Under the Covers: A Review of “Portraits of the Mind”

“Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century” By Carl Schoonover; Foreword by Jonah Lehrer. Published by Abrams, 2010. [amazon]

You should never judge a book by the cover — unless that book is an Abrams book.  The American company was the first to publish art and illustrated books, which have been resting on coffee tables and standing out on shelves since 1949.  We have all —at one time or another, perhaps unknowingly — flipped through an Abrams Book.

Perhaps it was Graffiti World or Vanity Fair: The Portraits or Earth from Above or The Art of Walt Disney.  Pick a famous artist — maybe Monet, Manet, Magritte, Matisse, Modigliani, Michelangelo, Munch, or John Vincent Millais or Marlene Mocquèt (to mention merely Ms) — and treasure copies of his or her work on the glossy-faced pages your own handheld, hardcover gallery.  Most recently, someone at Abrams had the bright idea to collect in a traditional art book the most beautiful scientific images of the brain. Columbia University neuroscience Ph.D student Carl Schoonover became the author of the project, which is now the newly-released Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (Abrams, $35).  Its cover — intricate, colorful, and breath-taking — is indeed a reflection of the revelatory richness inside the book itself.

But you should never — ever — judge a brain by its cover.  This is the message of Portraits of the Mind (as well as 2009’s Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul, and this magazine).  To the naked eye, that three-pound mass of colorless, wrinkled tissue  looks utterly unappealing to most anyone who is not a hungry zombie.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, chucked the brain out during mummification because it was considered unnecessary for the afterlife.  The mind, on the other hand, has traditionally been represented by a spectacular mess of tangled philosophical, psychological, and literary theories clogged with dense wastes of words — with the -itis and the –osis­ and the -ism — that are in a way creative and often incessantly discussable but entirely fanciful and irrelevant to the question of truth.  Because the mind is the brain; the brain is the mind.  No need to invent  before we first observe.  And — as it turns out — that ugly-looking lump inside our skull is in fact more wonderful and awesome than in our wildest dreams.

>Click images to enlarge.

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The stunning visual data on the pages of Portraits of the Mind — from drawn to digital —  demonstrate that we are made of magnificent matter.  Though the book also provides valuable context with essays from leading scientists and captions from Mr. Schoonover, its pictures are worth more than any number of words anywhere.

But if we want words, let them be poetry:  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  So ends “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.  Portraits of the Mind by Carl Schoonover is proof that — under the unsightly cover of the most complex organ in the known universe — this romantic ideal is reality.  Our brains are truly oh-so-beautiful.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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