Sunday, August 22, 2010

Skull-blogging: Adrift-off-the-Islets-of-Langerhans Edition

This week in the Riddled Book Club we've been reading The Science of Life, in which Wells, Huxley & Wells prefigure Fantastic Voyage, though without Raquel Welch:

Let the reader imagine himself a homunculus on the borderland of the visible, apparent only as a speck to the naked eye. Let him be placed inside the central canal of the spinal cord and, inspired by curiosity, let him creep upwards into the cavities of the brain. What would he discover? [...]

First, then, as he nears the hind-brain, our tiny adventurer finds that the canal along which he is creeping widens out, and at the same time the roof gets thinner. [...] So our homunculus is clambering upwards like a chimney-sweep, and the "roof" of the hind-brain [...] arises as an upright wall behind him. Perhaps as he climbs past this thinned-out region [...] he hears a faint drumming of arteries on the other side of the wall.

But soon it thickens again, and he gets to the wide cavity marked B. Here, in the middle of the hind-brain, he finds himself surrounded by important nerve-centres. Behind him bulks the massive cerebellum; beside him and in front of him a series of slight bulges of the wall show where a number of reflex executive departments are located. Here the movements of the muscles of the face and throat and of those that bring about the breathing movements are controlled; hither the ear, the taste-buds, and the sense-organs of touch and so forth from the head region send their reports. At the two sides of this chamber are great bulging columns of nerve-fibres by which the cerebellum behind communicates with the other centres in front.

Further on the passage closes in to a narrow tunnel and plunges through the mid-brain. As he creeps through, our explorer observes that the optic lobes have lost much of the eminence which they possess in more primitive vertebrates. Instead of being great, egg-shaped protuberances, they are small, comparatively inconspicuous swellings. [...]

Abruptly the passage changes in shape to form a cleft, very narrow from side to side, but extensive from above downwards. This is the cavity of the between-brain. At this stage the explorer finds his passage impeded by an obstacle, a communication between the two sides of the between-brain. As the two thalami have grown and become more complicated they have met and joined together. He has the choice of clambering over this barrier or diving under it, but in the latter event he runs the risk of slithering down the funnel that leads towards the pituitary gland. So he takes the safer course. As he goes over the barrier he leaves behind him the pineal gland -- a little, stalked knob about the size of a cherry-stone -- and he notices that most of the roof overhead is thin, and for the second time he hears the pulse of circulating blood.

But now forward progress is completely barred; the slit-like cavity of the between-brain ends in an impassible vertical wall. [...] However, the two cerebral hemispheres have grown out of the sides of the fore-brain, and into these he may venture if he pleases. On either side there is a round opening called the Foramen of Monro, and through one of these he may clamber into the great, rambling cavity of the cerebral hemispheres.

Here he finds so complicated a series of chambers, and so much inside them to arrest his attention, that he could spend an hour or two in observant prowling. He could crawl over the deeper parts of the fore-brain that are concerned with smell-impressions or over the inner surface of the corpus striatum. But because of its superficial position -- it is outside and he is inside -- he could never get near the grey matter of the cortex; and that is the part to which we must now turn our attention. So let us leave him to his investigations.
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Three criticisms are in order here:
  1. My English teachers were unremittingly hostile to the use of "get" as an all-purpose verb, and would have knocked Wells down to a B+ for writing that his protagonist "gets to" B. Also Wells and Huxley evidently adhere to the Oxford Comma school of punctuation. On this we can only agree to disagree.
  2. This tale of cerebral-ventricular speleology is strangely lacking in dramatic tension. A couple of references to a noise of pulsation are tame by today's standards. In a modern re-make, readers would expect remote sounds echoing through the cavities that could be stentorian breathing or some inhuman roar; strange diagrams and messages carved in the walls of the cave, in haste and only half-legible; also mysterious scratches gouged there, as if by monstrous claws.
  3. Having invited me to imagine myself miniaturised for brain-exploration purposes, Wells and Huxley never got around to saying that the imaginative trance was over. Thus I have been stuck in there for quite a few decades now, wandering around the ventricular labyrinth, looking for a way out. Guy? Guys? Let me out! It's not funny any more!!

12 comments:

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'm sorry, but you will have to get yourself out somehow.
~

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Thus I have been stuck in there for quite a few decades now, wandering around the ventricular labyrinth, looking for a way out.

Where's Borges when you need him?

mikey said...

Meh.

You've only described my life, but with less mucous...

Substance McGravitas said...

There is nothing more disgusting than homunculi on the end of the Q-Tip.

Also: WHAT? WHAT?

merc said...

There is no get brain construct.

Another Kiwi said...

Also a prudent person might have dropped breadcrumbs behind themselves so that they could find the way out again.

H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

You want out? Take the foramen of Magendie or a foramen of Luschka.

Socrates said...

So let us now suppose that in the mind of each man there is an aviary of all sorts of birds--some flocking together apart from the rest, others in small groups, others solitary, flying anywhere and everywhere, so a trail of breadcrumbs is full of FAIL.

Smut Clyde said...

a foramen of Luschka

But those lead into the sub-arachnoid space, which we are loath to mention for fear of triggering 8-legged-related phobias in certain of our readers.

fish said...

But soon it thickens again, and he gets to the wide cavity marked B.

Does not apply to Chinese brains. Those are marked with a 蜂

merc said...

Fish do fish dream in Cantonese?

fish said...

not this fish although Mandarin is giving me nightmares...