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  Field Notes From
Beyond the Brain

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Beyond the Brain On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

Cary Wolinsky

Beyond the Brain On Assignment

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From Author

James Shreeve

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 Mark Thiessen (top) and Cary Wolinky


Beyond the Brain On Assignment Photographer Beyond the Brain On Assignment Photographer
Beyond the Brain

Field Notes From Photographer
Cary Wolinsky

Best Worst Quirkiest
    Working on this assignment was a bit like getting a backstage pass to witness the launching of a new age in the understanding of the human mind. One scientist likened our current knowledge of brain geography to a 15th-century map of the world with large areas marked "There be dragons." With new tools—such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—to study the brain in real time, we're beginning to understand consciousness, memory, emotions, face recognition, body awareness, disorders, and the amazing plasticity of brain cells.

    Australia's Old Melbourne Gaol is now closed to criminals but open to tourists. The only place we could set up to photograph was in a tiny, damp jail cell. We closed the cell door to keep the curious from walking in while we were working. We were photographing plaster casts of the severed heads of prisoners who had been hanged there long ago. The casts were made so that early 19th-century phrenologists—whose theories have now been debunked—could study the bumps on the heads and get a better idea of the traits of the criminal mind. Some of the casts still contained bits of hair from the deceased. Being in a jail cell with a line-up of decapitated, criminal heads was just plain spooky.

    In his research, scientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his team had been blindfolding healthy, sighted volunteers for five  days running, teaching them Braille and watching how their brains responded. Before, during, and after the blindfolding, the subjects had a series of brain scans while they were given different tactile and auditory tasks: feeling either Braille characters or brush strokes on their fingertips and listening to tones or word fragments.
    Before the blindfolding began, the touching and hearing tasks had not switched on the visual areas of the brain. But as the week wore on, the visual regions became more and more involved in routine touching and hearing.
    To illustrate the study, I decided to give the scientists a taste of their own medicine. I had them blindfolded and then served them lunch. I was immediately struck by the predicament I had created for them. As they used their hands to feel around their plates, glasses tumbled and food went flying. I found myself wanting to help them make it through the ordeal. I began coaching them and calling, "The salad is on the left side of your plate. Look out for that glass." In the end, there was little damage to human or tablecloth.


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