welcome to the human brain

When you are starting a new job in less than a week, you’re dealing with at least two lists. There’s the long errand and shopping and chore-focused to-do list (get dress tailored, do laundry, buy black boots, sew buttons on cardigan…), and then there’s the more abstract list of things that would be fun or smart or healthy for you to do while you have the time, so you can at least tell yourself that you took advantage of the last few days of this period that gets dramatically and not entirely accurately referred to as “freedom.” If you live in New York, topping the list of things you always want and mean to do, but rarely manage is: Go to a museum. Miraculously, Alice had free passes to the Museum of Natural History. Even better, she was willing to play hooky from work to go with me.

In the special exhibit about the brain, I learned that if neurons were marbles, each of us would have enough to fill the New York Public Library. Some of the text in the exhibit was hilariously matter-of-fact, like, “Just when you’re trying your best to be reasonable, your emotions can lead you astray.” There was also this: “By the time you reach your twenties, your brain is functioning at its peak. After that, little by little, the number of neural connections declines.” We played games designed to test your memory and reaction time and various other things we all hope to be good at: trying to trace a shape while looking in a mirror, reading names of colors printed in other colors, attempting to learn the Braille alphabet in a couple of minutes. Then we went to the museum café and each had an $11 panini.

Since it was snowing and a weekday, there was hardly anyone in the butterfly conservatory, so we got to walk around in the humid little tank for as long as we wanted, pointing and exclaiming at the butterflies flying around (The giant shiny blue one! The lacy orange and white one! The one with transparent wings!) and getting a little delirious from the sudden heat. Being in that place is perfect therapy for wintertime; it makes you giddy and melt-y and prone to hugging your friend and telling her how happy you are to be right there with her.

Later, we listened to Whoopi Goldberg narrate a “journey” into space. We watched a strange IMAX movie about aquatic dinosaurs. We went up to the fourth floor and walked through room after room (or “hall” after “hall”) of those dinosaurs and their relatives, skeletons and reconstructions and missing pieces. We went to the Hall of Ocean Life and looked up at the giant whale and at the dioramas that are my favorite, favorite thing—so carefully staged and gently glowing—and then traipsed through the North American Forests and New York State Environment sections, clearly the least loved and restored parts of the museum, with their dated signage and general quaintness, on our way to the hall of minerals and gems, where we wanted to go because we are girls and we like sparkly things. Or really, because I used to be obsessed with rocks.

I used to be obsessed with lots of the things the museum is preoccupied with, which is maybe why I have more affection for it than I do for the Met. The Natural History Museum feels more personal, making me think about how fiercely I used to love dinosaurs—how all kids love dinosaurs, and always will, and how mind-bendingly cool they are to people of all ages, whether or not they want to admit it (the array of dino-themed merch in the giftshop testifies to this, and while I’m on board with a dinosaur-shaped ladle and an ice-cube tray that makes ice in the shape of dinosaur bones, I could do without the pink kiddie t-shirt emblazoned with a sparkly dinosaur and the words “Prehistoric Princess”). All these dinosaurs remind me that, at one early point, I vaguely wanted to be a paleontologist (who didn’t?). The oddly straightforward and therefore semi-uncomfortable histories of various peoples remind me that I wanted to be an archaeologist. The meteors and big hunks of crazily colored rock remind me that for a little while, I really, really wanted to be a geologist. Or an environmentalist or some kind, testing rain with little ph strips to find out its acid content. Or some other profession that involved catching salamanders and subjecting them to a series of random, gentle tests. The trappings of science have always been a real stimulant for me, probably more than art, even though art is technically where my loyalties lie. Science sucks me in with its taxonomies and patient explanations (even if I don’t understand them; Whoopi’s narration in the planetarium was enthusiastic, but it didn’t make it any easier to process the idea of space or dark matter or how a star is born), its objects lined up and labeled behind glass.

My various science-y aspirations pretty much ended when I got to middle school and realized I couldn’t wrap my brain around carbon dating or isotopes or even fractions. It’s a little sad, mostly in retrospect, and mostly because it lines up so neatly and misleadingly with the abilities girls are and aren’t supposed to be confident about at that age. It’s depressing to think about how I much I used to love experiments, until I had to do them in a classroom with an accompanying worksheet or lab report, and grades. But I don’t think I was ever really going to be a scientist. The way I love all this stuff now is the same way I loved it as a kid, based on emotions and aesthetics. I’m romanced by it in a way that doesn’t require real understanding or expertise, and in some ways depends on the lack of exactly those things. It’s enough for me to look at everything laid out so carefully, the volume and detail of it overwhelming, and to let myself be amazed by big things like time and extinction, and little things like the birds painted into the background of a diorama, and the way stars looked on the curved ceiling of the planetarium. There’s the memory of a field trip here to see “Dinosaurs Alive” when I was in second grade, two Rainforest Alliance galas held in the shadow of the giant whale, tumbled rocks in the gift shop that my fingers are still drawn to. And now this quiet, perfect, snowy day in a museum with a good friend, right before things change again.

One response to “welcome to the human brain”

  1. carrie

    Your description closely parallels my relationship with science. Now, as an adult, I am an interested, fascinated reader of (nonacademic) science–it’s one of the only areas where I actually feel like the kid that I was when I get on a tear.

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