For When the Map Fails

I was trying to conceptualize why it might be that lesions on parts of our brain thought to control a certain function within our nervous system sometimes have no immediate impact on the particular function.  I have long explained it to people as our nervous system being like a giant road system with signals traveling along our nerves to their destination.  A pot hole on a road may make it totally impassible or merely feel like a bump to the big rig traveling over it at 65mph.  In a similar vein, the road being impassible may be big problem if it is on a major highway, or it might just mean taking another almost equally fast route through the neighborhood.  Without knowledge of the severity or the equivalence of alternatives, determining the impact is difficult.  At least this is how I have always pictured and explained the relationship between my MS with roughly a dozen and a half lesions and my moderately good functioning thus far.  While I think this conceptualization normally adequate, I think it is likely an attempt to make a complex system into a complicated one.
A complicated system is one where there are many relationships, but they can pretty much be tracked/mapped.  For example, if the light is red, all traffic should stop.  If there are 20 lights between work and home, it will take me getting a green light 20 times to get home.  That’s 20 different relationships between my movement and the lights.  I shouldn’t be able to get home faster than the time it takes to complete each of those requirements.  One can add in a few other requirements like if my car has a flat, it will take me another 20 minutes to change the tire.  One can add more relationships, and the equation becomes more complicated, but the system isn’t a complex system.
A complex system is one where there are so many interrelationships between variables such that the overall function of the system is not easily discernible from the parts.  The whole is greater than the parts.  If we were to look at the entire brain, would we be able to say this part of the brain tells my fingers to type, and this part says to love my wife?  Without those parts, could the brain still tell my fingers to type and me to love my wife?  Perhaps the real problem with the road map is the attempt to assign a function of the entire system to a part.  If so, the complex nature of the nervous system rather than the complicated road map model could be the reason I have thus far been lucky to have so few and comparatively mild symptoms thus far.

Of course, this says little from any predictive standpoint.  I still have no way to know if tomorrow will have the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back moment.  It may be the day I can’t see or walk, but isn’t this true for everyone whether they have MS or not?  As I ponder our nervous system, I can appreciate the need for belief.  It’s easy to get caught up believing we understand.  Physics went hundreds of years on Newton’s laws because they agreed with what we observe.  However, there is a whole layer of reality underneath when we start studying the atom.  Likewise, I tend to think the road map model adequate for 99 percent of what I have experienced with MS thus far, but for the other 1 percent I think I shall henceforth just attribute the difference to the complexity of the mind body relationship.

Perhaps the complex model rather than the complicated model is what is missing in our understanding of why MS has the impacts it does.  Perhaps this is why MRI’s looking for lesions or brain atrophy seem to give relevant information but may be only giving one part of a complex story.  I still go back to us not knowing the right questions, and I think more and more this is likely the result of incomplete conceptual models for our nervous system.

Funny parenting note of the week:
When O acted out this weekend, he had to go to the corner.  In the corner, he was continuing to try and get attention.  For some reason, he thought sing/shouting, “I am so sexy.  That’s why they make condoms.” over and over would get him out of the corner.  We did what we usually do which is to ignore him, but both J and I were hiding our laughter on the inside.  Where the heck, do 6 year olds get this stuff?
Frustrating part of the week for me:
Both kids were misbehaving today to the point where I feel like I was screamed at 75% of the time between 6:30 am and 8:30 pm.  On one hand, I am happy to be more fit so I still have the energy to go all day, but wow.  Walking the dogs tonight was my favorite part of a very very long day, the second in a row like it.

After reading the annual report from my high school, I am reminded, “Rursus incipiemus nunc et semper.”   – Always we begin again.

Tomorrow is another day in another week. One of my goals remains to always grow in understanding.

Along those lines, here is a Monday morning riddle: When does removing one from seven not leave six?

Share