By Nina Knight
Students in PSYCH 1 received a rare opportunity this term: They got to hold and study real human brains and their structures. Most people in my section handled this activity relatively well. One even ate a piece of candy immediately afterwards. Another was simply in awe of the “specimen” before them. I, on the other hand, was having an existential crisis.
Most of the people in my class have a scientific mindset and see objects for just what they are, so seeing and holding a human brain was fascinating but not jaw-dropping in the same way it was for me (and probably a few others). My roommate is also in the class, and she did not understand my sentiments about holding a brain. I ranted about the poetic implications of what we both had just done.
I told her, “You know that little voice inside your head? That’s you but not really you but also is you? You held another person’s voice in your hands. You held a consciousness. Every memory that person had, encapsulated in a thing you can hold with just two hands.” We both then proceeded to freak out about the meaning of life and the concept of consciousness as we lay in fetal positions on our dorm room floor. She did not approach the situation with the same things in mind as I did, and it wasn’t until I pointed all this out did it dawn on her.
Honestly, I am somewhat jealous she can look at things so rationally and from such a distance. That way, you don’t question what it means to be human every time you hold a brain, fall in love or sneeze. Science is complicated in a way that you can understand – networks of different systems link together, and although it’s difficult to understand, it’s still comprehensible to some people. Being a “fuzzy,” if you will, entails accepting non-answers and rocking back and forth on the ground every once in awhile.
When I told a friend back home about my reaction to holding a human brain, his first was response was: “OMG, you and your poetic tendencies.” So yes, I am aware it was a somewhat melodramatic response to something that many other people saw as scientific and clinical. That simply isn’t how I’m wired, though, and I felt that very deeply when I stood in a room with my peers while screaming internally. Now, others could have been having a similar reaction and it was just hard to tell, but the in-depth conversations I’ve had about the experience with other students seem to place me in the minority here.
My brain is still having trouble comprehending it held another brain. My brain is thinking about itself and about another brain in relation to each other. I could go on like this forever, and most of the people I know would either join me in a curled up ball on the ground or throw a pillow at me, so I will spare you the rest.
Contact Nina Knight at ngknight ‘at’ stanford.edu.