Oliver Sacks Promotes the Healing Power of Gardens: They’re “More Powerful Than Any Medication”

Early European explorers left the continent with visions of gardens in their heads: The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, and other mythic realms of abundance, ease, and endless repose. Those same explorers left sickness, war, and death only to find sickness, war, and death—much of it exported by themselves. The garden became de-mythologized. Natural philosophy and modern methods of agriculture brought gardens further down to earth in the cultural imagination.

Yet the garden remained a special figure in philosophy, art, and literature, a potent symbol of an ordered life and ordered mind. Voltaire’s Candide, the riotous satire filled with gardens both fantastical and practical, famously ends with the dictate, “we must cultivate our garden.” The tendency to read this line as strictly metaphorical does a disservice to the intellectual culture created by Voltaire and other writers of the period—Alexander Pope most prominent among them—for whom gardening was a theory born of practice.

Exiled from France in 1765, Voltaire retreated to a villa in Geneva called Les Délices, “The Delights.” There, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, he “quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition…. When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.” Enlightenment poets and philosophers did not dwell on the scientific reasons why gardens might have such salutary effects on the psyche. And neither does neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also wrote of gardens as health-bestowing havens from the chaos and noise of the world, and more specifically, from the city and brutal commercial demands it represents.

For Sacks that city was not Paris or London but, principally, New York, where he lived, practiced, and wrote for fifty years. Nonetheless, in his essay “The Healing Power of Gardens,” he invokes the European history of gardens, from the medieval hortus to grand Enlightenment botanical gardens like Kew, filled with exotic plants from “the Americas and the Orient.” Sacks writes of his student days, where he “discovered with delight a very different garden—the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe,” founded in 1621.

“It pleased me to think,” he recalls, referring to key Enlightenment scientists, “that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.” In that time, cultivated gardens were often the private preserves of landed gentry. Now, places like the New York Botanical Garden, whose virtues Sacks extolls in the video above, are open to everyone. And it is a good thing, too. Because gardens can serve an essential public health function, whether we’re stressed and generally fatigued or suffering from a mental disorder or neurological condition:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

“In forty years of medical practice,” the physician writes, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A garden also represents—for Sacks and for artists like Virginia Woolf—“a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, a pace “so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

Voltaire’s prescription to tend our gardens has made Candide into a watchword for caring for and appreciating our surroundings. (It’s also now the name of a gardening app). Sacks’ recommendations should inspire us equally, whether we’re in search of creative inspiration or mental respite. “As a writer,” he says, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. The effect, he writes, is to be “refreshed in body and spirit,” absorbed in the “deep time” of nature, as he writes elsewhere, and finding in it “a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth,” and a remedy for the alienation of both mental illness and the grinding pace of our usual form of life.

via New York Times/Brain Pickings

Related Content:

Oliver Sacks’ Recommended Reading List of 46 Books: From Plants and Neuroscience, to Poetry and the Prose of Nabokov

A First Look at The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a Feature-Length Journey Into the Mind of the Famed Neurologist

How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Oliver Sacks’ Recommended Reading List of 46 Books: From Plants and Neuroscience, to Poetry and the Prose of Nabokov

Image by Luigi Novi. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We remember Oliver Sacks as a neurologist, but we remember him not least because he wrote quite a few books as well. If you read those books, you'll get a sense of Sacks' wide range of interests — invention, perception and misperception, hallucination, and more — few of which lack a connection to the human mind. His passion for ferns, the core subject of a travelogue he wrote in Oaxaca as well as an unexpectedly frequent object of reference in his other writings and talks, may seem an outlier. But for Sacks, ferns offered one more window into the kingdom of nature that produced humanity, and which throughout his life he tried to understand by observing from as many different angles as possible.

No small amount of evidence of that pursuit appears in Sacks' list of 46 book recommendations commissioned for The Strand's "Author's Bookshelf" series. (See the full list below.) A fair few of its selections, including William James' The Principles of PsychologyA.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonistand Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens, seem like natural favorites for a writer so endlessly fascinated by human cognition and consciousness.

Tracing the development of the human brain and mind would, of course, lead to an interest in biology and evolution, here resulting in such picks as Edward O. Wilson's Naturalist, Carl Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Ideaand the journals Charles Darwin kept aboard the Beagle.

But Sacks wasn't just an observer of the brain: some of his most interesting writings come out of the times he used himself as a kind of research subject — as when he found out what he could learn on amphetamines and LSD. A similar line of inquiry no doubt showed him the value of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and in less altered states the likes of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. But whichever paths took Sacks toward his knowledge, he ultimately had to get that knowledge down on paper himself, and the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, the poetry of W.H. Auden and the philosophy of David Hume surely did their part to inspire his incisive and evocative style. We would all, whatever our interests, like to write like Oliver Sacks: if these books shaped him as a writer and thinker, who are we to demur from, say, A Natural History of Ferns?

  • A Natural History of Ferns by Robbin C. Moran
  • A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud by Karl Sabbagh
  • A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
  • A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine by Mike Jay
  • Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner
  • Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
  • Cannery Row (Steinbeck Centennial Edition (1902-2002)) by John Steinbeck
  • Challenger & Company: the Complete Adventures of Professor Challenger and His Intrepid Team-The Lost World, The Poison Belt, The Land of Mists, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
  • Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond by Robert R. Provine
  • Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough by Rebecca Stott
  • Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer
  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura J. Snyder
  • God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet
  • Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
  • Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival by Jay Neugeboren
  • In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R. Kandel
  • Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World by Abraham Pais
  • Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
  • Lost in America: A Journey with My Father by Sherwin B. Nuland
  • Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel
  • Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
  • Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran
  • Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy Bernstein
  • Same and Not the Same by Roald Hoffmann
  • Selected Poems by Thom Gunn
  • Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants by Katy Payne
  • Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  • The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy by Bill Hayes
  • The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
  • The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio
  • The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
  • The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow
  • The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory by A. R. Luria
  • The Principles of Psychology (Volume Two) by William James
  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  • Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin
  • Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Jonathan Weiner
  • Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journals of Researches by Charles Darwin
  • What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
  • What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery by Francis Crick
  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould

To purchase books on this list, visit The Strand's website.

Related Content:

This is What Oliver Sacks Learned on LSD and Amphetamines

Oliver Sacks Contemplates Mortality (and His Terminal Cancer Diagnosis) in a Thoughtful, Poignant Letter

A First Look at The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a Feature-Length Journey Into the Mind of the Famed Neurologist

Oliver Sacks Explains the Biology of Hallucinations: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

Oliver Sacks’ Final Interview: A First Look

29 Lists of Recommended Books Created by Well-Known Authors, Artists & Thinkers: Jorge Luis Borges, Patti Smith, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, David Bowie & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Mapping Emotions in the Body: A Finnish Neuroscience Study Reveals Where We Feel Emotions in Our Bodies

“Eastern medicine” and “Western medicine”—the distinction is a crude one, often used to misinform, mislead, or grind cultural axes rather than make substantive claims about different theories of the human organism. Thankfully, the medical establishment has largely given up demonizing or ignoring yogic and meditative mind-body practices, incorporating many of them into contemporary pain relief, mental health care, and preventative and rehabilitative treatments.

Hindu and Buddhist critics may find much not to like in the secular appropriation of practices like mindfulness and yoga, and they may find it odd that such a fundamental insight as the relationship between mind and body should ever have been in doubt. But we know from even a slight familiarity with European philosophy (“I think, therefore I am”) that it was from the Enlightenment into the 20th century.

Now, says Riitta Hari, co-author of a 2014 Finish study on the bodily locations of emotion, “We have obtained solid evidence that shows the body is involved in all types of cognitive and emotional functions. In other words, the human mind is strongly embodied.” We are not brains in vats. All those colorful old expressions—“cold feet,” “butterflies in the stomach,” “chill up my spine”—named qualitative data, just a handful of the embodied emotions mapped by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa and co-authors Riitta Hari, Enrico Glerean, and Jari K. Hietanen.

In their study, the researchers “recruited more than 1,000 participants” for three experiments, reports Ashley Hamer at Curiosity. These included having people “rate how much they experience each feeling in their body vs. in their mind, how good each one feels, and how much they can control it.” Participants were also asked to sort their feelings, producing “five clusters: positive feelings, negative feelings, cognitive processes, somatic (or bodily) states and illnesses, and homeostatic states (bodily functions).”

After making careful distinctions between not only emotional states, but also between thinking and sensation, the study participants colored blank outlines of the human body on a computer when asked where they felt specific feelings. As the video above from the American Museum of Natural History explains, the researchers “used stories, video, and pictures to provoke emotional responses,” which registered onscreen as warmer or cooler colors.

Similar kinds of emotions clustered in similar places, with anger, fear, and disgust concentrating in the upper body, around the organs and muscles that most react to such feelings. But “others were far more surprising, even if they made sense intuitively,” writes Hamer “The positive emotions of gratefulness and togetherness and the negative emotions of guilt and despair all looked remarkably similar, with feelings mapped primarily in the heart, followed by the head and stomach. Mania and exhaustion, another two opposing emotions, were both felt all over the body.”

The researchers controlled for differences in figurative expressions (i.e. “heartache”) across two languages, Swedish and Finnish. They also make reference to other mind-body theories, such as using “somatosensory feedback... to trigger conscious emotional experiences” and the idea that “we understand others’ emotions by simulating them in our own bodies.” Read the full, and fully illustrated, study results in “Bodily Maps of Emotions,” published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Related Content:

An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

A Dictionary of Words Invented to Name Emotions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemödalen, Sonder, Chrysalism & Much More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I mentally revisit the various homes of my childhood, wandering from room to room, turning on lights and peering in closets until I conk out.

Turns out these imaginary tours are also handy mnemonic tools, as Vox’s Dean Peterson explains above.

Hey, that’s good news… isn’t the subconscious rumored to do some heavy lifting in terms of processing information?

Peterson conquered a self-described bad memory, at least temporarily, by traipsing around his apartment, depositing vivid sentence-by-sentence clues that would eventually help him recite by heart one of his favorite chapters in Moby Dick.

In truth, he was planting these clues in his hippocampus, the relatively small structure in the brain that’s a critical player when it comes to memory, including the spatial memories that allow us to navigate familiar locations without seeming to give the matter any thought.

What made it stick was pairing his everyday coordinates to extraordinary visuals.

Chapter 37, for those keeping track at home, is a monologue for Captain Ahab in which he describes himself as not just mad but “madness maddened.” Here’s the first sentence:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail.

Not the easiest text for 21st-century heads to wrap around, though with a little effort, most of us get the gist.

Let’s not get hung up on literary interpretation here, though, folks. Having settled on his front stoop as the first stop of his memory palace Peterson refrained from picturing frothy spume lapping at the lowermost step. Instead he plunked down a funeral wreath and director John Waters, pale of suit and cheek, weeping. Get it? White? Wake? Pale cheeks?

After which Peterson moved on to the next sentence.

There are 38 in all, and after several days of practice in which he mentally walked the image-strewn course of his apartment-cum-Memory Palace, Peterson was able to regale his coworkers with an off-book recitation.

The time factor will definitely be a let down for those hoping for a low commitment party trick.

Peterson spent three-to-four hours a day pacing his spatial memory, admiring the oddities he himself had placed there.

The incredulous comments from those questioning the efficiency of giving up half a day to memorize a page and a half are balanced by testimonials from those who’ve met with success, using the Memory Palace method to retain vast amounts of data prior to an exam.

That may, ultimately, be a better use of the Memory Palace. Peterson gets an A for spitting out the lines as written, but his expression is that of an actor auditioning with material he has not yet mastered. (No shade on Peterson’s acting talent or lack thereof—even great actors get this face when their lines are shaky. One friend doesn’t consider herself off book until she can get all the way through her monologue whilst hopping on one foot.)

For more information on building a Memory Palace, refer, as Peterson did, to author Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, or to his appearance on Adam Grant’s TED Work/Life podcast. Stream it here:

If you would like to go whale to whale with Peterson, below is the text that he installed in his Memory Palace, compliments of Herman Melville:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun- slow dived from noon- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron- that I know- not gold. ‘Tis split, too- that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!

Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise! Good night-good night! (waving his hand, he moves from the window.)

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad- Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and- Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies- Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

Related Content:

Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entirety by Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, John Waters & Others

Play Mark Twain’s “Memory-Builder,” His Game for Remembering Historical Facts & Dates

How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Neurons as Art: See Beautiful Anatomy Drawings by the Father of Neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Art depends on popular judgments about the universe, and is nourished by the limited expanse of sentiment. . . . In contrast, science was barely touched upon by the ancients, and is as free from the inconsistencies of fashion as it is from the fickle standards of taste. . . . And let me stress that this conquest of ideas is not subject to fluctuations of opinion, to the silence of envy, or to the caprices of fashion that today repudiate and detest what yesterday was praised as sublime.

- Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The above drawing is the sort of sublime rendering that attracts throngs of visitors to the world’s great modern art museums, but that’s not the sort of renown the artist, Nobel Prize-winning father of modern neuroscience Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 -1934), actively sought.

Or rather, he might have back before his father, a professor of anatomy, coerced his wild young son into transferring from a provincial art academy to the medical school where he himself was employed.

After a stint as an army medical officer, the artist-turned-anatomist concentrated on inflammation, cholera, and epithelial cells before zeroing in on his true muse—the central nervous system.

At the time, reticular theory, which held that everything in the nervous system was part of a single continuous network, prevailed.

Ramón y Cajal was able to disprove this widely held belief by using Golgi stains to support the existence of individual nervous cells—neurons—that, while not physically connected, communicated with each other through a system of axons, dendrites, and synapses.

He called upon both his artistic and medical training in documenting what he observed through his microscope. His meticulous freehand drawings are far more accurate than anything that could be produced by the microscopic-image photographic tools available at the time.

His precision was such that his illustrations continue to be published in medical textbooks. Further research has confirmed many of his suppositions.

As art critic Roberta Smith writes in The New York Times, the drawings are “fairly hard-nosed fact if you know your science”:

If you don’t, they are deep pools of suggestive motifs into which the imagination can dive. Their lines, forms and various textures of stippling, dashes and faint pencil circles would be the envy of any modern artist. That they connect with Surrealist drawing, biomorphic abstraction and exquisite doodling is only the half of it.

The drawings’ pragmatic titles certainly take on a poetic quality when one considers the context of their creation:

Axon of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man

The hippocampus of a man three hours after death

Glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child

His specimens were not limited to the human world:

Retina of lizard

The olfactory bulb of the dog

In his book Advice for a Young Investigator, Ramón y Cajal took a holistic view of the relationship between science and the arts:

The investigator ought to possess an artistic temperament that impels him to search for and admire the number, beauty, and harmony of things; and—in the struggle for life that ideas create in our minds—a sound critical judgment that is able to reject the rash impulses of daydreams in favor of those thoughts most faithfully embracing objective reality.

Explore more of Ramón y Cajal’s cellular drawings in Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the companion book to a recent traveling exhibition of his work. Or immerse yourself at the neural level by ordering a reproduction on a beach towel, yoga mat, cell phone case, shower curtain, or other necessity on Science Source.

Related Content:

Ernst Haeckel’s Sublime Drawings of Flora and Fauna: The Beautiful Scientific Drawings That Influenced Europe’s Art Nouveau Movement (1889)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Visionary Notebooks Now Online: Browse 570 Digitized Pages

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold an Anatomically Correct Replica of the Human Brain, Knitted by a Psychiatrist

Our brains dictate our every move.

They’re the ones who spur us to study hard, so we can make something of ourselves, in order to better our communities.

They name our babies, choose our clothes, decide what we’re hungry for.

They make and break laws, organize protests, fritter away hours on social media, and give us the green light to binge watch a bunch of dumb shows when we could be reading War and Peace.

They also plant the seeds for Fitzcarraldo-like creative endeavors that take over our lives and generate little to no income.

We may describe such endeavors as a labor of love, into which we’ve poured our entire heart and soul, but think for a second.

Who’s really responsible here?

The heart, that muscular fist-sized Valentine, content to just pump-pump-pump its way through life, lub-dub, lub-dub, from cradle to grave?

Or the brain, a crafty Iago of an organ, possessor of billions of neurons, complex, contradictory, a mystery we’re far from unraveling?

Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Norberg’s brain has steered her to study such heavy duty subjects as the daycare effect, the rise in youth suicide, and the risk of prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as a treatment for depression.

On a lighter note, it also told her to devote nine months to knitting an anatomically correct replica of the human brain.

(Twelve, if you count three months of research before casting on.)

How did her brain convince her to embark on this madcap assignment?

Easy. It arranged for her to be in the middle of a more prosaic knitting project, then goosed her into noticing how the ruffles of that project resembled the wrinkles of the cerebral cortex.

Coincidence?

Not likely. Especially when one of the cerebral cortex's most important duties is decision making.

As she explained in an interview with The Telegraph, brain development is not unlike the growth of a knitted piece:

You can see very naturally how the 'rippling' effect of the cerebral cortex emerges from properties that probably have to do with nerve cell growth. In the case of knitting, the effect is created by increasing the number of stitches in each row.

Dr. Norberg—who, yes, has on occasion referred to her project as a labor of love—told Scientific American that such a massive crafty undertaking appealed to her sense of humor because “it seemed so ridiculous and would be an enormously complicated, absurdly ambitious thing to do.”

That’s the point at which many people’s brains would give them permission to stop, but Dr. Norberg and her brain persisted, pushing past the hypothetical, creating colorful individual structures that were eventually sewn into two cuddly hemispheres that can be joined with a zipper.

(She also let slip that her brain—by which she means the knitted one, though the observation certainly holds true for the one in her head—is female, due to its robust corpus callosum, the “tough body” whose millions of fibers promote communication and connection.)

via The Telegraph

Related Content:

A Massive, Knitted Tapestry of the Galaxy: Software Engineer Hacks a Knitting Machine & Creates a Star Map Featuring 88 Constellations

Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Dance: An Animated Video Explains the Science Behind Why We Bust a Move

Has any culture, apart from that of the tiny Utah town in Footloose, done entirely without dancing? It would at first seem that any human need the rhythmic shaking of one's limbs to organized sound fulfills must reside pretty low on the overall priority scale, but anthropology tells us that various human societies started dancing before they got into most every other activity that fills their time today. "Why is this ostensibly frivolous act so fundamental to being human?" asks the Aeon video above. "The answer, it seems, is in our need for social cohesion — that vital glue that keeps societies from breaking apart despite interpersonal differences."

Directed and animated by Rosanna Wan and Andrew Khosravani, the four-minute explainer frames our deep, culture-transcending need to "bust a move" in terms of the work of both 19th- and early 20th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim and more recent research performed by Bronwyn Tarr, an Oxford evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a dancer herself.

Durkheim posited the phenomenon of "collective effervescence," or "a sort of electricity," or "that exhilaration, almost euphoria, that overtakes groups of people united by a common purpose, pursuing an intensely involving activity together." When you feel it, you feel "a flow, a sense that your self is melding with the group as a whole." And has any practice generated as much collective effervescence throughout human history as dance?

Modern science has shed a bit of light on why: Tarr has found that "we humans have a natural tendency to synchronize our movements with other humans," thanks to a region in the brain which helps us make the same movements we see others making. "When we mimic our partner's movements, and they're mimicking ours, similar neural networks in both networks open up a rush of neurohormones, all of which make us feel good." Listening to music "can create such a euphoric delight that it appears to activate opioid receptors in the brain," making it even harder to resist getting up and dancing. "They said he'd never win," Footloose's tagline said of the movie's big-city teen intent on getting the town dancing again, but "he knew he had to" — an assurance that turns out to have had a basis in neurology.

Related Content:

Animated Introductions to Three Sociologists: Durkheim, Weber & Adorno

The Strange Dancing Plague of 1518: When Hundreds of People in France Could Not Stop Dancing for Months

The Addams Family Dance to The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

More in this category... »
Quantcast