Tag Archives: biology

Identity and body chemistry

I am both fascinated by the way in which my biology functions, and cautious about what of me could or should be explained in purely chemical terms. However, my chemical identity has been a consideration for some years now. I started down the peri-menopausal track rather early – 39. I get the mood swings, and my menstrual cycle is changing.

My experience of myself, month to month is informed by the blue days before I bleed. I usually bleed for six days and two of those are usually heavy and painful. My mood shifts around ovulation. This has been part of the rhythm of myself for some time. Who will I be without that? I’ve seen some fascinating stuff from Caitlin Moran recently about what fertility hormones do to women and what happens when those go away. How much will I change? Will I wake up one morning feeling angry and finding I need to do a PhD? It happens a lot, apparently, but seems unlikely in my case.

Right now I’m dealing with a lack of adrenaline in my body. Adrenal fatigue is not widely recognised as a condition and definitely isn’t recognised in the UK. I can say from personal experience that there does come a point where a body just can’t keep doing the adrenaline, and doesn’t, and it takes a while to recover. In the meantime, experiences of fear and panic result in something like being slapped in the face with a cold fish. It is weird and disorientating, and my emotional self has changed because my body can’t support what I was feeling.

Amusingly, I’m also having trouble with endorphins. Usually this is a diet/exercise issue, and problems mean more effort is required to support the body. But, I’ve been walking, trampolining, eating plenty of fruit and veg. I don’t even know why this system has crashed. It creates an interesting opportunity to look at who and how I am when this chemical aspect of me isn’t working.

How I think about things hasn’t changed. It doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on with me chemically, my considered philosophical positions and chosen ways of being hold up passably well. Except where those ways of being depend on being able to show up in a body and feel stuff. At the moment it’s a bit like how I imagine being a brain in a jar would feel – disconnected and a tad unreal. Being in my body is hard at the best of times, right now, it is almost impossible to show up for anything other than pain.

There is however some comfort in knowing that I’m not going to have my sense of self washed away by the hormonal shifts of the menopause. Anything I’ve come to deliberately is likely to hold up, by the looks of things.

(This blog post is not a request for advice on how to medicate any of the above, nor any other kinds of interventions I might try. That’s in hand, this is only part of a story, and it wasn’t what I wanted to talk about today so please don’t come in with that sort of stuff as I find it tiring and it isn’t going to help right now. Thank you.)

Reduced to my biology

I like speculating about possible evolutionary reasons for aspects of human ways of being. I like reading about the central nervous system, brain chemistry and the way the workings of the human body express who we are. I’m fascinated by the interplay between mind, body, environment and personal choice in terms of shaping us as individuals.

I’m conscious that dodgy science has been used to diminish all kinds of people. The idea that gayness is a disease to be cured is a case in point. It’s difficult to talk about the fascinating possibilities of evolution without feeling the cold shadow of eugenics. I can understand why plenty of people are anxious about any line of talk that seems to reduce them to their biology. That which is only about the biology is all animal, and there are too many people who think animals don’t have souls, sentience, feelings.

My feeling is that we need to reclaim our biology. Not just for us, either. If we are proudly biological beings, then the idea that other mammals, other creatures are lesser, is a good deal harder to maintain. The trouble with being more than your biology is that to stay special you have to be better than all the other pigs, with all due reference to Animal Farm. We’ve had thousands of years in the west of telling ourselves stories in which we are different from all the other animals. Special. Made differently by God The Father. Stories that say it is ok to exploit anything that can be reduced to just being its biology. Those stories are hard to resist because they are so deeply ingrained. And of course, we like to feel special.

I am carbon and water. I am tiny flashes of electrical energy passing between synapses. I am light impacting on my retina, turning into messages that paint an idea of the world on the inside of my brain. I am cells, and DNA, I am the history of my ancestors woven into genetic material. I am blood, bone, gristle, flesh and skin no different from any other being with the potential to become a piece of meat on the table. I am the complex dance of interacting chemistry that is emotion. I am the cradle to grave pattern of inhaling and exhaling. It’s all about how you frame it.

There may of course be other things going on as well – we really don’t know how consciousness works and whether it is matter that underpins consciousness, or consciousness that underpins matter. I am happy not knowing. If anything decisive turns up, I will be perfectly comfortable with whatever turns out to be going on.

I cannot be ‘reduced’ to my biology if I celebrate my biology. I am better protected from bigots and asshats dealing in pseudo-science by knowing something of how my body works. I do not need to be more than this body, this brain, this one shot physical presence in the world. If that isn’t the whole story, I’ll worry about the next bit when I get there.