Brains: The Mind as Matter

Grey matters. 'My Soul'  by Katharine Dowson

Grey matters. 'My Soul' by Katharine Dowson

The mechanics of the brain have fascinated scientists, psychologists, clergy, philosophers and medical artists for eons. Now, a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection: Brains: The Mind As Matter illustrates the lengths humanity has gone to in its quest to understand the machinery that governs us.

As well as examining the history of the journey, the exhibition celebrates the relationship between scientific discovery and artistic expression. For example, the watercolours of Sir Charles Bell in 1802 add a degree of romanticism to the otherwise grisly work of dissection. Likewise, the brightly coloured, genetically altered cells of modern microscopic images further highlight that the investigation of neurons, axons, and basal ganglia can be both aesthetically pleasing as well as educational.

On a more philosophical level, My Soul by Katharine Dowson is delicately crafted, three-dimensional glass laser etching that says as much about the human condition as it does about our anatomy; poetically shifting the soul’s illusory position to a whispery yet tangible entity.

The exhibition celebrates the relationship between scientific discovery and artistic expression

The delicacy of the brain and the abstract nature of the mind are further alluded to by exhibits such as William Utermohlen’s self-portrait. After having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Utermohlen donated his brain to medical science so that, one day, no others would suffer a similar demise. Of course, not all who have assisted medical science have been so willing and footage of controversial electric shock therapy provides a timely reminder as to the lengths some have gone.

Similarly, a look a few of the tools that have been used over the years – many on the living – as well as preserved brains that hang listlessly in jars of formaldehyde are a stark reminder of both our own mortality and our species’ inclination to justify anything in the name of progress.

Overall, an exhibition about the brain is so delightfully ironic as the more visitors are invited to consider the scientific, political, and underlying ethical issues surrounding the issue, the more the synapses fire.

By Alexandra Tidswell

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