Welcome back to Butter for the Brain! I apologize for the dearth of newsletters for the past few months, but I hope to get back to my weekly (or bi-weekly, or monthly, we’ll see) meditative practice of assembling newsletters for those I love. My absence, in some part, can be blamed on my major preoccupation for this past few months: medical school. This semester I set off on the long journey of an MD-PhD dual degree program. (For those passing through Philadelphia sometime in the next eight-plus years, please say hello!) It has been fascinating to observe my own indoctrination into the often insular and reticent hierarchy of medicine, and it has been thrilling to be whisked from new experience to new experience. I am humbled as I reflect upon the sheer amount of information that has been crammed between the folds of my brain (at least for the time being) in only the last few months.
While most medical knowledge can be found in some form or other somewhere on the internet, there is no replacement, in my opinion, for the experience of learning in a cadaver lab. Before entering medical school, I, as I am sure you do as well, had a vague notion of what a liver was, and that I had one. Nevertheless, it was a wholly other experience to hold a liver in my hands, to experience its enormity, its purple-brown-maroonish color, the thick veins tunneling into its core. I have formed an experiential memory of a liver, which will rise to the surface of my consciousness whenever I palpate a patient’s liver, or order a hepatic panel, in my future practice.
A common gripe among medical students is that anatomists of the past have simply taken things for which we already have perfectly fine names, and assigned them new names to make themselves sound smart. The cheekbone becomes the zygomatic process. The ankle becomes the talocrural joint. But I can think of another field that contemplates often ordinary human experiences and rehashes them in less familiar language: poetry. Poetry is not, or at least should not be, an exercise of flexing one’s intellectual authority through esotericism. Poetry cloaks the familiar in unfamiliar language constructions because the aesthetic quality of the language births new meaning, new atmosphere, new emotions, that could not be sufficiently expressed in plain speak.
Over the course of my anatomy experience I have gained an appreciation for the poetic quality of anatomical jargon. The meaning of anatomical terms is not limited to the physical space occupied by the corporeal structure to which they refer. If one allows their gaze to linger on one of these terms, they often unfurl to reveal fragments of medical history and vivid Classical imagery. Take, for example, one of my favorites: the sartorius, a long, thin muscle which extends diagonally across the front of your thigh from your hip to the inside of your knee and assists in the process of bending at the hip and turning your knee outward. The name of the muscle is derived from the Latin word sartor, which means tailor. It is thought to be a reference to the cross-legged squat distinctive of the profession, perhaps resulting in tailors having particularly defined sartorius muscles. (Alternatively, the name may reference the muscle’s insertion at the inseam, a measurement required for tailor-made trousers.)
The metaphorical nature of many anatomical terms facilitates an understanding of our insides by drawing similarities to our experiences on the outside. These metaphors can serve as a tool in the larger process of distilling the overwhelming complexity of the human body into something familiar and digestible. When we call the topmost vertebra the atlas, we call to mind the Greek Titan of the same name who was condemned to carry the weight of the celestial heavens on his shoulders for all of eternity. In this way, the process of naming a structure gives it a certain narrative and significance. We name what we believe to be important, and we discern what is important by pointing to the things which have a name. I will leave you with a favorite quote of the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch: “We like nature when it seems to be purposefully constructed and we like art when it seems to be pointless.”
For this edition of Butter for the Brain, I compiled a playlist of some of my favorite tracks from 2019. While this list is in no way comprehensive, it is broad, spanning the delicate soundscapes of Yoshio Ojima’s “Une Collection Des Chainos II” to the distant deep cuts off of D. Tiffany’s “Rarez.”
Kyle Cobban, a Chicago-based high school art teacher, makes surrealist pencil drawings that juxtapose intricate, realist figures with stark shapes against white backgrounds. I particularly like his works on Priority Mail envelopes, which play on his regular themes of familiarity and home.
Stephanie Shih similarly explores the themes of home in her sculptures of Asian grocery items and foodstuffs, intended to evoke a shared nostalgia within members of the Asian-American diaspora through hazy renditions of clearly recognizable products. Shih states that she has folded over 1,000 clay dumplings, an homage to the meditative and laborious process carried out by generations of Chinese women before her.
My family has recently adopted the tradition of listening to podcasts as we’ve crisscrossed the eastern seaboard on a dizzying series of road trips. Like seemingly everyone these days, our favorite genre for consumption has been true crime. 22 Hours: An American Nightmare, from WTOP, a local news outlet in Washington DC, more than delivers with the unbelievable story, thorough analysis, and the personal perspective that had characterized hugely popular productions like Serial. (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher)
I recently revisited a gorgeous Oscar-nominated short from Ru Kawahata and Max Porter. Negative Space, is a profound and technically dazzling account of a son’s relationship with his father, which illustrates a notion of inheritance that stretches beyond the genes in our DNA.
That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!