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May 17, 2012

B-SIDES: Bloomington brain exhibit gives us something to think about

BLOOMINGTON — Most of us never think about our brain.

Of course, that’s ironic. It’s like asking our taste buds to critique a cow-tongue sandwich.

Yet, our brain deserves our attention and respect. On its own, the brain maintains our heart rate, respiration and digestion, and answers our attempts to think, reason and comprehend abstract thoughts (such as posing a question to our taste buds).

I figure my relationship with my brain is fairly common — I like my brain, don’t really understand it, and assume I’m either much smarter or dumber than I think.

I appreciate my brain more, thanks to a unique project in Bloomington, created by the fascinating mind of Terre Haute native Jill Bolte Taylor. As I walked the town square there Wednesday afternoon, I felt smarter. I studied a few of the 22 anatomically correct, fiberglass, 5-foot-tall replicas of the human brain, decorated by artists and placed at locations around Bloomington and the Indiana University campus.

For example, the figurine in front of the John Waldron Arts Center (at Fourth and Walnut streets) features giant headphones and musical elements such as melted vinyl albums and sheet music.

Like all the other brain sculptures, this one has a list of five brain facts. No. 4 boosted my self-esteem, as a guitar player: “Musicians often develop a larger corpus callosum than nonmusicians, resulting in more rapid communication between the left and right hemispheres.”

Oh yeah.

The display, labeled Brain Extravaganza, was unveiled a couple weeks ago and will remain in place around downtown Bloomington until October. It is the brainchild, pun intended, of Taylor, a world-renowned and Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who grew up in Terre Haute and graduated from Terre Haute South Vigo High School in 1977.

She is widely recognized as the author of The New York Times bestseller, “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey,” and the subject of a prospective movie by Sony Pictures and director Ron Howard. The book details the devastating stroke Taylor suffered in 1996 and her recovery, aided by her devoted mother.

That difficult episode provided Taylor an inside look at the human organ she’d spent years researching. Today, she is not only healed, but enlightened.

“It has been a profoundly educational experience,” Taylor said, “and I walk away, amazed with this incredible, beautiful organ, and what it can do, when it’s functioning well.”

As national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, Taylor will speak around the country throughout May, which is Stroke Awareness Month. She also lectures at schools, fundraisers, colleges and community events, carrying along real, preserved human brains. In each case, the brains cause people to “squirm, of course,” she said. “Some love ’em. Some hate ’em, and it’s my goal at the end of the day to have more of them love ’em than hate ’em.”

By contrast, the brain sculptures cause onlookers to gaze, chuckle and snap photos with their cellphones. “They’re engaging with the project,” Taylor said. They learn, too. They can’t help but learn, considering how misunderstood the brain is among the general public.

Take the common perception that we use only 5, 10 or 20 percent of our brain, and if we could just tap into that idle percentage, we’d be geniuses. It’s a total myth. Brain cells stay busy.

“If it’s a cell and it’s alive in your head, you’re using it,” Taylor explained. “We just don’t know what it’s doing.”

A few brain cells were up to no good earlier this month, when nine of the 22 brains were vandalized. The damaged sculptures included, once again ironically, the “sleep and pain” brain. Four of its eight lightning bolts, meant to symbolize pain, were broken off.

Taylor said the destruction symbolizes the importance of the project.

In the case of the male mind, testosterone can overwhelm decision-making, and lead to destructive behavior. “And then, you throw a little drugs-and-alcohol into the brain, and then what happens to inhibitions?” she asked, rhetorically.

Taylor and organizers are not going to replace the broken elements. They are a reminder of the need for us to continue studying, researching and caring for the human brain and its functions, and malfunctions.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Taylor said, “Especially when it’s working well, and when it’s not working well, we need to consider what we can do to help it recover its function.”

 

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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