The brain is wider than the sky

We had another session in the prosectorium this afternoon – I think my hands are still a little smelly. Today was neuroanatomy. I really love neuroscience. I remember the very first lecture I had in it as an undergraduate, thinking “Yes! This is what I want to do!” with a level of conviction I’ve rarely felt before or since. The brain is just so mysterious; it always seemed like studying the human equivalent of outer space. Some of the things we know about the brain are just so cool. Did you know you may have a cell in your brain that specifically recognises Jennifer Aniston’s face? (I’m saying this is cool, not necessarily that it’s a good thing). Also admittedly there was probably part of me that loved specialising in something that sounded so impressive (“Wow, neuroscience? That’s amazing, what does that even mean?”)

As far as anatomy goes, it turns out that the brain doesn’t give up its secrets so easily. Staring at real human brains is perhaps a lot less enlightening than looking at hearts or lungs or bowels. Lying there on the platter it’s just a greyish lump, sliced one way or another, sometimes with some arteries attached or a piece of nerve. It weighs a couple of pounds and when you prod it it feels a bit like putty. “So… that’s about all there is to say about that”, says our demonstrator, moving awkwardly away to find another table where the students won’t look at him quite so expectantly.

That’s all there is to say? Perhaps at a gross anatomical level, yes. Of course much of neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry are concerned with understanding the brain and it would be a massive disservice to say we know nothing, but the fact is there’s a huge amount yet to learn and the mystery remains. And I suppose I love that. Looking at that grey putty makes me more conscious of my own. It makes me want to make the most of it, to read novels and learn and create things… and wear a bike helmet. I always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson. I think she had it right.

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –