February 9, 2010

Brain Collection Preserves Figures in History

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In the basement of Uris Hall lies a small closet-sized space ominously introduced as the ‘brain room’. The rows of shelves holding over 60 human brains in glass jars lining the walls make up the remaining specimens of Cornell’s Wilder Brain Collection. Undoubtedly overwhelming and slightly unsettling at first, it may sound like something found in a mad scientist’s lab. Contrastingly however, the collection creates a powerful tribute to the scientific process and a profound image of humanity.

The first brains were collected by Burt Green Wilder, a professor of neurology at Cornell, for research in the late 19th century. “This was one of the initial attempts at studying gross morphology in the brain and trying to correlate that to individual differences across people,” said Supriya Syal, a psychology graduate student and the assistant curator of the Wilder collection. Wilder aimed to do so by including brains from a variety of genders, social classes, and ages—including those of individuals with various disorders.

Originally the collection held more than 600 brains. However, due to poor maintenance and preservation, the collection’s size dropped down to its current 70. Even though these are regularly maintained and cleaned by the curators, the effect of time has taken its toll on the brains. The brain of Edward Rulloff whose death in 1871 marked the last public hanging in New York is noticeably flattened— a common result of time. Rulloff’s brain is also abnormally large and holds an inexplicable greenish tinge. Another result of time is the tendency of the two hemispheres to separate.

Wilder’s own brain is on exhibit along with seven other prominent individuals at Uris Hall’s display case next to the psychology department. To build his collection, Wilder handed out bequest forms among alumni and in his word, “educated and orderly men”, urging them to donate their brains to science. One of these notable individuals on display includes Edward B. Titchener, who shifted psychology to a science from its previous philosophical approach.

“[Wilder] was a little misguided. It certainly would make feminists turn in their graves, but he assumed that the brains of educated men would be different from those of women, criminals, and the mentally challenged,” Syal said.

However, as we know today, that is not the case. Save for pathological or developmental disorders, mild differences in the human brain only lie in the fissures and the convolutions. Suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener whose brain is also on display, aimed to prove just that by donating her brain to the collection.

While the way scientists study brains today has dramatically shifted in light of recent technology, it in no way dims the significance of the collection. Syal, as a psychologist, likes observing the reactions of the people who visit the collection, which includes student groups, anatomy classes, and scientists. According to her, most individuals have a pervasive fascination with the human brain, with very few other experiences allowing such a literal grasp on human behavior.

As Syal said, “When you are holding a human brain, everything is so tangible. You are holding all of human experience in your hands.”

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar