ourselves in to avoid connection and refuse to open up to others, we may protect ourselves from some pain. But these are the moments – when we feel like all is lost, when we feel so weak and helpless, when we are anguishing – that we are growing as a person.

Don’t be afraid of feeling weak and vulnerable – it is a necessary step for your heart to grow.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Voodoo Death

We inherently fear death. Much of what we do biologically is struggling against death. We eat and drink to sustain ourselves. We feel pain to avoid things that may eventually kill us. Even moments before our death, our brain will flash our life before our eyes to grasp at any past experiences that may help us survive.

Because of this, we are also inherently neurotic. Some fear flying in a plane because they can imagine the plane crashing and burning, even knowing that flying is safer than a car ride. Childhood traumas where we thought we might die cause long-lasting damage to how we behave and think as an adult.

The most interesting example of how the fear of death can affect us is the phenomenon of voodoo death.

American physiologist Walter Cannon published a paper in 1942 studying cases of “voodoo death” – where healthy people (usually from tribal societies) suddenly passed away after being cursed. Voodoo death starts when a person is cursed or condemned to die by a medical person, such as a witch doctor or shaman. The victim and those around them must believe that the curse will actuall kill them (due to the culture or tradition). The victim’s family may even prepare a funeral. The victim loses all hope that they can survive the curse. They then die, even though their body shows no signs of physical ailment.

For example, the Australian Aborigines are known to have practised “boning”, where a witch doctor would point a vexed bone at an enemy, causing the victim to immediately convulse and die. A Nairobi woman passed away within 24 hours of finding out that the fruit she ate was sacred and she committed a great sin. A Maori man, who was told he should never eat wild game meat, died a day after finding out that he had accidentally eaten wild game meat – even though he had eaten in 2 years ago.

Voodoo death is not only limited to pre-modern societies. In the 1990’s, there was a documented case where a patient was diagnosed with terminal metastatic oesophageal cancer. After saying his goodbyes to his family as were his last wishes, he swiftly passed away. On autopsy, they discovered that the cancer had not actually spread that much and was not the cause of death.

There are many theories as to what may cause voodoo death. The traditional thought was that intense fear and stress stimulates the release of catecholamines such as adrenaline, inducing a massive fight-or-flight response, as seen in broken heart syndrome. The surge of adrenaline causes the heart to beat too fast and too strongly, until it gives out and causes cardiac arrest.

However, more recent studies showed that animals that die from stress exhibit signs of the opposite happening – that is, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the common type of fainting spells called vasovagal syncope) is overactive. Because the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect to the sympathetic (fight-or-flight), it can cause the heart to slow to the point of stopping.

This parasympathetic overactivity may be triggered by a sense of absolute hopelessness, essentially causing the body to “give up” on life. On a related note, the hopeless victim will likely not be eating or drinking much while under extreme emotional duress, so dehydration and catatonia may play a role as well.

Voodoo death is an excellent example of how much power the mind has over the body. Ironically, the fear of death itself can cause death.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Heartbeat Hypothesis

When you compare the lifespans of mammals, it is common to see that larger animals live longer than smaller animals. Another observation is that smaller mammals almost always have a much higher basal heart rate. For example, a mouse has a basal heart rate of about 600 beats per minute (bpm), but only lives 3 years on average. An elephant has a basal heart rate of 30bpm, but lives up to 60 years. If you do the maths, it turns out that the total heartbeats per lifespan is surprisingly similar between the two species (0.94 billion beats). It has been noted that amongst mammals, there is a clear inverse correlation between heart rate and lifespan.

This observation led to the popularisation of a factoid that the heart can only beat a limited number of time before it eventually fails.

Unfortunately, there has been very limited evidence to support this theory. It is medically true that a heart under more strain for a long period of time, such as with high blood pressure, has a tendency to develop more diseases such as cardiomyopathy and heart failure. However, there are too many other variables to consider. For example, exercise temporarily raises your heart rate but improves your overall cardiovascular health and lowers your basal heart rate.

It is much more likely that death from aging is related to the basal metabolic rate. Metabolism produces free radicals, which are elements with free electrons that can damage cells. Therefore, the higher the metabolic rate (such as in mice), the faster the damage accumulates and results in death.

That being said, consider the other implication of the so-called heartbeat hypothesis. Our hearts beat faster in response to many stimuli: exercise, excitement, fear, anxiety, fun and love. If the hypothesis is true, that would mean that intense emotions could make our hearts tire out faster and hasten our inevitable demise.

Could falling in love be detrimental to our physical health? Thankfully, this has never been shown to be true, with many studies showing that happily married couples tend to outlive single people.

Even if it were true, would you give up on the idea of love to live a few more years? What kind of life would be worth living without any highs or lows? Perhaps when we fall in love, experience heartache or become overwhelmed with happiness, we are making the voluntary choice of quality, not quantity, of life.

Posted in Philosophy

Skeleton

Is it better to have a skeleton inside the body, or on the surface?

In the case of insects, the skeleton is on the surface and takes the form of a shell that protects them from external damage. The flesh is protected by this shell and becomes soft until it becomes fluid-form. Therefore, when something sharp penetrates the armour, it causes critical, irreversible damage.

If the skeleton is inside the body, it takes the form of thin, hard bones. The soft flesh on the outside is exposed to harm. This leads to endless number of wounds. However, the weakness of being exposed leads to the muscles becoming harder with more resistant muscle fibres. The flesh evolves.

I have met many people who wear an intellectual shell made from remarkable knowledge and intellect, protecting themselves from attacks made by people with different ideas. They appeared much more robust than normal people. They would laugh at everything else, saying “I don’t care”. But when a different opinion would penetrate the hard exterior of their mind, the blow to their ego was indescribable.

I have also met people who would be hurt by even the smallest, insignificant confrontations or dissonance. However, they were sensitive because their minds were open and they learnt something from whatever attack they received.

(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)

Werber spoke of the “skeleton” of the body and mind, but human beings have one other thing that needs a sturdy skeleton – the heart. Many people protect their heart from being broken with hard armour. They do not open up themselves easily and always give an image of strength and stability. But there is no such thing as a life without pain. People who put a skeleton on the outside of their heart tend to be those who have been hurt badly before and trying to protect themselves from being hurt again. This may be effective to some degree, but if you close off your heart, you cannot heal your wounds and you also shut off the happiness of connection. If they suffer pain greater than their armour can withstand, their heart is shattered and they fall into a pit of despair, unable to recover.

On the contrary, some people open up easily to others, exposing themselves to frequent pains from social interactions. These people are sensitive to pain and heartbreak. Hence, the world considers them frail and weak. But as these people have a strong skeleton inside their hearts, they can recover from any wound and they become stronger like well-developed muscle. They grow through pain and their heart – like a warrior who has fought countless battles – becomes strong and resilient against the pains of the world.

We mustn’t avoid suffering and pain and instead try to overcome it. Through this we learn how to bounce back and through experience, we develop ourselves. Suffering is hard, but it is a catalyst that helps us grow into a strong, resilient person.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Silphium

Although sex was devised by Mother Nature to promote procreation, humans have been trying to separate the baby-making aspect of sex from the pure carnal pleasure it gives for a very long time. The Romans are known to have used a fennel-like herb called the silphium as a form of birth control. They discovered that the leaves of this plant could be ground up and made into a resin pill, which seemed to reduce the likelihood of women becoming pregnant. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recorded that one could use the resin as a pill or pessary to promote menstrual discharge, suggesting pregnancy has not occurred.

News of this medicine spread throughout the empire and there was massive demand for it. The plant grew exclusively on a narrow coastal area in present-day Libya and was impossible to cultivate. This meant settlements in this area could trade the plant at a very high price. It is said silphium was “worth its weight in denarii (silver coins)”. Its economic importance is signified in coins from Cyrene (an ancient North African city where silphium was produced) depict the silphium plant or seed. In fact, one theory of the origin of the heart symbol is the shape of the silphium seed pod. Overharvesting of the plant, the fact that it could not be cultivated and other factors such as changing environments and overgrazing ultimately led to the extinction of this plant and scholars still debate the exact identity of the plant.

Although there are records that indicate silphium was used as a contraceptive and abortifacent (substance that induces abortion), it is unclear as to how effective it was. Related plants such as wild carrots have shown to have abortifacent properties in some studies and there certainly are a vast list of plants that could potentially harm or terminate a pregnancy. Regardless of the potency, the heavy trade of the plant and its intended use points towards the fact that the concept of contraception is not new to human civilisations. It is interesting to think that we are the only species to actively want to reduce the risk of making a baby during sex, which is the original purpose of sex.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Viscera: Heart

(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here: https://jineralknowledge.com/tag/viscera/?order=asc)

Out of the numerous organs found in the human body, the heart is perhaps the most well-known. This is probably because since the dawn of time, man has put his hand on his chest and felt the rhythmic pounding of his heart – a reminder that he is alive. The function of the heart is to pump oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body via the circuit of blood vessels (vascular system).

The heart relies on electricity to pump blood in a rhythmic, autonomous way. Because of this property, a heart will beat on its own even if you took it out of the human body. Every muscle in the human body requires an electrical impulse for it to contract. This is also the case in the heart, but unlike the skeletal muscle in other parts of the body which receive their impulses from the brain and spinal cord, the heart has its own source of electricity.

The heart has a small group of pacemaker cells in the right atrium called the sinoatrial node, which always fires electrical impulses at a set rate and rhythm (sinus rhythm). The SA node will do this without any instruction from the brain. The impulse from the SA node spreads throughout the atria of the heart, causing the atrial muscles to contract simultaneously to squeeze blood into the ventricles. The impulses then reach the atrioventricular node, which filters the signals and sends a stream of electricity through a wiring system known as the Purkinje fibres. These fibres act like a high-speed internet cables running down the centre of the heart, sending rapid signals through out the ventricles to induce a strong, cooridnated contraction in both ventricles. This causes blood to be forcefully squeezed out through the two outlet vessels of the heart: the pulmonary artery (to the lungs) and the aorta (to the rest of the body).

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Although the SA node is completely autonomous, it can be controlled using hormones, nerve signals and medications. For example, adrenaline will speed up the rate the heart beats at while massaging the carotid arteries in the neck will slow the heart down.

One thing people wonder about is what the doctors listen to when they put a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. Everyone knows the heart makes a rhythmic “lub dub” sound as it beats away, but what information could that give away? A doctor can gain much information about the heart from a cardiac examination by taking the pulse and blood pressure, but listening to the heart (auscultation) may reveal a medical sign known as a murmur. A murmur is any added sound other than the normal “lub dub” sound of the heart. For example, a heart with aortic stenosis may give the sound “shhhhhhh” as if it was giving off static. This sound is produced when blood flow in the heart is turbulent and not smooth. This may be for a number of reasons but the most common reason is because the valves of the heart are not functioning properly. For example, the valve between the left atrium and left ventricle may be leaky (mitral regurgitation) or the valve at the start of the aorta may be stiff and narrowed (aortic stenosis).

By carefully listening to the sound the heart makes, an experienced doctor may pick up on such structural abnormalities even without the use of fancy medical imaging technologies.

Posted in Life & Happiness

True Love

Let us assume that everyone has a person they are destined to end up with. Can we calculate the probability of such a fateful meeting between a man and a woman?

Suppose that the woman is X and the man is Y. Firstly, X and Y need to be born as human beings. They cannot be born as a worm or an onion or something. Here, we will say that the total number of species is M and the population number of each species as P (technically this part is forcing it slightly, so we can skip it).

Although the two have to beat ridiculous odds just to start, just being born as human beings is not enough. One must be born with XX chromosomes to be a woman, and the other must be born with XY chromosomes to be a man.

Let us assume that the two were lucky enough to be born as a man and a woman. Next, they must live in the same space. If one lives in some Korean city and the other lives in some American rural village, it is unlikely the two will ever meet.

Even if they did live in the same place, X and Y must have subjective qualities that the other person finds attractive. If they are not interested in each other, nothing will happen even if they did meet. By this stage, we have clearly gone past the scopes of mathematics.

Then let us assume that a man and a woman, who fit each other perfectly and born as people, are living in the same space. We are still missing one variable: time. Even if we took only the 5000 years that civilisations have existed, the odds of the two being born in the same era as similar ages is less than 0.001%.

Species, sex, space, time… Statistically speaking, the chances of a man and a woman beating all of these odds to establish a perfect couple seem nearly impossible. But we can clearly see that “true love” exists all around us. Numbers are just numbers. If you find a person that makes your heart skip a beat when your eyes meet, that makes you feel that the more you get to know them, the more you think you cannot live without them; in essence a person that makes you think “this person is The One”, do not let the person slip away. The scenario of you and that person existing on the same space-time and loving each other is something that verges on the impossible.

There is no treasure as rare as true love. If you have found true love, or believe that you have found it, fight to seize it and do everything in your power to protect it. That is the greatest accomplishment you can make in life.

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Posted in History & Literature

Zodiac: Libra

Libra is the Zodiac sign for those born between September 23 and October 21. The symbol for Libra is a pair of large, golden scales.

The model for Libra is the Scales of Justice used by Astraea, the goddess of justice. She would use these scales to compare the arguments of the defendant and the plaintiff in a trial to decide who was right. Interestingly, the concept of using scales in a trial can be found in other cultures such as Egyptian mythology. Anubis, the god of death, would take a person’s heart out when they died, put it on scales and compare the weight against the Feather of Truth. If the heart was lighter, the person’s soul would be sent to heaven; if it was heavier, he would be sent to hell. Astraea’s scales also became a constellation when she ascended to the heavens.

(Part of the Zodiac series: https://jineralknowledge.com/tag/zodiacs/?order=asc)

Posted in Philosophy

Red String

During the Tang Dynasty, there was a man named Wigo. He wanted to find a partner but no suitable girl showed up, so he decided to travel instead. One day, he came across a strange old man. In fact, the old man was Wolha-noin, a man who could tie a sacred bond between a man and a woman with a red string. Wigo, already desperate, begged the old man to tell him who his future spouse was. The old man, simply pointed to the three year-old daughter of a poor vegetable store owner. Wigo was furious and he told his subordinate to kill the child, but luckily she survived with only a scar between her eyebrows.

14 years later, Wigo finally married a beautiful, nubile wife. However, Wigo’s wife never appeared to show her forehead. Wigo found this strange and asked his wife: “Dear, why do you always hide your forehead?”. His wife replied: “When I was three years old, I was hit by a knife which left a scar between my eyebrows”. Wigo realised that his wife was the child from the past and begged for her forgiveness. The two, as predicted by Wolha-noin, lived happily ever after as man and wife.

According to this legend, we are all born with a red string tied to our little finger. This red string is tied on the other end to the little finger of your true love, with every person in the world having a destined partner. It is said that if two people who are linked with the red string meet, they will fall head over heels for each other and eventually marry.

The legend of the red string is, in some ways, half mythical and half true. Of course it is impossible to follow some string to your true love (how good would that be?), but whatever people say, there is somebody out there for you to love and be loved by. However, unlike the legend of the red string, you do not have just one person you are destined to wed. If we were truly born with one destined partner, then what guarantee is there that they would be born or live in the same place as you, let alone the same time period as you? If this is true, then it would be statistically improbable for a “happy couple” to form. But look around you. Happy couples are everywhere. This tells us that we are not bound to love only one person. Yes, the “red string” is not a single predestined bond, but a symbol of someone who is just right for you. “The One” is simply someone who is right for you, someone who lives in the same time and place as you, someone that makes you happy and someone you want to make happy. Whether there is one, ten or a hundred of these people depends on your preferences and your heart. So never lose hope and believe that you will be forever alone. Somewhere, “The One” who fits the empty spots of your heart like a puzzle piece is looking for you too.

Love is not a single strand of red string, but a network of countless strings crossing each other. When the string of the person that perfectly complements you crosses your string, you must make a decision. Will you continue onwards in the same direction as before? Or will you make all the effort to bend your string so that you can travel with your true love, side-by-side? If you two are truly meant to be, only then will a real red string form between your hearts. As the two lovers get to know each other and spend time with each other, the line shortens and shortens until someday, the two become one.

Posted in History & Literature

Wedding Ring

The practice of wearing jewellery to signify the sacred bonds of marriage dates back to ancient Egypt, where chains and bracelets were worn. This eventually evolved into wearing a ring, where the circle symbolised endless love while the open centre represented the doorway to an unknown future. This practice spread to the ancient Greeks, then the ancient Romans, where it became a commonplace tradition around the 2nd century. The Romans called the wedding ring annulus pronubis and it was tradition for a man to give a ring to a woman at the betrothal ceremony to symbolise his eternal devotion.

A wedding ring is most often worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, so-called the “ring finger”. It is uncertain when this tradition arose, as various cultures chose different fingers on different hands for the wedding ring. One theory suggests that the tradition arose from the ancient Romans believing that the fourth finger contained a vein called the vena amoris – a vein that connects directly from the finger to the heart. As the heart is a symbol of love, placing a ring on this finger symbolised eternal love. However, this is a false belief for two reasons. Firstly, every vein, by definition, returns to the heart. Thus, it makes no sense that the fourth finger is special. Secondly, there is no such thing as the vena amoris, with all the veins in each finger having an identical structure (common palmar digital veins). As the circulatory system was not known during ancient times, it is likely that this story is a myth that arose sometime after the Middle Ages when a romantic story was matched with the tradition. It is also likely that jewellery companies marketed such a story to promote wedding ring sales (much like the marketing of the diamond engagement rings).