At the Baltic Sea, 1933. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum
The body courses with currents of love and desire, pleasure and pain. Can neuroscience alone map this fluid terrain?
As a student of neuroanatomy, I was provided with a human brain in a half-gallon tub. Our lab manual depicted a brain in situ, half-exposed in the head of an aged Irishman cut open along the midline, where his part might have run. My lab partner and I spent a semester peeling away layers of our stranger’s accumulated experience. We sketched coarse outlines to label in Latin and Greek. In an exam, we might find pins in the pons and medulla, in their minor partitions. We might be asked to diagram the flow of information as a child touches a hot stove then withdraws her hand in a thin sliver of a second. This is the allure of neuroscience: it offers an atlas of experience, one whose pages can be laid out for view with a scalpel and steady hand. At 21, I was overwhelmed and enthralled.
Roughly a year later, I joined several graduate students for an afternoon spent kicking our way through ankle- and waist-deep waters, seining for tiny varieties of fishes. We were led by an ichthyology professor who was opinionated and clever. He taught me how to hold the seine, placing my hands on the posts in proper position, tilting them so the net could billow behind me. He showed me how to move through the water to drive fish into our net. And despite my ignorance, he addressed me with deference. ‘You’re a neurobiologist,’ he began, as I watched the Vermillion River work its way across a flat Illinois acre. ‘Why is water so mesmerising?’
Maybe it was the way light and sound leapt from the stream, at once constant and unpredictable. I kept this thought to myself. We could not have anticipated that we would discuss his strange question and our awkward silence for the next 20 years.
Perhaps we have become too easily ashamed of our wonder. Neuroscientists want more than ever to chart the brain’s navigable waters, its every tributary and purling riffle. We have performed meta-analyses of brains lit with love and desire. And when we have these maps, these intimate geographies, what then? As Walt Whitman has written, ‘Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling.’ Can we learn how a fleeting touch drives a frenzied heart, or why the delay between contact and withdrawal can span a decade? An answer worthy of our effort should begin at the skin’s surface, yet somehow end in poetry.
While walking on a Japanese beach at the end of the 19th century, the Scottish doctor Henry Faulds found pottery fragments that bore impressions from the fingertips of prehistoric craftsmen. Contemporary pots made by similar methods revealed finer details and alerted him to the minute variations of the human hand. Naturalists of the time often documented the delicate forms of exotic ferns by transferring a thin layer of printer’s ink from frond to paper. Faulds made similar records of the intricate ridges of fingers and palms, noting the variety of patterns he observed among the digits of his friends and colleagues…