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  Field Notes From
Beyond the Brain



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Beyond the Brain On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

James Shreeve



Beyond the Brain On Assignment

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From Photographer

Cary Wolinsky



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Cary Wolinsky (top) and Mark Thiessen


 

Beyond the Brain On Assignment Author Beyond the Brain On Assignment Author
Beyond the Brain

Field Notes From Author
James Shreeve

Best Worst Quirkiest
    One of the high points of this assignment was taking part in a study on blindness. I volunteered to be blindfolded for 24 hours and was put through a series of tests. Confronting the world without my eyes changed how I felt about who I was. After spending the night in a hospital room, someone walked me over to another building a couple of blocks away. The sounds and smells around me seemed hyper-real. It was raining, and I could hear each tire of a car splashing by me as a distinct sound. I could smell the fresh bagels in a restaurant across the street.
    A little while later, I was being rolled on a gurney into the tunnel of an fMRI machine, still blindfolded. I was then asked to finger a device studded with different tactile stimuli while the machine recorded activity in my brain. Being part of the experiment instead of being just an observer gave me an unusually intimate perspective on the research. It was as if my brain had been relieved momentarily of its persistently subjective frame of reference—that constant, urgent sense of "me"—and had instead become an object of study, immensely complex and mysterious, but an object nevertheless.


    My worst moment happened immediately after accepting this assignment. I remember thinking about how I would write a story on the mind in a mere 5,000 words. How would I do justice to a subject so huge and complicated? That moment was echoed a few times in meetings with my editors and photographer Cary Wolinsky. There were some times when we'd try to get a handle on the story, and we just struggled with it, feeling a certain amount of despair. It was a long process trying to make it work.

    Cary and I were able to observe the surgeons in the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center remove Corina Alamillo's tumor. The idea of seeing a living, pulsating brain exposed is interesting in itself. But when the patient is conscious and communicating at the same time, it's a fascinating experience. I kept thinking about what could happen if the doctors made any mistakes. If the surgeons took away too much brain tissue, they might remove Corina's ability to speak, or conceivably change her personality. If they didn't take enough, they could lose her entirely. It's that chance to experience that level of human drama that makes writing for National Geographic so exciting.

   


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