Yale's basement brains

Yale University keeps its brains in the basement of the Medical School library. The Harvey Cushing Center is home to over 400 of them, all of which are stored in their own separate jars of urine-colored formaldehyde. Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by a large Brain Society poster and a message that says: Leave only your name. Take only memories.

The oval-shaped Cushing Center is pitch-dark until you open the door and walk in. Motion-sensing lights turn on one after another, slowly revealing the rows of brains that line the wood-paneled walls. Each jar is a neurological tombstone bearing a small sticker with patient initials and cause of death written in an emotionless typewriter font. It’s a strange contradiction to behold: the organ that gives rise to our most complex thoughts and experiences floats useless and lifeless in the Cushing Center.

The exhibit’s placards and elegant display boards tell the story of Harvey Cushing, a pioneering brain surgeon. Cushing kept meticulous records of his operations—including the brains of his patients—and discovered new ways to remove tumors that were once considered deadly. Newspaper articles hanging on th center’s walls describe the history of this brain collection: it was lost in the mid-20th century and rediscovered in 1991 by an adventurous medical student when he decided to explore the basement of his dormitory.

But to me, the carefully framed signs and informative plaques are only a sideshow. The untold stories, forever trapped in formaldehyde, are far more intriguing.

Beneath the shells of brains sits a row of large black-and-white photographs. These are the patients to whom the brains belong. There are children, mothers, families, and fathers. It’s obvious that the photos were taken for medical purposes. Many of the subjects are naked, the severity of their conditions on full display. For better or for worse, the photos give each brain a face and a personality. All of them look straight into the camera lens, as if to meet your gaze across time and space.

As I trace my steps back to the exhibit entrance, I can’t help but think of a word coined last year by the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: “sonder.” It means “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Each of the jars contains a lifetime of history, a universe of experiences. The morbidly beautiful exhibit triggers a postmortem “sonder.” It feels like the memories could be recused from their jar prisons, if only you had the right kind of machine.