Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kanye West and the Waterboy

So, I know that the Adam Sandler movie, The Waterboy is more than 10 years old now, but recently I was listening to the new Kid Cudi song "Make Her Say" featuring Kanye West (and Lady Gaga). And it had me reminiscing because in the song, Kanye says: "Gettin' brain in the library 'cause I love knowledge/When you use your medulla oblongata."
Which reminded me of The Waterboy, where the professor who looks like Colonel Sanders corrects Bobby Boucher (Adam Sandler) as to why "alligators is ornery":
Bobby: "Mama says alligators is ornery because they got all them teeth but not toothbrush"
Prof: "Yo mama said... wow! Anybody else? Yes, you, sir."
Other student: "Alligators are aggressive because of an enlarged medulla oblongata. It's the sector of the brain that controls aggressive behavior."
Prof: "That is correct! The medulla oblongata."

In both of these instances, the way in which the medulla oblongata is depicted is just plain wrong. Suggesting that the medulla oblongata is a part of the brain that is involved in aggression or in higher cognitive functions such as learning and memory is, as far as we know, incorrect.

The truth is that the medulla oblongata has nothing to do with aggression or with learning and memory. While the brain is very complex and it is difficult to pin down ANY function or behavior to JUST ONE area, there are brain areas that do appear to be very central to or primarily involved in controlling or initiating certain behaviors. In the case of aggression AND for learning and memory, we would look to the limbic system: an area in the center of the brain that is involved in several important processes, including emotions and learning and memory. Within the limbic system, the amygdala is primarily involved in the initiation of aggressive behaviors (it's also heavily involved in fear and the responses to frightening stimuli). Also in the limbic system is the hippocampus, which is primarily involved in learning and memory. (Though I should note that the amygdala has also been shown to play a role in certain types of learning and memory, reinforcing my point that anytime you attribute a behavior to one part of the brain and one part only, you're asking for trouble.)

Now, the medulla oblongata isn't even in the brain proper, that is, its not in "the brain" as most people think of it (what we call the forebrain, which is to say the large, very wrinkly, squishy gray mass of jelly that sits in our skull). No, the medulla is not in the forebrain, it is in the brainstem, which is part of the hindbrain, which is somewhere between being a part of the brain and being a part of the spinal cord. The brainstem, while not involved in higher thinking or cognitive reasoning does perform some incredibly important tasks: like regulating your heart beat and your breathing. These, in fact, are two of the tasks that are seen to by the medulla oblongata... And because these things are repetitive and require so little conscious thought, the medulla oblongata has an easy time taking care of these as well as numerous other functions, like salivating, sweating, digesting, and even sexual arousal (see? Like I said, stuff that you don't have to think too much about.) In fact, most of the things that you do all the time without thinking about them (these are called autonomic functions) are regulated to some extent by the medulla oblongata. (For more info on the medulla oblongata, you can check out wikipedia, the entry is actually pretty good: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medulla_oblongata) (The figure above comes from the Society for Neuroscience: www.sfn.org)

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