During this Synapse6 residency I am focusing on the complexities of learning human anatomy- how we approach this conundrum of embodiment.
Initially during 2008/9 I observed Prof Ian Gibbins teaching a number of classes to medical students in the Anatomy lab. The piece of writing that follows is a piece I wrote whilst observing one of the first year medical students’ classes. This piece was a catalyst for our collaboration on several projects including Not Absolute (an exhibition held at Flinders University Art Museum, 2009) and translating the body: the choreography of representation in anatomy teaching (funded through a Flinders University Teaching and Learning Innovation grant, 2010)
There are many layers to unravel in these simple direct observations. Last year we collected unprecedented data including film, stills and text of a group of second year medical students as they learnt the muscular skeletal system in a series of practical anatomy classes and lectures. At present we’re reviewing this data. Here’s where we began….
A Morning’s Anatomy
I find a stool and position myself out of the way… noticeably apart from the students and I can sense their curiosity about my place in all of this. Who is she? What’s her role? What’s her level of authority? Student? Teacher? And how much does she know? Why is she here? I want to announce myself ‘cause I feel a little like I need to get their permission to observe their vulnerability with this new learning. But they quickly become absorbed in the doings of the day and I am able to merge into the background of the lesson.
The room seems well equipped.
Tables settled with a stock of objects and diagrams mapping the walls.
I’m thinking the room is always like this.
There’s a lone stainless steel trolley at the end of the room. Laid upon it is a long narrow object swathed in pristine cotton cloth resting cushioned and silent on top a layer of absorbent paper.
There’s a level of Magritte-like surrealism.
I’m transfixed on the silent white folds. And my eyes search for hints. A leak. A peek.
An uncovering of some sort.
But I’m left guessing.
Next to it lay several sections of human brain. Grey pink like many layers of paint over-spray from a well-used booth. A melding of every colour you’ve ever known-each cancelling the other out.
There’s a small profound mass lying dense under the scrutiny of a ceiling-mounted camera- the lens is coming down to meet it and Ian and the technician, Geoff, are making the final adjustments to the focus as the room fills with noisy eager students.
I’m a voyeur here today.
It’s definitely like the buzz before a hot performance.
There’s a whiff of something new to be learned. The air is heavy with it.
The students find their seats and the stage is set.
And gradually I realize every item of this interior has been designated a purpose.
An immediate purpose.
All around me is the human nervous system.
Painted, projected, engraved, x-rayed, swathed in cotton, real, fake, digital, photographic, potted, and fresh from the bucket, illuminated.
Ian dons a Madonna-esque mic winds it around his right ear and clips the device to his Khaki shorts. Casual, relaxed in preparation.
He’s light on his feet and skitters from place to place. He seems to be toying with the force of gravity. Compelling subject/object/subject. The students unbalance and balance with the questions and answers. They are well and truly hooked.
Three large screens around the periphery of the room give big vision of the small detail at the end of his pointer.
He has a 1/2 brain a human brain cupped in his gloved hands and spins a remarkable narrative- a practical story about what’s in their heads.
He draws them out – doing brain stuff.
They are busy looking, always busy looking….
Following his dance
On their toes with him
Eyes searching the screens…his hands…the plastic brain puzzles in front of them.
He’s clicking his fingers of his right hand.
“What side of the brain am I using to do this?”
He twists his body, destabilizes his centre, is up on his toes, shifts up a gear, propels forward and lands them again with another trick question.
Simple gestures with profound implications…if they can follow the threads to the brains in their heads.
This kind of unfamiliar ground requires a unique kind of concentration.
….meanwhile half a brain lies on the trolley waiting to be further enlightened.
He plummets towards the computer now and addresses the image on the screen.
A teeny white arrow takes centre stage and they follow it meticulously to learn the taxonomy of the brain.
He’s talking and walking again, up on his feet, leaving another image in his trail…a bisected head sawn through the middle delicate silhouette pink pale and dark intricate internal filigree glows on screen. A profound donation.
In the middle of the room he asks for the difference between grey matter and white matter, debunking old notions of right and left, and suddenly he lets out a sharp piercing squeal into the mic. Raising their heart rates by design, he proceeds to analyse the sequence of their surprise.
Involuntary wide-eyed sub-cortical processes happen all the time.
Global cortical processing…strange floating notions of time…
An on the spot demonstration …he whips his watch on to the overhead projector bed …look at it for a few seconds then look away for a few seconds…do it five or six times…eyes and heads flick…the second hand halts inexplicably and they wait for an explanation.
He’s drawing a diagram spinal cord, sensory motor nerve cells redlines in and out form line to line to spine. Elegant detail. Structural engineering.
He’s in constant movement there’s a massive concentration upon this continuum this choreographed dance between question and answer. The vastness of the unknown alongside the fragility of the known. Magical stories about the thinking organ and it’s nervous system and they believe him. He picks up the metal pointer in his right hand and cups the specimen brain in his left hand and talks about the importance of both functions – the holding and the fine manipulation of a tool and points to the area of the brain he’s holding to tell us what part of his own is allowing these miraculous everyday actions to occur- a very practical demonstration.
Enough talking …he waves his arms and tells them to explore the offerings round the room. Glove up, pick them up, feel their weight, name there parts, turn them over, feel their texture, name their amorphous tracts and upholstery-like fibres
They’re talking themselves through the moving experience -a running narrative, an empty skull, a folded ear. Fingers inside, hands cupping outside, only latex separating their touch from the wetness. I watch them and wonder what they’re thinking… I wonder what she’s feels. I wonder where they take it in. Where they hold it. If there’s empathy.
Back to their seats for another walk through He waves and weaves and walks his talk computer, buzzing, models, drawings, painted surfaces, superficial lines, diagrams colour, life and death.
The specimens sit apart again, strewn like miraculous discarded toys- stories stopped mid-sentence in suspended animation waiting again to be given meaning.
“ You’re aware of certain things in the environment if they have relevance to you…
Consciousness takes a third to a half a second to process
‘The continuous experience of now is a construction which takes time.”
Class ends clatter and chatter last minute questions the technician hurries past and sprays the waiting specimens and restocks the latex gloves.