The brain contains infinite space. This is my area of expertise, yet I feel the awe of ignoranceby Paul Broks / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
I am sitting alone in the small seminar room on the tenth floor. This is known as “Harry’s room.” I am at the head of a long oak table, working at a laptop computer. The door is at my back and the single window at the other end of the room sheds a thin, early evening light. On the shelves are rows of display jars containing specimens of human brain, each suspended in a liquid the colour of watery piss. This is Harry’s collection. The specimens are arranged according to pathology: tumours, cerebrovascular disease, degenerative disorders, and so on. There are whole brains, half brains, and parts of brain. Close to my right shoulder, there swims a cerebellum. The room is ineffably still.
Among the relics of natural disease and degeneration are three victims of unnatural violence. Their stories intertwine. The first brain was caught with the second’s wife and was dispatched with a pistol shot to the back of the head. Then after putting an end to its wife, the second brain dispatched itself. The woman’s brain, third in line, completes the set. Hers is perfectly intact. She got it in the heart, according to Harry. I once told him that I thought she might have been better placed between the other two, to keep the rivals apart. “Even in death,” I said, “you can sense their contempt for one another.” It didn’t seem to worry him. And anyway, I wondered, what was she doing here? Her brain was not illustrating a pathology of any kind. Harry’s response was that she exemplified the normal, intact brain. He wouldn’t concede that in displaying the specimens in this way he was also creating a tableau, showcasing the fickle heart as much as the fragile brain. All the same, it was a tale he seemed fond of telling.
The material substance of the brain was bread and butter to Harry, a neuropathologist, but not to me. I remember the ambivalence I felt when I first held a human brain in the palm of my hand; the fascination but also the distaste. I was surprised, and moved, by how heavy it felt. Perhaps a part of me had expected it to be weightless, like a mental image or a train of thought. I was eager to confirm for myself that the internal structures matched the familiar textbook pictures but somehow, I felt disinclined…