The other brain trust

Jin Ai Yap YH Staff

If, after a particularly lengthy spell of disembodied feelings, you wish to reassure yourself that you are not a brain-in-a-vat but a being-in-time; that what you hear sounding underneath your classmates’ hooded raincoats is not the mechanical jingling of automata but the vibrant pulse of life itself; that the social construction of facts is not a nuclear shelter from the vast universe but an integrated tool within it; and that things persist whether or not you can see them from your library’s armchair; in short, if you wish to reassure yourself of the reality of the world beyond the stiff, snowy February in your soul±—then it would be well-advised you take a pilgrimage to the underworld.

To get there, head east from campus, crossing the Oak Street Connector, and walk the small uphill where York turns into Cedar. The sun is out. Your spirit lifts. Enter the glass doors of the Medical School Library, where a security guard at a circular desk asks for your “Proof of Yale ID.” Then head into a wing of the Cushing and Whitney Medical Library and down some stairs where, strategically displayed on a landing, is an unusually large human skeleton. Think of this memento mori as a taste of what’s to come.

Today you are traveling underground to see one man’s collection of human brains. Down the stairs of these

stacks is the Cushing Center, your final destination. “Cushing” refers to Harvey Cushing, YC 1895, “the first surgeon in history,” according to his biographer Michael Bliss, “who could open what he referred to as ‘the closed box’ of the skull of living patients with reasonable certainty that his operations would do more good than harm”—in other words, the father of modern neurosurgery. “Center” refers to the multipurpose museum-ness of the semi-sacred space, and thus the Cushing Center celebrates the life of Harvey Cushing; archives his papers, sketches, and medical tools; and displays his collection of patient specimens—scientific research now repurposed as art.

But before you write off this dizzying adventure as just another wacky episode in the incessant stream that is the Yale undergraduate publication scene, think, for a moment, of your own brain suspended in the particular preservatives of Yale’s diffuse cultural medium, and wonder, for one more moment, about what it might mean, what it can never mean, who gets to decide, and how.


This story first arose months ago out of a visit to the Cushing Center, and out of the laughter that slowly, as I toured its small cavity-shaped room, transformed from an ironic wry laughter (a silent laughter, signified only by the smirk of one who-knows-better) into a manic open-mouthed laughter—a shattered laughter, whose anarchic bells celebrate the very chaos at its origin. I had come to the Cushing Center, this basement seemingly suspended out of time, looking for kitschy weirdness. What I found there was weird, sure, but it was also wonderful. Leaving the museum that day, I was filled the delightful sense of being on the verge of the known and unknown—an intellectual boundary that itself is the index of wonder. 

But the wonder I felt soon turned into growing unease, an unease that grew out of the realization that the world outside the museum—the world that once seemed so “knowing” and stable and secure—might not be so at odds with the world inside this puzzling and paratactic archive of curiosities after all. This sense of disorientation, a vertiginous view from everywhere and nowhere, spread over my senses like a contagion, infecting all the ways in which things were previously classified, revealing the order of things to be constructed, contingent.

This unease led me to wonder about the way Yale at large curates wonder and regulates curiosity. I started to think about the dimensions of this quasi-feudal dreamscape where wonder is rerouted into pedagogical discourse. Because Yale itself, after all, is both a Wonder of the New World, and a cabinet of curiosities filled with innumerable “Wonders of the World”—from the resplendent stone of its Beinecke Library (itself a marble monument full of marvels) to that creepy crypt in the basement of Rosenfeld Hall. I wondered…how does Yale circumscribe and negotiate its various entanglements, circulate the meanings of its things and people, valorize its authority and authorize its enchantments? How does Yale, in other words, wield wonder as power/knowledge?

Some of its means—the admissions publicity machine, the public dedication of monumental sculpture, its Monopoly board of University properties—immediately came to mind. But others—the translation of this symbolic institutional power into donor dollars, for instance—seemed harder to measure. No doubt there’s a longer story to be written on the vast and deep order imposed on things at Yale.

But this story is short. And necessarily narrow. Because we can use the Cushing Center’s metonymic resonance with Yale, this even larger brain trust, to think about the way its things and peoples are collected, displayed, and appreciated. Believe it or not but you, me, and everyone we know—we’ve all been collected, too. Not convinced? Swipe your Yale ID as proof of membership to enter the Cushing Center. Enter the brain trust.


Inside it is silent and cold. The thermostat sits at a steady 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrapped around the membranous folded room, the brains sit at the bottom of square glass jars. The museum is shaped like a cavity, or brain. You think to yourself how the animating glow lighting them from below gives you the impression that they grudgingly stopped a dance the moment you arrived. In fact, architect Turner Brooks, ARC ’70, described the brains in a student’s senior essay interview as “a sort of a chorus line, dancing, illuminated from below.” The sneaking suspicion that you are the single uninvited guest only makes the deathly silence more pronounced. But the brains are only uniform with respect to their silence. Some are intact; others don’t even look like brains—their gray matter shredded into too many gangly threads, malformed by cancer or choked with tendrils of black blood, the progress of a blooming hemorrhage suspended. Some jars even contain up to four different brains. (You wonder if the patients knew in advance of their odd consignment as bedfellows in the afterlife). And just as you become accustomed to the irregular regularity of the brain-parts, you stumble across a jar filled with a uterus, tubes, and ovaries. Who put them here? What’s going on?

Slowly, these and other questions begin to dawn on you. And then, the initial strange fact of the space—that it is filled with jars of brains—is slowly replaced by the stranger realization—that the jars have been arranged by living humans and contain dead human’s brains—which is made even stranger by the third realization, which is that the second realization was not immediately obvious. How did we almost forget these brains once belonged to people?

The ever-quotable Walter Benjamin would attribute our forgetting to the museum’s “aura”—the way museums hide the skills, production, intentions, and bodies that bring their objects into being. Save for the small faded typewriter script on the jars labels of patient’s last names, there are few other clues to remind us that these are the brains of individuals who once loved and laughed and suffered and died. The brains are not shown as human remains. The way over half the jars are raised up near the ceiling puts their labels out of our field of vision. In being put on display as ornaments, their previous lives and names of owners are mystified, hidden. And yet, it may be precisely because of their lingering associations with once-living humans, their human “aura,” that these brains take on an “exhibition value.” The brains fascinate you because they yoke together the promises of an eternal science with the horrors of immortal flesh. Their gray matter is transfigured into disinterested aesthetic pleasure, a chorus line to Cushing’s conquests.

You want to understand more about who this Cushing is and how the myth of Cushing works (and works similarly to the myth surrounding Yale’s other founding fathers—Sterling, Woolsey, etc.); you don’t have to look very far to do so.


The sharp voice of institutional authority, sounding from speakers on a Mac at the front of the room, will tell you that Harvey Cushing was a rebel, a crusader, a bad boy, a good doctor, a war hero—in short, a great man of history. As this voice from a 1945 Radio Theater Broadcast explains, Cushing transformed neurosurgery from humdrum beginnings as “a crude art” to its apotheosis as an “exact science.”

You watch, as you listen to the broadcast, a slideshow of Cushing performing brain surgery. Science is narrated as an adventure story, where the handsome brave young doctor saves the ailing damsel in distress. The narrator’s voiceover describes the human brain as an “unmapped territory,” the final realm of discovery. Cushing’s “grueling pace of work” is framed in colonial overtones as “penetrating the deepest corners of the brain.” His militaristic mission proceeds until “at last the brain”—that dark and irresistible organ—“is exposed.” “Doctor I can move!” the female patient exclaims in gratitude, as the mysterious horror music swells to a crescendo. The miracle is complete.

As Copernicus broke open the heavens and Vesalius the body, so too did Harvey Cushing open man’s last uncharted frontier: the brain. Cushing is not only positioned as a great mind among the greatest minds; he is reified as such. His limbless phantom is brought to life in a large glass case dedicated exclusively to his life on a wall of the room that Brooks calls the exhibition’s “heart.” The Heart: Cushing gives life to the exhibition; he has given his life to the exhibition; he is the force from which the objects and values circulate; he has pumped valuable fluids into these brains so that they might live on. And Cushing himself is brought back to life by the display’s artful arrangement of his seemingly spontaneous memorabilia.

We see Cushing as a dashingly handsome young Yale man, smiling at a camera; a photograph of Cushing with a young patient, the caption describing him as “beloved”; a table that measures out his life in surgeries successfully completed; his white doctor’s coat, hung upright with room for air inside, as though clothing his ghost; a bronze cast made of his hand—the celebration of the surgical man as a magic machine; a small old photo catching Cushing in midair back-flipping off a building on Elm Street, full of youthful carefree adventure, full of life.

These slices of life vivisect Cushing; in vitro he is again in vivo. We are taught that his is a body that performed exceptional mechanical labor (look at his bronze hand, his white coat), as well as a brain capable of exceptional mental labors (think of his innovative development of surgical techniques, his exceptional visual thinking as evidenced in his illustrations, his important scientific research). As with priceless wonders that speak both to intellectual wealth and to symbolic power, Cushing’s collection of brains, transformed into objects of scientific exchange, seem proof of Cushing’s wealth, his power, and perhaps even his immortality. His charisma charms us into rapt attention. For Yale has trained us to study and order the relative greatness of men like Cushing. For four years we have learned to be curious and to curate this obeisant curiosity, and for what? for God? for country? for the self-perpetuation of hegemonic institutional memory?


The narrative conjured by the museum’s atmosphere—that the brains in the registry, abandoned in a cold dark subbasement without proper care, were seen as relics of a bygone age of medicine until an unlikely trio (a medical student, neurosurgeon, and photographer) saw them fit for aesthetic uses—is arguably paternalistic, positioning the brains as orphans with grandfather Cushing’s successors as their adoptive parents, the rescuers of erstwhile lost children.

It’s easy to forget the way in which this “family of brains” might not have asked to be cared for, but rather that this aura of “helplessness” is something we asked of them. And it’s even easier to forget the ways in which someone else once cared for these brains in the time before Cushing was their owner—that they once belonged to other families. We have been calling this Cushing’s collection, but Cushing did not collect these brains the way an art dealer collects Damien Hirst sculptures. On their way to becoming works of art, these brains have been multiply transformed: first as organs powering bodies, then as bad-news-bearing diagnostics, then as matter on which to operate, and, finally, as sites for the research of more hopeful prognoses for future patients.

As a political counter to this forgetting, we may try and think otherwise, remember differently, wander out of these narrative bounds. We might expand our ideas about agency to look at how the brains have collected their own friends and enemies and spectators, enrolled traditional allies, from medical students to nontraditional visitors like us, we collected students of collecting.


Yale is “at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends,” as the motto goes. So too is the Cushing Center. This idea of collection—of collecting people, affects, dollars—is most evident in the Center’s curiosity cabinets, built into the wall below the brains. There, folds of superfluous information pop out of drawers like so many firing synapses: cabinets with gifts to Cushing from Swedish explorer Sven Hedin’s trips to fill in the blank “white spaces” in maps of the East, cabinets with Chinese surgical tools, with boxes of spices; cabinets with bones, bones of all kinds (pelvic, fetal, skulls cracked and uncracked); cabinets with Cushing’s paper or his tools; and, my personal favorite, some cabinets that are locked, emanating endless mystery. Whether considered collectively or singly as drawers, the cabinets are no doubt “curious”—just look at the drawer of disarticulated skull bones humorously placed beneath a drawer of benign stationery.

In his proposal for the space, Brooks, the architect, described the cabinets as coming alive with a “rhythm and pulse.” These tactics of disorientation, and the questions they engage, encourage a viewer’s exploratory learning as they actively shatter familiarities and rupture our traditional order of things. “The effect in this sense is for a cabinet that has no end,” writes Brooks, “but extends on seemingly infinitely, inviting exploration.” His design was consciously inspired by private collections and early museums—namely, the Wunderkammern (curiosity cabinets) of 16th and 17th century Europe.

The Wunderkammern gathered together the treasures of the world: narwhal tusks, mermaids, the sagacity of dolphins, plants and miracles, forked carrots, carved cherrystones, conjoined twin infants, and so on and so forth. Historians of Science Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, in their account of Wonders and the Order of Nature, explain how these treasure troves of social and intellectual elites functioned in medieval times as “repositories of wealth, and of magical and symbolic power.”

To collect and share collections was then, as now, to perform “exercises in taste”—to decide “what was a proper object of wonder and what was not.” The Center’s resemblance to Wunderkammern and early natural history museums is apt for the ways in which the Center’s cavern of wonders, including its rare books, reflect similar impulses to consolidate the knowledge of the world into symbolic power. As an Ivy League physician, Cushing was part of an elite book-collecting circle whose rare book donations form the basis of Yale’s Medical Library.

In their scarcity and charisma, the wonders of the middle ages reproduced the social, political and religious hierarchies of the era. Yet as access to wonders spread during the Enlightenment, wonder became a popular passion of the people (wonder was no longer rare, then). Soon, the elites saw wonder as tasteless, vulgar, common, and they abandoned its pursuit. But wonder did not die.

Wonder was born again in early natural history museums, where unusual objects were repurposed as sources of “rational amusement.” Whereas wonders once set the cultural boundaries between the domestic and the exotic, the cultivated and the vulgar, they now, in the late 19th century context of the museum, came to represent the domestication of the exotic for the edification of the masses. George Brown Goode, director the United States National Museum, which closed in 1911, was an influential advocate and developer of this new museum ethos. “For instruction to redeem amusement,” he wrote, “viewers need principles for looking. They require a context, or framework, for transforming otherwise grotesque, rude, strange and vulgar artifacts into object lessons.” The legacy of his efforts to reconcile the emotional charge of wonders with their educational and aesthetic value is still evident in museums today. Enchantment, at the Cushing Center, has been rerouted into educational discourse.The Cushing Center claims that the space will teach you something. What, exactly, are its “object lessons”?

To study the Cushing Center, (or Yale), as a site for the production of knowledge is to look at the way in which its things and peoples are collected together into identities, or, rather, into an identity that is placed above other identities, a category of the “Special,” that includes a Noachian passion for every kind of uniqueness (and so becomes a sort of sameness), bolstered by the rhetoric of exceptionalism, and realized in the way its real estate maintains a constant “state of exception”—from its tax-exempt status to its dubious ownership of public streets and utilities to its raising of the gates around Old Campus in the 19th century—the cutting of the private university off from the public New Haven Green, stratifying “elites” into ever-increasing spaces of exclusion—and how this mystification works and does work, not only through architecture, but also on the level of the social. Look around.


Look around Bass or Blue State or wherever you happened to pick up this paper and, where you once saw the hooded raincoats of your classmates hurrying to class, you now only see the brain trust, dancing maniacally, in light and in shadow, dancing, dancing, to the mechanical whir of institutional politics, quick and in double-time. Later in class, where you once saw the simple form of a wooden chair or table, you now see only wooden brains from which grotesque ideas evolve and spread over the material world of things, infecting education with politics, politics with aesthetics, aesthetics with power––revealing the ideological institutions we worked so hard to purify and classify to be wholly contaminated, at once material and transcendent.

You see how the invisible order of things produces as much knowledge as the things themselves. You see how Yale programs narratives, museumifies and mummifies its peoples and artifacts. You see how its spaces privilege certain behaviors and beings and devalue others. You see your own participation in the social reproduction of Yale’s Yale-ness—a polity built upon bodies, like yours, collected one bright afternoon by people in an office who every year invest themselves in the most specious of futures trading, trafficking not in brains but in minds they think matter. If there is horror music playing, it swells here to its most violent pitch.

To your surprise and dread, you realize you never needed any formal invitation to enter this brain trust. I’ve been inside it all along, you think to yourself, as another pang of wrenching unease sweeps over your senses. You wonder whether it is even possible to escape, whether you can ever pick and choose your affiliations, whether the world is then so narrow. You look down at your hands and notice that you, too, are dancing. At first you laugh, and then, you scream.

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