Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
Have you ever held a human brain in your hand?
I have. No doubt the squeamish among you will be running for the door round about now, but it’s an amazing experience. (Please note: no, the brain was not attached to a person at the time and yes, it was rubbery after being in formaldehyde. This seems to be what everyone asks me about it, so I thought I’d clear it up right now.)
An adult human brain weighs approximately 1.3kg. So yes, you can hold it in one hand – hence the title of this post, which is from a poem by the Roman poet Propertius* (c.50-c.15 BC) ‘see, all that I am now can be held in the fingers of one hand’. The poem isn’t referring to brains, but it’s one of those times that poetry has really struck a chord with me.
Whatever your beliefs (and I’m not getting into this here), those brains were alive once. You can’t see it on their surface – it’s in the neuronal connections – but they encoded memories of weddings and graduations and practical jokes, controlled someone’s walking, dancing, planning a journey (packing to go away in the UK is a complex task which demands a lot of the frontal lobe’s executive functions!) And when you know more about it, you realise how much goes ‘choreography’ goes on in there to enable even the simplest movement; afterwards I walked around moving my hands in front of me and thinking about all the things which go on in the brain to make that happen.
I think it’s pretty amazing. Looking for anatomical landmarks (it varies a little between brains) didn’t take away the wonder at all; if anything it enhanced it.
So if you ever get the chance to hold a brain? Overcome any squeamishness you may have. It’s worth it. (Also, you get to walk round saying ‘Where are the braaainnss? Sorry for lowering the tone but I couldn’t write a whole post on brains without a zombie joke.)
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* For those who like proper references: Elegies IV.15.14