The Holy Grail evokes strong feelings and emotions in most people. The quest for the Holy Grail is wreathed and shrouded in the mists of time and history. Many legends and myths have been intertwined with it, so much so that it is very difficult to tease out its origin. At some point, around the 12th century, the Holy Grail started being interchangeably identified along with the Chalice from the last Supper from which Jesus Christ and his disciples had partaken and as legend goes, Joseph of Arimathea had collected Jesus’s blood at the crucifixion. Legend, fact or fiction, this fascination with the Holy Grail or the Cup of eternal life is mans own fascination with life, its meaning, death and immortality. Many of these musings and yearnings have found expression in literature, legends, poetry and more recently in Hollywood movies. During medieval times, there was widespread belief across Europe about the magical powers conferred by the Holy Grail such as eternal youth, everlasting happiness and immortality. Many historians, archeologists, scientists and travelers throughout history answered this eternal quest for the Grail and often spent their entire lifetime in search of it to no avail.
My introduction to the Holy Grail was through the legendary Hollywood movie by Steven Spielberg, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. This movie left an everlasting impression on me for a different reason. The senior Henry Jones addresses Junior, his son, just as the Grail is within reach, but Indiana would have to forfeit his life to reach it with the words …“Indiana, Let it go…” Reminding him that it is necessary to let go at the right time, despite something being one lifetime’s work. An act that is very difficult for most of us in real life but very essential and often life saving. The Art of Letting go doesn’t come easily, but can bring about happiness that is just as real as the one hoped for from the Grail!
Many years later, when I read Dan Brown’s fictional novel “The Da Vinci Code” again the Holy Grail was mentioned with a slightly different connotation as an individual carrying the bloodline of Jesus Christ. The uterus or the womb is cup shaped and the author compared it to the Grail, a fictional concoction that did not sit well with many. Yet, a comparison was made.
‘Life’ is difficult to define and quantify. We know it as a mysterious natural phenomenon that is poorly understood and not yet decoded. We know about single celled organisms, where the cell’s birth or death represents life for it. In complex living beings such as animals and mammals, a single cell or a group of cells existence does not relate to the life of the organism, even though each cell does have its own life span. So then what decides the life of a complex being such as humans? This is still a very difficult question to answer. Today we live in an era of organ donation and transplantation. We know that life can be sustained with a transplant, which means that the life of a person is not determined by the heart, kidney or the lungs. If transplanted ‘with in proper time’, the person would continue to live. Then where is the ‘switch’ or the spot that determines life in our body?
As a Neurosurgeon, when you deal with life and death situations, one definitely becomes philosophical. The brain, that makes us all different in our thoughts and attitude, looks so similar in structure and yet elusive & mysterious in its function. With the transplant of organs becoming a reality, the concept of Brain death has gained popularity. This has led to newer definitions of death. What is death and how do we define it? Though it sounds like an absurd question, recently we have seen Hospitals being shut down by Lawmakers for the very same reason!
What we have not achieved so far is a technique to transplant the Brain, as that is not compatible with life. This probably holds the key to the question of the source or ‘anatomical location’ of life. As a surgeon, we routinely operate on the brain. In many instances, we land up removing significant chunks of the brain as treatment for various conditions (lobectomy for tumors and epilepsy). These patients do tolerate the procedure well and go ahead to lead a normal life. Then where is the ‘life’ hidden within the brain?
Why is the Holy Grail, Neurosurgery and philosophy of life, being discussed in a single blog?
It’s a coincidence that during one of my surgeries, I happened to visualize a structure within the brain that resembled the Holy Grail. A little scientific reflection on this region ‘resembling’ the Grail astonished me. I was actually looking at the region, which determined life in our Body, the Grail of life!
This is a cup shaped region, thus resembling the Grail, at the lower end of the floor of fourth ventricle of the brain at the junction of the open and closed parts of medulla oblongata in the region of the Calamus Scriptorius.
Why is the Calamus Scriptorius, the Holy grail of Life?
This Grail of Life hosts Neurons (cells of the brain) responsible for breathing (the Respiratory Centers) and the Center for the Vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve).
The respiratory centers serve as the trigger for spontaneous respiration thus keeping us breathing without us being aware. When these cells fail, the person becomes brain dead, which is irreversible and eventually, every other organ would fail leading to clinical death. On a positive note, this region is divine as it has the gift of life and the respiratory center lies within it.
An analogy of the life span and respiratory rate of various beings is presented here. It is interesting to note that animals that breathe quickly have a shorter life span. Conversely, animals with a slower breath rate, the lazy fellows live longer! Like the Tortoise. It is very important for us to interpret this observation with the right attitude. It is not asking us to be lazy, but it tells us to remain calm and cool. When a person looses his temper, he breathes quicker, this in turn decreases the blood supply to the brain and thereby reduces the ability to think, thus impairing judgmental capacity!
The center for respiration within the brain stem also serves as the nucleus from which the Vagus nerve arises (the 10th cranial nerve, also referred to as the “wandering nerve”). This nerve has multiple branches that arise from the lower part of the brainstem (referred to as the region of holy grail here) and it wanders to the lowest viscera of our abdomen. It supplies nerves to the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones (like Acetylcholine, Prolactin, Vasopressin, Oxytocin), influencing digestion, metabolism and the relaxation response.
When the brain triggers parasympathetic activation, the vagus nerve carries the messages to the heart (decreasing the heart rate and blood pressure), to the lungs (to constrict the respiratory passageways), to every organ in the digestive system (to increase motility and blood flow to the digestive tract, to promote defecation), to the kidneys and bladder (to promote urination) and to the reproductive organs (to aid in sexual arousal). It has profound control over heart rate & blood pressure and is essential in fear management. It communicates messages between the gut and the brain. 80% of the vagus nerve’s fibres deliver information from the enteric nervous system (the second brain in the gut) to the brain.
The Gut feeling is a reality! Not just a literary term. The Vagus plays a major role in the “gut instinct” that tells us that something isn’t right. It also influences our mood; we all know that the best time to talk to a person, to discuss a favour is post-prandial (after food). One is happy and euphoric after meals. This happiness is conveyed from our belly through the Vagus nerve to its centre in the brain stem, from where it reaches the deep centre’s of the brain.
How can we communicate to Holy grail of life?
- With the practice of breathing exercises (deep breathing with prolonged inhalation, holding the breath and slow exhalation, 8 to 10 seconds per cycle of breath) we can influence the Vagus nerve through the respiratory centers.
- With the right quantity and quality of food (balanced healthy diet), we can speak to the Vagus (and thereby to the holy grail in the brain) through our Gut.
The Holy Grail of life, in our brain stem determines our life span. So any insult to this region is detrimental to life. Ones quality of life can influence longevity through this Holy Grail.
To stay calm and cool is difficult, but achievable (once the art of letting go is mastered) and essential.
This coming new year, it would be a good idea to include breathing exercises and healthy eating habits (neither fasting nor starving) to our life, apart from a daily habit of walking for 45 minutes a day. This would be a great New Year Resolution.
Physical and Mental fitness should be the new Mantra of life!
Happy New Year! 2018