Sunday, April 23

Bodies of Knowledge, Bodies Exposed

I haven’t taken a legitimate science class since my senior year in high school. That’s more than ten years people. Needless to say, it’s not my primary interest area. I nerd out when it comes to literature (classic and contemporary), am an avid history buff (albeit, mostly good ol’ American History), and genuinely enjoy the study of government, policy, and social sciences (thank goodness, that’s why I gave up earning a good salary—to study that shit!). But science? Let’s just say I still squirm at the sight of blood…in the movies! My parents used to say I had a mental block against the subject area—as if I purposely built a wall to force out any ounce of comprehension of all things scientific. And to think, I’m the daughter of both an engineer and biochemistry major! All those genes went straight to my bro—he’s pursuing his PhD in some engineering-something-or-another as we speak.

But years away from the textbooks and laboratories, Science has finally become fascinating to me. The evolution of a disease, the physiological miracle that composes every breath we inhale, the exact mixture of elements that allows something to taste/smell/look that very specific way—it’s captivating. Though I lack the actual expertise, I no longer lack the appreciation for it.

Science after all, is really just a story—telling us about who we are and the world we live in. The twist is that the story constantly shifts and develops--there are no fixed endings as advances in technology allow for narrative manipulation, which of course opens the door for new debates. For example: If a doctor takes drops of our blood, or scrapes from our skin—do we still own the right to those parts that are now removed? That was the question posed by a recent NY Times Magazine cover story, featuring the growing bioethical debate on whether individuals have legal domain over their own tissue samples. When a doctor takes pieces of your tissue for research and then finds an innovative medical treatment based on that sample— who should be the beneficiaries of that discovery? The doctor only or does the original tissue owner have rights to them as well—whether they are pecuniary rewards or not?

Whichever side you fall on, there is no denying that a gray area will always persist. Growing up in the U.S., we’re taught to believe that our bodies are precious, that our minds are unique—it’s the underlying definition of American Individualism. So when you put your body on display, donating pieces or the whole of it to art or science or whatever research purpose—that’s a decision that is all your own, right? Well, it depends.

And that’s the back-story behind the groundbreaking Bodies: The Exhibition. A few weeks ago, I apprehensively attended this with a few friends. On a conceptual level, I was really curious…but my former science-hating-self grew anxious at losing my lunch while scrutinizing the peeled-back details of these formerly living mannequins.

The exhibit is more than just a biology lesson, but literally an insider’s view into the complexity that goes on underneath all of us. These specimens underwent a special preservation process that allowed their muscles and bones to be more malleable, allowing them to be positioned in various stances—from the Thinker’s Pose to the stretch maintained by an athlete pitching a fastball. The exhibit divides itself into key functional sections—examining the anatomical underpinnings behind each of our life processes (e.g. nervous, digestive, reproductive, et. al). The specimens are then “cut” in ways to highlight each observed process—for example, a brain opening reveals where memory is stored; the spine is sliced through to present the many nerves running up and down it. Visitors can also compare/contrast healthy organs with diseased ones—such as a healthy lung to one blackened with years of smoking. I, for one, could not suppress my shock at the size of an enlarged liver, and regretted that extra vodka tonic I imbibed the night before.

For me, the section on the circulatory system was most enjoyable: you enter a darkened room where highways of blood vessels and veins sat in free-standing liquid boxes, hauntingly lit. Isolating the veins and arteries away from the distraction of muscles, bones, organs and other parts—I quickly understood the beauty and fragility hidden in each tiny capillary and felt sad for all my bruises--present, past, and future.

The exhibit’s final room will probably be one of its most controversial —an examination of fetuses in differing stages of development. My heart hurt at the sight of seeing one at 4 weeks old, and yet I proceeded to review each one. Upon exiting, one friend brought up an even more controversial aspect of the displays—apparently the sourcing of these bodies came from Chinese prisoners. We wondered aloud: was consent acquired from these men and women? Did they know their bodies would be carved like meat, splayed out for the masses to see? Something tells us not. I left with a bigger lump in my throat.

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