A brainy book

13 April 2012
 Brains: The Mind as Matter

Brains: The mind as matter

Accompanying our current Brains exhibition is a new book, featuring more than 100 astonishing images from the exhibition, as well as illuminating essays from art historian Marius Kwint and neuroscientist Richard Wingate. Barry Gibb takes a look inside…

Humans are governed by the thought that if we look long and hard enough at something then its purpose and function will become evident: planetary motion, DNA… The brain, however, seems to happily evade such scrutiny. We see folds, channels, pigmentation and, on much closer inspection, neurons. But the gulf between what we see and what this thing allows us to be still seems utterly intractable.

Brains: The mind as matter, the new book accompanying Wellcome Collection’s latest major exhibition, unashamedly eschews both scientists’ and the media’s contemporary fascination with brain scanning and neurological function. Instead, it gets straight to the meat of the matter, the brain as a physical object.

It’s a pleasant departure. A timely reminder that, while today’s electronic brains at the heart of machines allow scientists to probe the secrets governing the flows and tides of information throughout the brain’s iconic architecture, for centuries it remained a largely impassive, impenetrable mass.

By way of introduction to this vast subject, the book begins with a brief, entertaining history of our culture’s growing understanding of the organ from Marius Kwint – a lecturer in Visual Culture – taking in everyone from Galen to Frankenstein. Richard Wingate, a neuroscientist, then moves much closer to the subject matter, giving a richly deserved nod to the painstaking and insightful work of Ramon y Cajal – a giant in the field of neuroscience who first revealed the cellular architecture of the brain.

But it’s the photographic study from Daniel Alexander that really sets the tone for the remainder of the book, split into four logical sections taking us deeper into the brain and what it means to be human. Brains weaves the brain’s greater history into a collection of sometimes macabre, often striking and frequently hypnotic images taken from art, science and that fertile cauldron in between.

This is a book for anyone with an interest in this mythic organ extending beyond the now, and for those interested in taking a step back from how the brain does what it does and, quite simply, marvelling at what it is and the enigmatic road we are still travelling to comprehend ourselves.

Barry Gibb is a Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust and author of The Rough Guide to the Brain. Buy Brains: The mind as matter online at Blackwell’s.