I remember this record my Dad bought when I was a kid. My brother and I listened to it quite a few times. It was all about the brain – a song for every part (rather amusing, too, as I recall). I can’t remember much of it now, but I do remember one song (musically just a little reminiscent of “Copacabana”), the chorus of which began, “It’s the cortex! The cortex!”
That was, I’m pretty sure, my first encounter with the word cortex. And what sorts of flavours did cortex have for me? Not Gore-Tex, that smart outer layer to wear when you’re encountering nature and its elements – that hadn’t even been invented yet (not for another few years: 1976). No, it would have made me think of Chargex – what VISA cards used to be called in Canada – and similar commercial things and brand names ending in ex. And it would have made me think of core, of course. Which is certainly ironic, since the cortex is not the core but the outer layer of the brain. Your conscious interface with the elements, inner and outer. The part you’re processing this right here right now with.
Other flavours cortex may bring depend on context – and include context. You might get mixed up and think of an escort or perhaps of your oxters (that means “armpits”). You might think of Hernán Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztex – oops, I mean Aztecs. You might be reminded of Texas by the tex – or even by the size of the cortex, which is really rather expansive: about 2000 square centimetres, around the size of a newspaper page. A wrinkly newspaper page, though: the cerebral cortex has all sorts of wrinkles in it.
But, yes, whatever you think of, whatever new wrinkle, in whatever context, you’re thinking of it with your cortex. And not just history and geography but biology – your biology: the nerves in your oxters connect to your cortex as well.
But how did this crisp word come to be the name of the rind of the mind? You can play with the shapes, see the c come to o, the connection made and circle closed; you can see the crossroads of information at x. You can feel the tongue tap at the back, then (with a little wave motion) the tip, then again at the back and subside into a fricative at the tip, like water rocking in a box. But what has it all to do with the surface of the pond that is your brain?
Well, it’s not really that it’s the surface of a pond. It’s that it’s the bark of the brain tree – consider the ramifications of that. Cortex is Latin for “bark”, you see. Think of the bark of a pine tree, with its wrinkles.
But then think of the wood of that tree being made into a bark, to float on the seas of imagination: the wandering bark that is love, the bark of fantasy… It’s all in the cortex. The cortex!