A Giant Step for Mankind

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The human body fascinates me. I’m not interested in knowing all of the technical terms related to our anatomies, but reading about how our many parts work or don’t work is like unraveling a great mystery. In particular I am fascinated with our brains. I gobble up articles about new findings regarding the ways that our minds determine so much of who we ultimately become. There is a delicate balance between heredity/DNA, physical processes, and the psychology garnered from our environment. The activity inside our brains holds the key to understanding how and why there are such differences between one individual and another on multiple levels of human activity. 

Truth be told, I have always been fascinated by studies of psychology and neurology. I believe that many of the keys to why we are often so different in our habits and our beliefs might be found in the workings of our brains. Many of the habits that we attribute to good or bad behaviors may instead be the work of activity inside our brains over which we have little control. Sadly, we have been slow to attempt to learn about the incredible happenings inside our brains out of superstitions and fears that learning about how this magnificent processing unit in our bodies works may somehow be akin to playing god. 

It has only been since the beginning of the twentieth century that earnest detective work has been done by pioneering doctors and scientists intent on learning as much about the brain as we now know about the other organs that regulate our lives. We are far behind where we might have been if studies had taken place earlier, because in the past the taboos associated with unlocking the hidden workings of how we think and feel were seemingly too personal to dare to study. Now we know better.

With modern day imaging and a century of devoted research we are learning more and more all the time about the things our brains do and what sometimes makes them feel broken. While we do understand the importance of individual environments on each of us, there are still questions about what causes mental disorders and how they can be corrected  much like we mend hearts and treat cancers. 

I recently read a most interesting piece about obesity. It pointed out that societies have often shamed those who are overweight. We tend to believe that those who eat too much are simply lazy and glutenous sloths. We point to thin people as examples of having enough resolve to push away from the table and take the time to exercise regularly. We praise our lower weight people for showing us to live the best life. Instead there is evidence that they are simply the lucky possessors for brains that effectively monitor their eating. Those of us who are not continuously hungry do not understand that there are indeed conditions caused by a brain dysfunctions that make some people painfully hungry all of the time. It is as though the on/off switch in their brains that should be telling them that they are full does not work. 

Researchers are more and more agreeing on the hypothesis that it is a malfunction of the brain that is causing many people to want to eat all of the time. Studies are showing that such behavior begins in childhood because in reality the brain is not properly sending the signals that monitor the intake of food. Over time psychological issues surrounding eating also take hold. That person who can’t seem to stop gorging on food may indeed feel hunger pangs even after the stomach is full. 

I have known overweight people who have confessed that they never stop thinking about food. All day, every day, they feel as though they are starving and no matter how much they eat, the pains do not go away. Their situation is not so much a matter of developing will power as longing for that signal from the brain that the need for food has been sated. Researchers now believe that it is indeed a real physical problem emanating from their brains. The discovery and the fix have come in the form of drugs that were developed to help diabetics curb their appetites in order to maintain a healthy blood sugar level.    

We’ve no doubt heard of friends or family members who have struggled with weight for most of their lives injecting themselves with such drugs and almost miraculously losing the extra pounds. What is actually happening is that the medications send them the message that they are full. The desire for huge amounts of food goes away. They physical sensation that they have not shared with the rest of us is suddenly present. While this drug is not for everyone it is pointing scientists and doctors toward new insights

This phenomenon has told researchers that there is indeed a physical malady that causes some people to eat too much and become obese. They note that most women will recall being more hungry than usual while pregnant because the brain is telling them that they need to feed the fetuses that they are carrying. So too do most of us have a regulator in our brains that help us to control our eating. The very thin person may even have more of an urge to push away from the table than others. In truth obesity appears to be caused by a misfiring of the brain that is supposed to tell us that our stomachs are full. 

There is still much to learn. Our brains remain a somewhat mysterious frontier whose landscape is only minimally understood. Fortunately the work to learn more is well underway. Just as we once dreamed of leaving the gravity of this earth and flying into the sky, so too do we now understand that entering the realm of the brain may one day eliminate some of the diseases of the mind. That will indeed be a giant step for mankind. 


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