Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.

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Searching, Again, For The Most Interesting Dog In The World!

Russell’s dog Betty still has a lot of puppy in her, and taking her for a walk is a bit of an adventure. Every glimpse of another dog — regardless of age, breed, size, or whether they’re wearing one of those embarrassing head cones — puts Betty on full sensory alert and causes her to immediately begin panting and lunging forward in total sled dog mode. The other dogs are obviously the most fascinating things in the world. In German Village, which has more dogs out walking at any given moment than any other location in the free world, that means the Bettywalker is constantly trotting, arm extended and leash pulled taut, toward one dog or another. For Betty, only squirrels can rival other dogs as an attention-getter.

Imagine what it would be like if humans reacted in this way, treating every other person like they were The Most Interesting Man In The World in the Dos Equis commercials and making a beeline to every stranger you see on the street to give them a heavy-breathing, up-close-and-personal once-over. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad humans are a bit more diffident about other members of their species.

Hey, a squirrel!

Say Hello To Your New Organ

Scientists have determined that there is officially a new organ in the human body, which now will be enshrined within our starting lineup of stomach, lungs, heart, kidneys, and the other slimy, wriggly bags of glop pulsing along inside our skin suits.

mesentery-0The new organ — called the mesentery — isn’t “new” in the sense that it only popped into the human body in 2016.  It’s always been there, between your intestines and your abdomen, helping to advance the human digestive system.  In fact, Leonardo da Vinci, who found time to weigh in on anatomy between completing paintings and designing machines that never got built, considered it to be an organ, but later medical types decided that the mesentery instead should be viewed as a number of distinct structures.  However, recent tests confirmed that the distinct structures function together, which means that old Leo was right and puts the mesentery squarely into the “organ” category.  Gray’s Anatomy, the ultimate medical textbook, has had to be amended to make sure that the mesentery is properly categorized, and scientists and doctors hope that the changed classification will allow the mesentery to be more fully studied and, perhaps, lead to the development of better surgical approaches and treatments of disease.

The mesentery may be an ugly conglomeration of tissue that looks like something that has washed up on a beach and sat there for a while, but it performs two important functions.  First, it provides a conduit for blood vessels, nerves, and the lymphatic system to reach from the rest of the human body down to the intestines.  And second, it allows the intestines to be linked to the abdominal wall without being directly attached to the wall.

As one doctor noted, in describing this second function:  “It is unlikely that [the intestine] would be able to contract and relax along its entire length if it were directly in contact [with the abdominal wall]. [The mesentery] maintains the intestine in a particular conformation, ‘hitched up,’ so that when you stand up or walk about, it doesn’t collapse into the pelvis and not function.”

An important function?  I’ll say!  Given the role of the intestines, we obviously all should be gratefully thanking the mesentery for allowing us to answer nature’s call without having to “hitch up” and rearrange our innards afterwards.  I’m glad the mesentery is finally getting its just acknowledgement.

Speaking Dogese

Researchers in Hungary have found evidence that dogs do process and, to a certain extent, understand human speech.  Using brain scanning technology, the researchers determined that the right parts of canine brains process words and the left parts process pitch, the same way that human brains work.  And the study confirms what any dog person already knows:  dogs react to the particular combination of speech and pitch.

gingerOne interesting aspect of the study is that is provides some insight into how animal brains react to human speech.  That’s hard to test, because most animals try to avoid humans and have no interest in listening to humans yammer on or trying to understand what we’re talking about.  Our canine friends, on the other hand, have been connected with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to welcome, and provide, companionship for humans.  They basically have to care what the humans in their lives are saying to them, so they pay attention when other animals just ignore our blather.

I have no doubt that Kasey understands some of what we say.  When we speak to her, her ears perk up, her head tilts a bit, and her tail starts wagging if the message is a happy one.  Of course, we don’t try to discuss the fine points of philosophy or quantum theory with her, but her limited vocabulary is quite sufficient to cover the basics of her existence.  I’d guess her working vocabulary consists of about ten words, all typically spoken in the same way with exaggerated tones and grouped into five functional life categories that allow her to live a pretty happy dog life:

  1. Self-awareness:  Kasey
  2. Eating:  food, breakfast, dinner, hungry
  3. Basic discipline and interaction:  Good girl!, Bad girl!, No!
  4. Fun:  Walk
  5. Sleep:  Bed

As I type this, I realize that I have probably never said “yes” to Kasey or, for that matter, any other dog.  Fortunately, they aren’t craving positive reinforcement.  They’re just happy to hang out with us.

An Ancient Perspective On War

Why do human beings make war on each other?  It’s a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists, poets and peasants for centuries.

A more interesting question, though, might be not why, but when — because figuring out when the mass killings began might help us to isolate why the human species fights wars in the first place.

prehistoric-skull-discovered-nataruk-kenya-reuters-640x480A recent archaeological dig indicates that war is, unfortunately, much more ancient than we might have suspected.  The find at Nataruk, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, reveals a horrific battle between two tribes of hunter-gatherers that happened 10,000 years ago.  One band captured the other, tied them up, and ruthlessly slaughtered every man, woman and child, including a woman whose pregnancy was far advanced.  The 12 victims of the attack were shot with arrows, beaten, and suffered crushed skulls and broken necks.  Their bodies were then shoved into a lagoon, where they sank into sediment and were preserved, to be found and studied by modern-day scientists.

Modern wars have been blamed on religion, nationalism, ideology, and quests for political power and glory by ruthless leaders.  One school of thought — reflected in John Lennon’s Imagine — postulates that if those causes of conflict were somehow removed, people would live in peace.  But the find in Kenya undercuts that simple premise, because 10,000 years ago was before the development of towns and villages, much less nation states, before the development of agriculture that caused humans to settle and begin to accumulate wealth, before the development of any known organized religion, and before any of the other attributes of modern culture that are typically cited as the causes of war.

The slaughter on the banks of the lagoon long ago occurred between two roaming bands of hunter-gatherers on what must have been a fertile and sparsely populated plain, with plenty of food for everyone.  So, why the slaughter of an entire tribe, rather than the decision to reach an accord, share the land, and live in peace?  It may be that humans, as a species, are just predisposed to war — which is a sobering thought, indeed.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

Punch-Outs At The Dawn Of Humanity

The male human face evolved to be able to take a punch.  That’s the intriguing conclusion of a recent scientific study — one that raises some curious additional questions.

The study examined how facial bones respond to impacts and determined which bones are most likely to be fractured in a fistfight.  It then looked at the bone structures in the skulls of our distant ancestors and saw that the same bones were the ones that showed the most development in terms of sturdiness and thickness.  Those also are the bones where there is the greatest difference between the male and female skulls.  The scientists then put two and two together and concluded that natural selection was at work and was preferring the male proto-humans that could best absorb a right cross to the chops.

This theory, if correct, tells us a lot about early humans.  First, under Darwinian theory natural selection operates in response to prevalent conditions, not the occasional unusual circumstance.  That suggests that early human males were brawling constantly, rather than having a dust-up once in a while.  Instead of the human apes using an animal bone while Also Sprach Zarathustra welled in the background in the opening scene of 2001:  A Space Odyssey, think of them squaring off and trading left uppercuts, like participants in a melee during a professional wrestling match or British soccer hooligans.

Second, evolution works only if the trait being selected against doesn’t continue in the genetic pool.  This means that our brittle-skulled ancestors didn’t just shake off a knockout blow and go home to procreate with the missus — they were killed outright.  Whether they were beaten until their skulls cracked like eggshells or just knocked out and left to be devoured by sabertoothed tigers (or hungry members of other tribes), they were cut off from further contributing to the human evolutionary tree.  We flabby modern humans survived to sit in front of our computer screens because our male forebears were tough, thick-skulled, strong-jawed types who didn’t go down at the first blow.

Science is interesting.