Holding Brains

Plate by Pietro da Cortona
Plate by Pietro da Cortona

At Harvard Medical School, all first-year students are required to take the Gross Anatomy Lab, part of “The Human Body” course. A few of my journalist friends were auditing the class, so I asked to come along. I wanted to get close to death, but in a clinical sort of way.As a kid, I accompanied my father to the funeral of his stepmother’s sister. I’d never met the deceased, but I wanted to see a dead body, even if it would be clothed, pumped full of embalming fluid, and made-up to look as lifelike as possible. It was a Catholic funeral, so there was sure to be an open casket.

The outing was a disappointment. The body laid out in the casket looked like a well-dressed, old lady taking a nap.

The medical students were listening to a guest speaker down the hall, so my friends and I had the dissection room to ourselves. It was cold. Someone turned on the lights. Metal tables were arranged in an orderly fashion. The tables had drains to catch the run-off fluids. One friend pulled away a drape so I could see a corpse. She may have even said, “Ta-da!”

There it was—a naked, half-dissected human body. I didn’t think the sight would affect me, but it did. I suddenly felt light-headed. My thoughts cycled quickly between Wow. This is a person. No, it’s just a body. This was a person. This isn’t a person. Who was this person? This isn’t alive. This was alive. Look at it. No. Wow.

The first thing I could say, pointing to some fat around the exposed tendons on a leg, was “It looks like chicken fat.” I wasn’t making a joke. The yellow blob looked like fat on an uncooked chicken. I looked for a while longer as my friend poked various parts with a probe and pointed out what they’d explored so far in class. I thought I’d want to look for a long time, but I didn’t. A friend respectfully replaced the drape.

We quickly toured the rest of the lab. There was a walk-in freezer with body parts sealed in plastic. In another room, there were more metal tables and a row of white plastic buckets. Each bucket contained multiples of one organ or another. I didn’t recognize most of the parts until we got to the bucket of brains.

“Do you want to hold one?” my friend asked.

“Yes,” I said, without a second of hesitation.

After pulling on a pair of latex gloves, I reached into the clear fluid and picked up a brain. It was smaller and firmer than I’d imagined. It felt like a waterlogged softball. I held the brain out before me, marveling at the mass of tissue resting in my outstretched palm.

It felt thrilling and illicit to hold a brain. This was the closest I’d ever get to touching an embodiment of the self. Or a relic of that embodiment. This squishy handful of matter had processed sights and smells and tastes and touches. It had thought a billion thoughts. It had known, or been the instrument of knowing.

I felt a shudder of awe, as if the brain in my skull, just a foot away from the dripping brain in my hand, was seeing a member of its own tribe for the first time.

I tossed the brain up a few inches and caught it. That simple act of tossing and catching requires so many complex unconscious calculations. Here was the thing that had accomplished so much so quietly. I placed the brain back in the bucket and picked up another one and another. They were all pretty much the same.

If my brain sensed that it had seen its future in a bucket of brine, it didn’t let on. A few minutes later we left the lab. Someone turned off the lights.

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