Brains: The Mind as Matter was produced to accompany the Wellcome Collection’s 2012 exhibition curated by Marius Kwint and Lucy Shanahan. It explores the human fascination with this organ which has existed throughout history and gripped a cross-section of society and academia – not only scientists and doctors, but also anthropologists, philosophers and artists. With no sign of any slowing in our desperation to understand what Aristotle described as the ‘cold sponge’ between our ears, this is a pertinent time to be reminded of our relentless, hubristic and often fruitless or unrewarded obsession with the brain.
The book starts with two essays which set the images contained in the book in their socio-cultural, scientific and historical contexts. The authors are Kwint, a lecturer in visual culture at the University of Portsmouth, and Richard Wingate, a developmental neuroscientist at King’s College London. Despite their different backgrounds, both give a comprehensive overview of both the scientific and socio-cultural importance of the pieces.
Kwint begins his essay by clarifying that Brains is not a neuroscience textbook. Rather than viewing the brain as a functional organ, this work takes a novel look at ‘the mind as matter’ – a substance which has been continually preserved, dissected, represented and explored by humanity. ‘What if’ muses Kwint, ‘we […] allow the brain to retain the status of an object, with which humans engage in varied but purposeful activities, almost as if it were wood?’ (p. 8). The commentary continues with an impressively broad overview of humanity’s attempts to understand the brain. This ranges from Aristotle’s rejection of the brain in favour of the heart as the seat of emotion, to modern conceptual artists’ use of the brain in their work, via the 19th-century obsession with brain collecting and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Wingate gives a history of scientific representations of the brain – contrasting Camillo Golgi and Ramon y Cajal’s delicate 19th-century illustrations of neurons with modern ‘brainbow’ mapping of neuronal networks and the rapidly-expanding field of neuroimaging.
The book is set out like the original exhibition – the ‘exhibits’ are grouped under four broad themes, accompanied by explanatory captions. The first, Measuring/Classifying (p. 40-55), is concerned with the socio-historical pastime of collecting and measuring brains, both living and dead, with the aim of revealing something about the character of the individual. Preserved brains from Cornell University’s Wilder Brain Collection such as the infamous Edward H Ruloff’s (once described as a “gentleman, scholar and murderer”) float inscrutably in murky formaldehyde, and betray no hint of the nature of their original owners.
Mapping/Modelling (pp. 56-91) is the most visually appealing section of the book, enhanced by intricate anatomical drawings and models of the brain from the likes of Vesalius, Descartes and medical schools through the ages, as well as microscopic representations of brain cells that are both ancient and modern. We also see our first ‘brain art’ in this section from artists Andrew Carnie and Katherine Dowson. While it is encouraging to see that the unprepossessing form of the “cold sponge” is capable of inspiring today’s artists, the inadvertent beauty and stories of discovery behind the anatomical and scientific works are much more arresting than these ‘made’ pieces.
The third section is Cutting/Treating (pp. 92-121), which looks at medical interactions with the brain throughout history – ancient trepanning equipment is exhibited alongside eerie photographs of neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing’s patients. Although interesting, this segment is perhaps too historical, with only a few references to modern biomedicine (which themselves could be more informative). One notable omission is Deep Brain Simulation, a technique that involves implanting a small electrical device directly into specific brain areas to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s – the closest we have come to actually working with the matter of the living brain itself. Another weakness is the lack of representation of psychiatry. The only exhibits here are ominous – a painting by a psychiatric patient and an ECT machine from the mid-20th century. Mental health is important and topical – problems in this area may affect up to 1 in 4 people at some point in their lives (see WHO). It is also a subject that must be de-stigmatised if it is to be tackled successfully. It was surprising to find it so sparsely (and stereotypically) represented here.
The fourth and final section, Giving/Taking (pp. 122-159), is an emotive and satisfying ending to the book. It contrasts the dark, unethical aspects of the history of brain science (the realisation that the photographs of dilapidated hospital buildings are in fact the former locations where Nazi ‘euthanasia’ policies were practiced is jarring) with the altruism of those who have voluntarily donated their brains to neuroscience research. Though extreme, it is a reminder that though great excitement and high hopes surround brain research today, we must proceed with caution, remembering mistakes made by unscrupulous scientists in the past, and with dignity and respect for those willing to entrust their bodies to scientists.
This collection does an excellent job of providing a broad, eclectic history of humanity’s involvement with the brain. Its novel yet effective take of showcasing the brain as ‘matter’ allows the equal representation and integration of both cultural and scientific material. Even those who are already familiar with much of the history of the brain sciences can find something new within these pages, and at least have a chance to experience familiar knowledge from a new perspective. The captions are brief yet informative and accurate, and the book includes a wide variety of media despite being limited to the pages of a slim 160-page volume. In many ways, the book’s brevity is its main weakness. Compared to the 2012 exhibition, Brains lacks ‘cultural’ exhibits such as the horror stories and film posters, which are promised to us in Kwint’s introduction and never delivered. It also leaves out many of the artworks from the exhibition. The value of ‘sci-art’ is debatable (though not to be discussed here) and there are both good and bad specimens present in this book, but many of the ones from the exhibition that were most interesting and inspired the most discussion were excluded (for example: Daniel Margulies and Chris Sharp’s Untitled, a tongue-in-cheek video installment showing an fMRI scan after a participant read Kant’s 3rd Critique and listened to the Rite of Spring; and Jonathon Keats’ 2003 project of copyrighting his mind and selling ‘futures contracts’ in his neurons).
Brains does not aim to comment on humanity’s often misguided involvement with the brain, or even to be a comprehensive history of brain science. Instead, it aims to chronicle and provoke discussion of humanity’s interactions with this mysterious organ, and highlight its relevance to society throughout history and culture. This book will undoubtedly be of interest to artists and historians who are scientifically oriented, as well as doctors and neuroscientists – but should appeal to anyone who wants to understand the brain.
Indeed, there has never been a more exciting time for neuroscience, and scientific and public interest in the brain continues to mount. Multi-billion dollar funding investments such as U.S. President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and the EU’s Human Brain Project accompany rapidly multiplying discoveries in the brain sciences, with new ‘neuro-stories’ appearing almost daily in the media and scientific journals. With our increasingly ageing society, fear of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s looms large in our collective consciousness. Brains is an excellent companion to, and reflection of today’s ‘neuro-centric’ society.
Though there are notable omissions, this book gives a varied insight into brains, humanity, and the romance of scientific discovery. Despite the fact that, as Wingate points out, ‘there is so little to read of ourselves in the material stuff of the brain’ (p. 22), there is much to be learned about ourselves from studying our interactions with it.
Reviewed by Sophie Fitzsimmons, who is a final year medical student at Cardiff University. She has a BSc in Neuroscience and her academic interests lie in clinical neurosciences, psychiatry and the medical humanities.
Correspondence to Sophie Fitzsimmons.