My sister and I were recently wondering whether our grasp of the continuously evolving vocabulary of the English language would help us prevent dementia: terabyte, download, netiquette, malware, neuroplasticity, acid-reflux, bromance, bingeable, biohack, microbiome. Surely if I know what these words mean, I am at least contemporary if not exactly smart.
“Microbiomes give me the creeps,” said a friend. “The idea of all these invisible skeevy (another new word) creatures living on me, and in me, ugh.” It’s true that there are more microbes residing in us than human cells. I have this image of myself as this lumbering mini-planet, with a few trillion “residents” making their homes in my hair, my gut, my skin. Some of them like to think of themselves as “caretakers of the planet Lavinia.” They clean up after themselves, restore my chemical balance, recycle, and are kind to other microbes. When they sing Kumbaya. I feel fuzzy all over with an irresistible urge to tie a bandana around my head. Then there are the selfish opportunists: bandits invading and stealing, breaking open perfectly nice cells, attacking and pillaging without thinking of the future. Certain politicians come to mind. I imagine the battles among these various communities, invisible to me as I chop vegetables or drive my car. I don’t hear them screaming in terror as they flow down the drain while I shower. I do notice when there’s a dance party taking place in my colon though. I wonder if their lives are as rich in experiences: love, war, family. I like to imagine some of my friendly microbes sitting around a microscopic table debating the fine points of ligands and neurons over a subatomic glass of ….hmm, what do they drink?
I suppose it’s not a coincidence that I just happened to be watching an old episode of Star Trek (I know, I know) where Captain Jean Luc-Picard was describing an ancient civilization that believed that within every individual lived an entire community. The episode pointed to DNA as the “community.” But it also reminded me that besides the mini-universe residing on and in me, I have a gang of gals dancing in my head at every moment. A friend of mine had a bumper sticker on her car for a long time: “I don’t mind all the voices in my head. I just wish they’d come to consensus.”
I could blame it on my Gemini rising, but I swear there are dozens of Lavinias sharing this body. I can go from confident and sexy to a quivering 5th grader in the blink of an insult. At any given moment, I can turn into my Mother, dismissive and superior, or my Father, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, kiddo!” I of course like to think that this community of Lavinias all know each other and that I am making a conscious choice each time I go from Little Miss Sunshine to the Wicked Witch of the West. But it never happens. I’ve never been able to sit down with my selves and say, “All right ladies, you’re going to behave from now on. I’m in charge here.” Ms. Righteous Indignation would stand right up and say, “Oh, I don’t think so. You always make the selfish choice.” At which point, Selfish Sally would say, “Well, I deserve to be treated better.” Proud Mary stands up and says, “Ladies, ladies, we all know I’m the best one for the job. None of you is as competent or lovely as I am.” How to bring my parts together?
I wonder sometimes if the microbiome community that calls me home feels the shift from one owner to another. Do they cower under their mini-table when Lavinia aka Kali the goddess of destruction is in charge? Or is it possible that they are participants in my ever changing personal population? Could we actually be living in some kind of symbiotic relationship that goes beyond biology? There is actually research suggesting that microbiomes influence our behavior. What if in fact, there are microbiomes that feed on the cortisol we release in a moment of political raging? Or other microbiomes grooving and getting high on our serotonin when we are blissed out? It gives new meaning to the term, “What’s eating you?”
I need a new word! Microsymbiosis? Humanomicrosis? Antromicrobiosis? Google!