Saturday, October 9, 2010

No Big Deal or Anything, but...

Yes, a real human brain. In my hands. In my twenty-year-old, Disneyland-loving, gluten-free, coffee-obsessed hands. 

The day started with my statistics class at 9, in which I fell asleep. Then my MATLAB class at 11, fell asleep again. Long week for sure. Then I got to my Neuroanatomy discussion section at 12 (while frantically studying for 1 p.m. Latin), where I not only found out that I didn't do quite so horribly on my quiz last week, but my TA also said okay, today is a LAB day. For this lab, we basically had to label brain structures on printouts of coronal, lateral, and sagittal views, and then describe some of the structures in a few sentences. All of this can be done outside of class (I'm 70% done anyway...), but then he held up a brain. A real brain. Just like that. Someone asked if it had gotten smaller because of the drying/preservation process. Only 10-20%, he said, not much. Then, as if it was nothing at all in his hands, held it up to his own head as a comparison. Just like that. 

There were other brains at the front of the classroom, a macaque brain, rat brains, and a few others I didn't pay attention to. I wanted the human brain. The animal brains were all soaked in formaldehyde, so I didn't get to pick them up as we were running out of gloves. Like I said, I wasn't paying any attention to them to begin with. The human brain was just...there. No formaldehyde, a different process. 

Part of me was grossed out, but the MUCH larger part was excited. This is what I study, this is what I love! I'll say it again:


Convinced? Me too. I used to be a Political Science major. I wanted to be a Civil Rights Lawyer. And now, I might still want to, but I found something to study that just thrills me. I never thought I'd be a science major, that's laughable. But I just love the brain! I love learning about it, I love neurons, I love the lobes, I love CT scans and EEG recordings and TMS research! TMS stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and one of my professors does a lot of work with it.

So there I was, holding this brain. This thing that was so unassuming, so...well, so ugly actually, color-wise. It was this tan/yellow/dull shade, not the pink I had imagined. Then again, it was a dead brain. No blood flow or anything, no action potentials, no neurotransmitters, nothing. But the structures were there, the nerve fibers, oh my gosh the nerve fibers! All tangled, and the cerebellum, with its striations, was just sitting there! Just chilling out I guess. Chillin' like a villain. Cool.

And this unassuming organ, this ugly-colored dead organ, was once the key to someone's entire life! Still the key to life, just now in a more universal sense. The most electrifying, brilliant, incredible machine, and it was just sitting there waiting for me to pick it up at the front of the classroom! It's hard to even grasp the experience, the idea that I was holding something so complex, the key to the evolution of cognition, the neural processes underlying behavior, and the reason I can even approach this level of thinking! And I was holding it in my hands. 

...I'll never forget it. Ever.

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