Monday, June 05, 2006

Brains! Brains! Brains!

Well, I’m back from beautiful Ithaca. On my last afternoon there, my brother gave my mom and I a nice walking tour of Cornell University. Since he works there, he knew exactly where the good stuff was. And I’m not talking about the well-tended quadrangles and the gorgeous Victorian architecture, either. No, I’m talking about the jars full of human brains. Many colleges don’t have them, but Cornell is a fancy school, with a long and storied history, and so it has a built up a formidable collection of human brains. Genius brains, murderer brains, famous brains, big brains, little brains, all manner and shape of brains are kept in the Cornell University brain archive. Unfortunately, you need a legitimate academic purpose to view most of these brains, but a special few are kept in a snazzy display case in the psychology department.

It’s kind of a funny sight. Imagine a display case at the high school you went to. I’ll bet that it used a lot of construction paper, some eye-catching colors, and cheaply mounted placards explaining the cheerleading team’s awesome prowess, the value of diversity, or how much drugs will ruin your life. The Cornell University display was pretty much in this same vein, only there were a bunch of brains in it. Really old brains too, but they kept well in their urine-colored formaldehyde stew. They rested on some nice, dignified black drapery and above each was a picture of its former owner along with a little biography enumerating their accomplishments. Most of them were professors, doughty folk of accomplishment and academic excellence, and in their portraits they stared sternly out at us through bushy beards and goofy eyebrows.

One, however, belonged to a lady, and this was a somewhat groundbreaking brain. According to the text accompanying it, her brain, donated in the name of very, very early feminism, helped to put to rest the myth that the female brain was anatomically different than the male brain. Our brains are essentially the same, she proved, and so at least one nail was driven into the coffin of male dominance.

Another brain belonged to a peerlessly smart, but nonetheless crazy guy who killed his family and dumped their bodies in Lake Cayuga. His is the second largest brain on record, weighing it at a whopping 1770 grams. And, I must say, it was an impressively sized brain, even if it was starting to fall apart from about a century and a half of floating in its own juices. I don’t think sheer brain girth matters much, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that having a bigger brain just meant you had a bigger head. It’s not the size of the thing, but the quality. Isn’t that right? I don’t know. I really don’t know much about the brain. Except that they look pretty cool sitting in jars in a college hallway.

In fact, they look so cool that I’m willing to say, in public and under no duress whatsoever, that–when I die–any college that wants to may take my brain and display it in their psychology department hallway. All I ask is for a flattering picture to go with it and a biography that kind of “talks me up” a little bit. That would make me very happy. Do you hear me Cornell University? I’m saying you can have my brain. My brain is your office decoration. E-mail me and I’ll sign whatever forms I have to.