More in common in our worlds within

28 July 2021

How do we overcome certain fears? How does a trapped cave explorer survive sensory overload and stage 1 hypothermia? How does an ultramarathoner run over 100 miles? The docuseries Human: The World Within explores these questions and much more.

The setting is one familiar to all of us; the human body. Narrated by Jad Abumrad (composer as well as founder and co-host of the podcast Radiolab), the series focuses on the science of how our bodies function and enable us to live in line with our passions and goals. The names of each episode aptly allude to various bodily processes focused upon, namely ‘Birth’, ‘React’, ‘Pulse’, ‘Defend’, ‘Sense’ and ‘Fuel’. Each episode is colourfully expressed by the knowledge and enthusiasm of academics and medical professionals as well as the passion and resilience of everyday people sharing their lived experiences. A couple of stories in particular stand out to me.  

‘React’ focuses on our brain and how it controls our nervous system. The episode concludes by exploring the initial grief and concerns about the future of someone called Jason, who lost the majority of his left arm to a road traffic accident, comparing the experience as being similar to losing a loved one. As the brain stops receiving the signals it would expect from a hand, it keeps attempting to reach a part of Jason that is no longer there. This gives rise to the phenomenon of phantom pain (pain that feels like it is coming from a body part that is no longer there) which Abumrad artfully puts as ‘’the neurons waiting for a comeback’’. Headed by Dr Ranu Jung, researchers at Florida International University were able to create a novel neural interface implant system for Jason’s prosthetic arm, enabling him to regain the sense of touch. It was incredible to hear Jason describe his newfound confidence and purpose, particularly being able to feel the touch of his wife’s hand again. I am always in awe when reminded of our brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity and how technological advances can facilitate regaining a sense of one’s old self.  

‘Pulse’ covers how our heart get us through extreme physical and emotional challenges life throws at us. One story takes place in Ghana. Akua Nyarko had to make a long trip from a remote part of Ghana to the capital Accra following complications during her pregnancy including haemorrhaging and blood clotting difficulties. Without an emergency Caesarean section and blood transfusion, she was likely to die. Whilst she tragically lost her unborn child, Akua’s body held on. This episode covers how the body starts its own rescue efforts during major blood loss. Neurons and sensors of the heart perceive the blood loss, feed this to the nervous system and instigate a heart-brain reaction. The brain and heart communicate to redirect blood to vital organs that need it and induce changes such as shallow breathing and the constricting of blood vessels as a survival attempt. This was striking to me as underneath the chaos of a shock to the system our body is always operating and problem solving, like a biological machine striving for balance. It is somewhat reassuring to know that our body always seems to have a plan in case of emergency.

Some of the biology covered in this series may already be familiar to readers of The Psychologist, but even when not familiar I certainly never felt that I was trying to understand rocket science. The series makes for a comfortable watch for those without a background in biology or neuroscience and would suit viewers who want to better understand some of the core functions of the human body. I really appreciated how the stories told were inclusive, coming from an international and diverse perspective. This really illustrated the amazing adaptability of the human body and felt like a celebration not only of our bodies’ capabilities but what makes us human. It is hard for me to not be grateful for all my body does, particularly when in good health. We have a lot more in common than we think, in our worlds within. 

- Reviewed by Carlos Amartey BSc. (Hons), MSc., PgCert., Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at IESO Affiliate Network, incoming Trainee Clinical Psychologist at the University of Leicester and Collaborator at Psych This 370° (PT370°). E: [email protected]; T: Carlos_K_A