What makes us different? it’s not our skin color, weight or height. It’s more…
Take a look at the picture above. To me I see a whole bunch of Holstein Friesian cattle (I went to an agricultural high school and still remember the names of all the farm animal breeds. Go figure) and apart from a little variation in the pattern of their coloring, to me, they look the same. If I was a cow then it may be a different story.Then maybe one would be fat. One would be short. One would have too much dark coloring and one would not have enough. One would have udders that were huge, another big hooves. You get my point. We are not cows and so they look the same. To us as humans, the similarities between all those cows far outweigh the differences.
Let’s move over to humans, looking at humans. The recent death of George Floyd and the riots that followed, highlighted that in America, the perceived physical differences between each of us, dictates how we are treated. Differences in skin tone, height and weight. Differences in the color of hair or the presence of lack of it. Focussing and noticing all these physicial differences has probably caused more harm than good over the centuries. I wonder if we were clones, as humans we would we still look for even subtle differences and magnify them. We want to be different. We want to be unique. It gives us significance.
How different are we? Not as much as you think. Our DNA is about 99.9% the same from one person to the next. Think about that. The one thing that makes us so special is not that special. Our genetic fingerprints, that define our individuality over generations is pretty much the same from one person to the next. What we think is ours and ours alone, is mostly the same when compared to our neighbors, our friends and our enemies.
What I See As A Surgeon
I’ve operated on thousands and thousands of people. I’ve opened their skulls. Opened their bodies. Exposed their deep insides. Looked at most organs one time or another. One thing that has struck me, time and time again is that under the skin, everything starts to look the same. As our skins peel away, there is a sameness to everyone.. If we could walk around with no skin on and the fat peeled away, we would all look the same. This goes for glamour models, athletes, fat people and old people. This is same despite the race or religion. The density of tissues may vary. Some bones may be softer. Muscle bulk may vary. The sameness is overwhelming. It’s like looking at sand dunes in the desert- all a little different and yet all the same. Every time I operate I rely on this- the sameness. It guides me. Everything is where it should be. Everything feels and handles the way it should be. If I am working on the spine on a Nobel Laureate or an Olympic dancer- it all looks the same.
What the Brain Looks Like
The brain is the holiest of organs if there can be a holy organ. For millennia we thought the heart was the seat of the soul but a better understanding of anatomy and physiology revealed the heart to be nothing more than a specialized blood vessel – a pump, an amazing synchronous pump, wonderous in its actions and its longevity and wiring but a pump nevertheless. The brain- now that has to be wear the soul lives, right? Well I’ve been inside a lot of brains. I’ve cut up brains in a lab. I’ve worked on living brains from every angle and in every part. I’ve taken blood clots out of brains, pulled tumors out of brains. I’ve taken,bullets, bone fragments, stiletto heels, nails, hair and sharpened tooth brushes out of brains. I spent 3 years in my lab doing Frankenstein work during my PhD. I was able to take the brain out of a rat, slice it and keep it alive in a tissue bath. I was then able to test the circuits that may be how we code short term memory. The brain slice was kept alive after the animal had died. Every time, whether I was in the operating room or in te lab, I was struck by how all the brains looked the same and, electrically speaking, all worked the same. Despite all this; all this bench knowledge, all this direct surgical knowledge, what amazed me about the brain, was structurally it wasn’t so amazing. When you look and touch a brain it looks and feels like Jello. If you are not squeamish, take a look at this video to see an actual brain. It’s a bowl of Jello full of cobwebs of blood vessels and as you slice and dice it, it looks like the same Jello from one person to the next.
As anatomists and surgeons, we arbitrarily name parts of it. We understand how some of the circuits work that connect A to B. We know some of the chemicals in various places. Really, we know nothing. The brain of a criminal, of a theif, an athlete, a teacher, a mother etc- all indistinguishable. Yes, diseases and age can change things the normal brain is marked by uniformity. As Gene Wilder from “Young Frankenstein” once implied, unless the brain was ‘Abby Normal’, any brain would have worked (apologies to Hans Delbrook):
Ok. so if it looks the same, and the wiring is the same, if our organs are the indistinguishable, and our DNA is the same, then what makes you, you and me, me? Ah. We get to the soul. Where is it? Galen, around 2000 years ago wondered if it resided in the pineal gland.
This gland sits at the back of the brain, above the primitive brainstem (that controls waking up and some of our senses) and responds to light and dark. Descartes wrote about the pineal in the 1600s. He split men into a body and a soul but focused on discussing the body. In the Treatise of Man, Descartes felt the pineal stored memories. The Indians marked the foreheads with a red decorative mark (Bindi) that may in fact represent the 3rd eye, the pineal.
So here’s what i learned from my Frankenstein lab work and 20-30 years in neurosurgery. I learned the healthy brain in all of us looks the same. I learned I have no idea where long term and short term memory live (except the part over our ears, the temporal lobe, and the part inside this, the hippocampus have something to do with it) play a role. I never found where the soul lives. I never grasped why sleep is so important; why we dream. I still to this day don’t understand how cells combined make tissues, and tissues combine make organs. Organs combined make an organism. Somehow this conglomeration becomes sentient, aware, and able to perceive and feel things. How does that happen? The soul, memory, sleep, dreams- these things elude as a physicians and scientists.
What Really Makes Us Different
Ok. so it’s not really our skin that makes us different. It’s not insides, our muscles, tendons, bones that make us different. Our hearts are very similar. Our brain is wired in a very similar fashion and truly looks like Jello (and unfortunately can be sucked out just as easily). All of those things are indistinguishable.
What makes us different is how we treat ourselves and each other, our actions and our words. These actions and words embody the person we are.
Going beyond the physical and looking at psychological, we can break our personalities down to traits. There are five big ones but each is a scale and the scale is not discreet. If you combine this with our actions and words, we truly get the individualism we all seek to find. Look at the table below. Each of us sits on an scale for each of the big 5 traits, somewhere between the extremes of the lows and the extremes of the highs.
These personality traits, however are like a poker hand. The hand is the start. What we do with it defines us in terms of how we play the game.
Where we also differ is the opportunities we are given in life.
We forget that. The privileges given to us by our parents and society. For most people reading this blog that means a roof over our head as children, not going hungry and education. If it was a sprint race, we would be getting a head start over many, many people. Some start out at the 10 yard mark. Others start out at the 50 yard mark. Others are left at the starting line. Watch the video below and realize some of us begin life with a head start we never earned. It’s important to remember it’s not a fair race in life for some. Some of us only get 3 cards in the 5 card poker game or the 5th card is hidden. The game is not fair and we forget that.
Who We Really Are
Our skin color does not define us. Neither does the size of our nose, our weight, or height, our race or the size of any part of our body. How we treat ourselves and each other, what we say and what we do is what makes us unique. Some start out with more luck through opportunity that others, but that should not define us, yet we need to be aware of the unfairness that may bring.
Now do you see why we are all like fresh chickens?
Take a look at the picture below. Can you tell me the which is the cute one and which one is ugly? Exactly!
Those are my opinions and thoughts, honest and unfiltered with some degree of authority or experience, call it what you will. Do you agree? Like? Dislike? If you have something to say I missed or agree/disagree, please feel free to comment and I will reply.