‘Brains’ asks not what brains do to us, but what we have done to brains, focusing on the bodily presence of the organ rather than investigating the neuroscience of the mind.
This is the aim of the new exhibit, Brains: The mind as matter, at the Wellcome Collection. I found this quite a refreshing approach after the five years I have spent questioning the brain’s effect on us.
The curators have brought together a variety of perspectives, genres and media to capture the brain both in respect to medicine and as a cultural object. 150 artifacts surrounding the theme of the brain are brought together and displayed in four sections:
- Measuring/Classifying describes efforts that have been made to understand the relationship between brain function and form.
- Mapping/Modelling describes the efforts to understand the anatomy of the brain.
- Cutting/Treating depicts the timeline of surgical intervention.
- Giving/Taking focuses on post 18th C research, when techniques were developed to enable the collection and storage of specimens.
Different artifacts on display
Over the last several centuries, researchers have dissected, cut into, chemically modified and more recently, imaged the brain. There has been a lot of progress in medicine as a consequence of this effort, and much of it has turned out to be works of art, aesthetically pleasing to the eye and capable of directly engaging with the viewer. Take for example the Brainbow mouse, on display at the exhibit, a vibrant representation of the neocortex. The colourful photograph provides an eye-catching and fun visual depiction of the inside of a mouse brain.
Cells can be made to fluoresce by altering them with genes taken from coral and jellyfish. The most commonly known protein, the green fluorescent protein (GFP), was initially isolated from the jellyfish and exhibits green fluorescence when exposed to light in the blue to UV range. Here, it is possible to distinguish between cells and 6 layers of the neocortex.
“Brainbow Mouse” [Photograph: Jean Livet, Joshua R Sanes and Jeff Lichtman, 2007]
It doesn’t take 21st century technology and colour to make the brain look beautiful. Accurate anatomical study of the brain began in the renaissance due to the artistic developments and the birth of printing. I saw today an edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, the textbook of human anatomy published in 1555.
However, nothing scientifically substantial concerning the brain’s function or anatomy emerged until the late 19th century. The parasagittal section of the cerebellum by Ramon y Cajal (1894), made using the Golgi method, developed by the Italian pathologist, Camillo Golgi. Nervous tissue is immersed first in a potassium dichromate solution and then in a silver nitrate solution in order to show a small number of cells. From close up the brown-red silver chromate, which incidentally is the precursor to modern photography, looks great – it has this vintage, authentic and timeless appearance.
Fluorescent imagery now supersedes the Golgi technique in its accuracy. But it is images such as this one that helped Cajal put forth his revolutionary theory that the brain is made up of individual cells rather than a continuous mesh of filaments, knowledge we take for granted today. But I wonder if it is because we take this information for granted that we are now able to look at these images in a different light and assign to them not merely scientific merit but equally an artistic one. How appropriate that Cajal was a painter before a neurologist and his lifelong interest in painting/photography influenced his scientific approach. His work resulted in a Nobel Prize, which incidentally he shared with Camillo Golgi.
But the history of brain research has a more chilling side to it as you will find when looking at old-school surgical instruments and thinking about what it means to donate your brain in the name of research. The brain is objectified in this exhibit and the individuals behind each organ in question is left behind, forgotten. High-five to Ania Dabrowska though, who captured beautiful photographs of elderly donors who have or will pass away in the coming years. In regards to donating brains towards research, the exhibit contains a video depicting biologists in the process of preserving brains at the Tissue Bank.
Arguably, the exhibit oversimplifies the scientific method and current theories of brain function. My one criticism would be that the collection could have better explained how these discoveries and theories led to the current approaches used today to study the brain. That said, the aim is clearly set out at the start of the collection – see not what the brain does for us, but what we have done to the brain. And overall, the exhibit is quirky, interesting and eye-catching – a killer combo for any exhibit, especially when you think of how boring a brain exhibit could be!
All of this sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, so you don’t have to spend a penny. The exhibit is fun and definitely worth a visit – and I don’t say this just because I am a geek for anything brain-y (pun absolutely intended). If you’ve been already do let me know what you thought of it by leaving a comment!
The Wellcome Collection blog can be found here.