Most of us at some point in our lives have seen one of those informative children’s books about the body, the ones with pictures showing how the various organs work, and so on. They are immensely popular, not least because children are curious little beasts who also have a distinct fascination with gory details. My introduction to this field of literature was called How Your Body Works and it took you step by step through the different bodily systems. I used to read it for hours at a time. I think that the first time I understood how sex worked, for example, was from an illustration in that book (“Oh! That’s why boys and girls are different shapes – it makes so much sense now!”). This may tell you more about me as a child than you really needed to know.
So I was intrigued when I first saw this book, and not just because the first word in the title is ‘sex’. Novelist Jennifer Ackerman promises to guide us through a day in the life of the body, and guide us she does. In captivating prose and with painstaking attention to scientific detail, Ackerman follows the average person through an average day, touching on exactly what it is the body does at each stage: whether it’s eating, drinking, exercising, under stress, or a host of other possibilities. Like the books of my childhood, it’s great to have all this information in one place and I think that setting it over the course of an average day is a very good way of making it flow naturally. It does mean that some topics are missed out however, but I’ll come to that later on.
Along the way, Ackerman interviews various scientists and attempts to use the latest research to explain bodily functions based on the best of our current knowledge. For example, in the section on digestion she investigates the recent discovery that the gut has its own nervous system (the so-called enteric nervous system), separate from that of the brain. And it’s not just that the central nervous system (CNS, consisting of the brain and spinal cord) tells the gut-brain what to do, either: about 9/10th of the communication is the enteric system talking to the CNS rather than the other way around. Think of that next time you’re nervous and get butterflies in your stomach, or you make a choice based on a ‘gut feeling’. How much of your day-to-day decision making is really your stomach thinking for you?
Much of the book is taken up with the interesting issue of arousal and alertness. Ackerman returns again and again to circadian rhythms, which she makes a recurring theme of the narrative. She presents some compelling evidence showing that our body clock is not only responsible for the highs and lows of our physical and emotional state throughout the day, but that it is also a factor in how much we are affected by various substances – like cancer drugs. Her argument is that if doctors took the circadian clock into account when delivering drugs to patients then they could more easily control the uptake of the drug and the rate at which the body metabolises it, making it more effective. This is a fascinating topic I think, and one that definitely merits more research.
My only real quibble with the book is that it could have been longer. At under 200 pages, I feel that it really only scratches the surface of the amazingly organised complexity of the human body. The section on alcohol and drugs, for example, spans only two pages; I think that more could have been made of the altered states of consciousness induced in us by imbibing various different combinations of organic molecules. Although it might not have fit in with the style of the book, such explorations are fascinating in their own right, at least to me. I can think of various questions about the body that aren’t covered, such as: how does skin work? What causes eyes to be different colours? Why do some people get infected with HIV and not others? And so on. But if all these topics and other interesting questions were to be included, the book would be at least eight times its present size. If written in Ackerman’s prose, I’d still read it though.
Oh, and there is a chapter on the biology of love, lust, sex and orgasm. So that is alright.
Don Alhambra is a Research Fellow at Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham, UK. He can be found mainly at the Heathen Hangout or the Heathen Hub.