Friday, 21 April 2017

I was literally handed a human head. Skin and eyelashes still intact.

My old boy, Sigmund! 
When choosing a place of study there are several things to take into account – style of teaching, topics, resources etc. – and are not to be taken lightly as you will be spending a considerable amount of time and money at university! When choosing my masters I was lucky enough to be offered places onto some incredible cognitive neuroscience courses, including The University of York and The University of Sheffield. At this point you can guess which university I chose, but not a lot of people know why – especially since York has been considered to be a “better” Russell Group university when focusing on league table scores and whatnot (not saying I agree, but this was the general idea that kept cropping up when looking online to help with my decision). There were several factors, but the 2 that stuck out the most were the research interests of the departments and their dissection classes; firstly, York is very focused on language and memory research which is also made apparent as Alan Baddeley is a lecturer there (!!!!!!), whereas Sheffield looked into more clinical areas. Secondly, the length of the dissection workshops are much longer at Sheffield – something that was unbelievably useful to me as an anatomy newbie, and I highly recommend going to them if possible.

My first encounter with a brain (outside of the body!) happened within the first 2 weeks of starting the course.



Classes were held in the biomedical sciences department, in huge clinical looking lab/room. We were all briefed on lab rules, and given a sheet to sign indicating rules and safety protocols, once signed, we grouped up into 5 groups of around 8 – 12 people each with a bucket on the table. At this point, I didn’t realise that the entire room was actually full of cadavers – there were at least 20 long metal tables which were covered with blue (or white, I can’t remember now) sheeting, and I assumed there were brains underneath, but to my horror I found out they were bodies when a classmate whispered to me – “Weird to think those are dead bodies just a few feet away!”. My first reaction was more shock than panic, and a bit of discomfort, but that feeling passed quicker than I liked to admit. By the end of the 5 weeks I was extremely comfortable being around them and even managed to engage in conversation with one of the technicians who was harvesting (is that the right word??) the organs – elbow deep into an elderly gentleman’s lungs! During this conversation, I learnt that the bodies donated are given 12 weeks to harvest all of the body parts needed and once that’s done they inform the family if they would like to say their final goodbyes before the remains are cremated, what’s sad is that many of the family members don’t show up; most of the time these remains are cremated with no on there; alone. At the same time, I understand that they have already said their goodbyes and saying goodbye again after 12 weeks is probably extremely painful, so I hold no judgement and completely understand, but it is still quite sad when you think about it.


But I digress. When class began, brains were taken out of the buckets and honestly? Not as gory as you’d think. You hype yourself up for it to be this big, disgusting, goopy, squishy thing but in reality? It’s very clean looking – almost artificial. It’s not gory at all, it’s all been drained of blood and cleaned so it’s all one uniform pinkish colour – I can be bad with blood sometimes, mainly my own, but I imagined myself gagging at the sight of it but if anything, it was really cool looking. When slicing into it for the dissection workshop, it was a lot firmer than I imagined. Media depictions of the brain are usually under circumstances where it’s been damaged somehow, or during autopsies in movies it’s usually covered in blood so it’s very goopy and looks quite squishy, but it’s surprisingly firm with a good amount of weight to it – like a nice bag of sugar. Slicing into it was a lot like slicing into an eraser with a sharp blade – smooth and as satisfying as cutting cake in those M&S adverts. It’s not as delicate and dainty as you imagine, it won’t fall apart in your hands – unless it’s the brain of an alcoholic as one of my classmates pointed out (she experienced a dissection class where the donated organ was from someone who was an alcoholic and apparently, it was very soft, watery and pretty much collapsed when she sliced into it. Gross and interesting!).

Week 2 we focused on the human skull, which was surprisingly a lot stranger to me than brains. The brains were wet, and generally we associate wet things with water, and water is clean, so by that logic we associate wet things as being clean – which I assume was my underlying train of thought with the brain. The texture of it gave it a kind of “dry wipe” feel, so a completely submerged brain in a formaldehyde mix gave it a very “clean” feel – I can’t say the same for the skulls. Whenever you see a completely white skull, you can assume that it has been bleached – these skulls were clean, but they all held a yellowish tinge, some darker than others, some older than others, some more damaged than others. The feel of bone and the idea of cleaning bone doesn’t feel like that of the brain, and so that may explain why the feeling was a lot stranger to me than holding the organ.


Week 3, was the spinal cord and what an incredible experience that was! The spinal cord is complex, an entity separate to the brain and yet just as important and complicated as one another. Like the brain, the spine was a wet specimen so it had a clean feel to it, I think the smell of the formaldehyde mix may have helped give it that “clean” feel – very chemical like cleaning products. There were different lengths and thicknesses, and they whacked out the good old bones too, it was a fantastic workshop and one we needed. It was in this session that I first had that feeling of “Wow, I’m holding a person in my hand” when I was literally handed a man’s head. Skin, eyelashes, facial hair all intact. The sessions where we focused on the organs and bones didn’t give me that feeling – If I’m honest, I don’t think it really gave many of the students that feeling. As humans, we rely on familiarity and similarity when connecting with fellow humans, so looking at the insides on the outside took away any of that familiarity and as a result we were essentially disconnected from any philosophical feelings because we were looking at it from a completely different set of glasses – clinical glasses. Having the head of this man – honestly, it was so strange, the top of his head was taken off and the brain was taken out, the inside of the skull was cleaned so it wasn’t gory but his neck and ears were still attached! His eyes were closed so I don’t know if he still had eyeballs in but by the shape of his eyelids I think they were still there, his eyelashes, eyebrows, stubble, EVERYTHING was intact! It was definitely the strangest moment of the year, and the one that gave me that feeling of “Wow, I’m holding a person in my hands. Literally.” That didn’t last long though, the clinical glasses were back on when I had a look at the inside of the skull and had to start naming the different areas.


So did I have that revelation/philosophical/all wonderful eye opening experience that people assume you have when you hold a brain? No. I didn’t. Not in the way that you expect. I didn’t get that feeling of “this is a person’s, life, memories etc.” – but I did get that feeling from a clinical perspective; “Not as squishy as I thought, satisfying to slice, love it!”. Does this make me heartless? Too disconnected from humanity? Maybe, or maybe I’ve just been seeing things so much from a scientific perspective that the “humanity” side isn’t as interesting anymore. I’ve seen all of your outsides; I see them every day! Insides are cool, and I want to experience them for what they are in the way I should be experiencing them – clinically, scientifically and intelligently. (Please don’t judge me).

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