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The Human Brain: 9 Of The Most Stunning Images Ever (PHOTOS)

Posted: 11/05/10 09:00 AM ET

Lacking human offspring of my own, I used to carry around a half-dozen images of classic neuroscience data in my wallet's beat-up plastic photo binder, and would show them off to strangers at parties. (Never got me a phone number, so much for geek-chic.) Each one had its own story, its own personality, and I was more than happy to reel off its bullet-pointed achievements to anyone charitable enough to listen: "This one basically launched the modern study of the olfactory system," and so forth. If I hadn't met my editor at Abrams I might be self-publishing a line of bumper stickers by now.

I was inordinately fond, and yes, a little proud, of my wallet collection; looking back this might have been a kind of coping mechanism for the distinctly unglamorous life of the neuroscience PhD student and the countless solitary hours paying dues in a dark microscope room. But what really got me up in the morning, day after day, was the privilege of encountering the gorgeous structures that lie right beneath the lens. I may be biased, but neuroscience is a truly spectacular field to look at.

Elegance often begets meaning and understanding. In a fit of candor, Nobel laureate Richard Axel once pronounced that "science without enchantment is nothing!" In my new book Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (Abrams), I examine this special relationship, and share the images and stories I have come to love--many of which were, until now, only available to people in the field. In making the case for the raw aesthetic appeal of neuroscience data, I focus on the powerful ideas that have given us this striking visual vocabulary. For without them we would own none of the tools we deploy to illuminate the magnificent architectures of the brain--nor the hard-won facts we have carved out of this devilishly complicated organ. Centuries of imagination, technology and conceptual ammunition have endowed us with a legacy of exceedingly elegant concepts, techniques and process that are just as worthy of our appreciation as the objects that they create (or fail to). Neuroscience, meet conceptual art.

Olfactory Bulb
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Camillo Golgi (1875). Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia - Department of Experimental Medicine - Section of General Pathology. Drawing of a dog's olfactory bulb--the first area in the brain that processes smells--by physician and scientist Camillo Golgi. The features that appear here were revealed thanks to a revolutionary staining method that he pioneered. Still in use today, it effectively hides most of the brain's clutter by marking only a very small percentage of neurons in a sample of nervous tissue--and out of this impenetrable jungle, structure suddenly emerges. How exactly the Golgi stain works its magic has been a topic of unconfirmed speculation for over a century.
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