Brains and Porridge

Wait till this gets cold, then stick your finger in. Image courtesy of YAROSLAV BRAGIN.


It was while the porridge was slowly congealing in the bowl, reaching that slightly yucky consistency whereupon it will hold shape, that the opportunity arose. And to be frank, not much rises from the idea of congealed porridge except, perhaps, your breakfast which was, in this case, said porridge. Until now.

If you’ve ever stuck your finger deep into congealed porridge, especially the rarer warm congealed porridge, then you’ve hopefully got children and, thus, an excuse. Same here, because this opportunity was too good to miss and we grabbed it with both hands. As it were. If you’ve done this, you’ve also felt something akin to what it feels like if you stick your finger into a brain.

Now, not to get the two confused, because cream and brown sugar are good in the right place, just not with brains. But in terms of how the brain feels, congealed porridge is close.

All right. Now imagine this. Take a good blob of congealed porridge and mold it into two roughly fist-sized blobs, a bit smaller if you have to. Now push the two blobs together so they squash a little. Good. This is about the size of your brain. For a few people I know it’s about as effective too!

Porridge in plastic wrap

Hold the congealed, squashed-together porridge blobs in one hand while with the other you get some plastic wrap. Wrap the porridge. This in itself should be entertaining, but there is a point.

Inside your skull you also have a layer of cling wrap. Truly. Actually, it’s a really fine  mesh that wraps around the contours of your brain, over the bumps, down into the cracks and all. If you’ve ever been sunburned and enjoyed peeling off skin, peeling off this stuff from the brain is similar, except that it’s stickier and harder to get off. It’s called the pia mater, and it lovingly holds everything together. It’s taken from the Latin meaning “tender mother”.

Porridge in plastic wrap floating inside a spider web

The brain, then the pia mater, then a small gap filled with clear fluid. The fluid we call cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and this is the fluid you’ll find through your brain and spinal cord. This is being constantly replenished, and it’s useful to imagine your brain floating in it. It pretty much does. It also helps cushion the brain from impact. The gap itself is called the sub-arachnoid space. This gets its name because it’s below or under (sub) the arachnoid membrane. This layer, the arachnoid, looks like a spider web.

Porridge in plastic wrap floating inside a spider web inside a leather football

Brain, pia mater, sub-arachnoid space, cerebrospinal fluid, arachnoid membrane, which is connected to the leather football. Wrapped over the arachnoid membrane is a tough, leathery sack, whitish in colour, and called the dura mater, or “hard mother”, which takes blood to the heart and offers additional protection to the brain.

Porridge in plastic wrap floating inside a spider web inside a leather football inside a coconut

Brain, pia mater, sub-arachnoid space, cerebrospinal fluid, arachnoid membrane, dura mater, coconut. Or skull. You choose. From here I’m guessing that you can figure the remaining layers yourself! A bit of skin and a bit of hair. Voila, a head!

The layers above the brain and below the skull are, together, called meninges. When you hear about meningitis, it means one or more of these layers are inflamed. “-itis” means an inflammation of some kind (appendicitis, tonsillitis etc), and in this case it’s of the meninges, hence meningitis.

Next time you’re watching a medical drama where everyone is ferociously good-looking and they happen to perform previously unheard of surgeries with only a spoon, some packing tape and a handy fountain pen, and then they go on to mention a subdural hematoma, you can figure out now that this is below (sub) the dura mater (dural) and it’s to do with blood (hem). In other words, there’s a bad bleed between the dura and the arachnoid, increasing pressure and causing major problems. Which is why we invented spoons, packing tape and fountain pens.

So here’s the take home bit

Did you ever think you could have so much fun with porridge? This is a great way to teach people about the brain and the various layers that surround it. Most people don’t know.

For next time, you’ll need:

  • porridge (the congealed kind)
  • plastic wrap
  • water
  • spider web
  • leather football
  • coconut

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Pia mater, sub-arachnoid space, cerebrospinal fluid, arachnoid membrane, dura mater.

Now do these medical programs make sense?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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