I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general.
My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino.
A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”
In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints.
Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of one anonymous human being, whose body was long ago broken but whose brain had been preserved—symmetrical, intact, rippling with all the hills and valleys which were once rich with memories and feelings and insights.
And here, surrounding me, were walls lined with preserved slices of hundreds of brains, most of them afflicted with frightening diseases: Cystisercosis (tapeworms), Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.
There were other relics, too: brains that grew the wrong way, or too much, or not enough.
The Brain Museum was the archive of Dr. Oscar Trelles Montes, founder of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences. His patients came from all over the country to see him, because he was the only doctor in Peru who knew anything at all about their strange and distressing symptoms. He persuaded many of them to donate their brains to research after death.
I have participated in Alzheimer’s research. I have seen PET scans, MRI scans and many other images of the human brain. But certainly, I had never stood in a room lined with neatly sliced and preserved brains. And certainly I had never stared down a brain afloat in a glass globe, mounted on a bronze stand.
In an artist’s statement on his London gallery’s website, Herrera cites truth and faith as two of his abiding themes. The truth is that we are beings who reside in bodies; beings whose faith, attributes, loves and hates are all filed, mysteriously and invisibly, in the pink folds of a soft, three-pound organ called the brain.
And if one of my own abiding themes, inspired by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has been to wonder whether we are still ourselves when our brains are damaged or changed, then how presumptuous of me to think that this theme would not follow me everywhere I go. How dismissive to think that in a rapidly developing country like Peru, brain research would not also be a priority. In fact, Peru’s neuroscientists have a particularly fertile area to explore: the neurogenetics of a population with pre-European roots that date back thousands of years.
Once again, I was humbled by all I didn’t know: about the brain, about science, about the world and this corner of it. And every time this happens to me—this experience of being humbled, surprised, enlightened, all in one instant—I understand all over again: this is the very best reason to travel.
Give yourself the New Year’s gift of writing memoir. Register now for my non-credit (all about inspiration, not about stress) Intro to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central Community College. Six Monday nights. Starts January 6, 2014.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
photo taken in Ayacucho, Peru, by the Restless Critic, aka Rustin Thompson.