Today, the blog strikes off in a different direction. This post isn’t about brains and lesions. It’s not about metaphorical hearts. It’s about real, physical hearts.
The US National Stroke Association began to champion the term “brain attack” in 1990, after its origination by two Canadian neurologists. The idea was to characterise stroke more clearly to the public, so that the signs of stroke would “have the same alarming significance in identifying a brain attack that severe, specific chest pain has in identifying a heart attack.” The NSA identified the brain as the most delicate organ in the body.
And the brain is an axiomatically remarkable thing. For all the poetic press the heart gets, there’s a great argument for saying that the brain is the seat of love and the home of anything that we might identify as the soul. And that feels right, because of the way we peer out from those sparkling orbs set in the front of our faces.
Yet the heart is worth all the fuss of poesy, prosedy and pop. Not only is it the metaphor that drives so much poetry, the science of that marvellous little pump defies everyday language. It’s almost impossible to adequately describe.
In the Science Weekly podcast linked below, Alok Jha describes how “[o]ur entire life… is, if all goes well, a wonderful, extended note created by a remarkable instrument; in the complex orchestration that is the human body, that instrument is the heart.” It’s a great description, but meanwhile, Pascal Wyse’s ambient soundtrack samples a heartbeat that, while beautiful, is not an extended note.
Consider the difficulties of doing justice to the heart:
- In a modern lifetime, the heart will beat around 3,000,000,000 times. I almost wrote human heart, but it’s about the same for mice, humans, elephants and whales. Apparently we are all the same — who knew? This muscle has to beat those three billion times without fail for your entire life or the results will be catastrophic. And how many rotations can your washing machine complete before conking out?
- The heart of a healthy 70 kilogram human body will pump about about five litres of blood at rest every minute, or 70 millilitres with each heartbeat. And four or five times that when exercising. The November 2011 episode of Science Weekly that inspired this post was co-hosted by an anaesthetist and media fellow at the Wellcome Trust. Kevin Fong had previously made an episode of Horizon for the BBC about the heart in which he tested his heart against those of Olympic rowers. Appropriately, he had to scrabble around to find language — an image — to help the listener understand what the rowers’ hearts could do.
Imagine 45 litre cartons of milk stacked on a supermarket shelf, being cleared off the shelf by this pump every minute.
These people’s hearts and lungs are bigger than ours. And they possess a Herculean volition/will to train. Asleep, their heart rates are in the twenties.
- If you heart does stop, it doesn’t necessarily die. Admittedly, this isn’t so much a testament to the heart as to the metaphorical heart. Today’s blog finishes with a story that’s explicable by science, but illustrates Richard Dawkins’ point that understanding these things makes them more — not less — awesome….
Consider Anna Bågenholm, who, a little over 14 years ago, was skiing off-piste when she fell head-first through an eight-inch layer of ice into a freezing stream in northern Norway and died after forty frantic minutes of frozen struggle. Properly, clinically died after her heart had stopped for over two hours. With “the biochemistry of a dead person,” according to The Lancet. But, as David Cox describes here…
…[w]hile lowering the body temperature will stop the heart, it also reduces the oxygen demand of the body and, in particular, the brain cells. If the vital organs have been sufficiently cooled before the cardiac arrest occurs, then the inevitable cell death from the lack of circulation will be postponed, buying emergency services an extra time window to try and save the person’s life.
So, when the trainee doctor’s heart stopped, her brain was already so cold that it didn’t need any oxygen. The medical team treating her were able to get enough blood to her brain to keep her alive long enough to restart her heart — a process that was successfully undertaken four-and-a-half-hours after her accident.
Over fourteen years later, the once-dead woman isn’t a trainee doctor. She’s a senior radiology consultant at the hospital where she died. Kevin Fong has met her and describes her as “not just a very successful profession, but a fresh, lovely person.”
I’d call that pretty inspiring.
Makes we want to do great things today. Like, write a deathless choon, or something.