Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘health’

05 APRIL, 2012

Hidden Treasure: 10 Centuries of Visualizing the Body in Rare Archival Images

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What vintage nurse uniforms have to do with Darwin’s studies of animal emotions and Chinese war propaganda.

For the past 175 years, the The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda has been building the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera. With more than 17 million items spanning ten centuries, it’s a treasure trove of rare, obscure, extravagant wonders, most of which remain unseen by the public and unknown even to historians, librarians, and curators. Until now.

Hidden Treasure, following on the heels of The Art of Medicine, is an exquisite large-format volume that culls some of the most fascinating, surprising, beautiful, gruesome, and idiosyncratic objects from the Library’s collection in 450 full-color illustrations. From rare “magic lantern slides” doctors used to entertain and cure inmates at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane to astonishing anatomical atlases to the mimeographed report of the Japanese medical team first to enter Hiroshima after the atomic blast, each of the curious ephemera is contextualized in a brief essay by a prominent scholar, journalist, artist, collector, or physician. What results is a remarkable journey not only into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of the physicality of being human, but also into the evolution of librarianship itself, amidst the age of the digital humanities.

The Artificial Teledioptric Eye, or Telescope (1685-86) by Johann Zahn

Zahn's baroque diagram of the anatomy of vision (left) needs to be viewed in relation to his creation of a mechanical eye (right), the scioptric ball designed to project the image of the sun in a camera obscura

Printed book, 3 volumes

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), helene Flud Health Foundation

Left to right, top to bottom: Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

Jersey City, New Jersey. 93 color photographs, glossy

Mayerle's Lithographed International Test Chart (1907)

Optometrist George Mayerle combined an array of eye tests on a single chart that, he boasted, was 'accurate, artistic, ornamental, practical and reliable.' Marketing the chart to fellow practitioners, he promised that it 'makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.'

San Francisco. Lithograph with hand-colored swatches on cardboard.

Michael North, Jeffrey Reznick, and Michael Sappol remind us in the introduction:

It’s no secret that nowadays we look for libraries on the Internet — without moving from our desks or laptops or mobile phones… We’re in a new and miraculous age. But there are still great libraries, in cities and on campuses, made of brick, sandstone, marble, and glass, containing physical objects, and especially enshrining the book: the Library of Congress, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, the great university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And among them is the National LIbrary of Medicine in Bethesda, the world’s largest medical library, with its collection of over 17 million books, journals, manuscripts, prints, photographs, posters, motion pictures, sound recordings, and “ephemera” (pamphlets, matchbook covers, stereograph cards, etc.).

The Epitome (1953) by Andreas Vesalious

The fourth and fifth 'figure of muscles' conclude the illustrated/typographical dissection, showing more bone than muscle. They also present the anatomy of the head and brain.

Bound printed book, illustrated with woodcuts

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers (1772)

Muscles and attachments

Kaishi Hen. Kyoto, Japan. Printed woodblock book, color illustrations

Darwin Collection (1859-1903)

The expression of emotions in cats and dogs, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872)

London, New York, and other locations

(Also see how Darwin’s photographic studies of human emotions changed visual culture forever.)

Mechanics of the Human Walking Apparatus (1836)

Two figures provide a model of how the motions of running and springing can be accurately drawn.

Mechanik der menschlichen Gehwerkzeuge. Germany. Printed book with atlas containing lithographs.

Chinese Anti-Tuberculosis Flyers (1940s)

Flyers from a larger series of anti-tuberculosis flyers (Shanghai, 1940s and 1950s), Chinese Public Health Collection, National Library of Medicine

Civil War Surgical Card Collection (1860s)

The Army Medical Museum's staff mined incoming reports for 'interesting' cases -- such as a gunshot would to the 'left side of scalp, denuding skull' or 'gunshot would, right elbow with gangrene supervening' -- and cases that demonstrated the use of difficult surgical techniques, such as an amputation by circular incision or resection of the 'head of humerus and three inches of the left clavicle.'

Washington, DC. 146 numbered cards, with tipped-in photographs and case histories

Studies in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Connective Tissue (1875-76) by Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius

Arachnoid villi, or pacchionian bodies, of the human brain.

Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes. Stockholm. Printed book, with color and black-and-white lithographs, 2 volumes.

Anti-Germ Warfare Campaign Posters (ca. 1952), Second People's Cultural Institute

Hand-drawn Korean War propaganda posters, from two incomplete sequence in the collection of Chinese medical and health materials acquired by the National Library of Medicine

Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, China. Hand-inked and painted posters on paper.

Medical Trade Card Collection (ca. 1920-1940s)

The front of a Dr. Miles' Laxative Tablets movable, die-cut advertising novelty card, lowered and raised (Elkhart, Indiana, ca. 1910)

France, Great Britain, Mexico, United States, and other counties. Donor: William Helfand

Thoughtfully curated, beautifully produced, and utterly transfixing, Hidden Treasure unravels our civilization’s relationship with that most human of humannesses. Because try as we might to order the heavens, map the mind, and chart time in our quest to know the abstract, we will have failed at being human if we neglect this most fascinating frontier of concrete existence, the mysterious and ever-alluring physical body.

Images courtesy of Blast Books / National Library of Medicine

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03 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Art of Medicine: Mapping the Body in 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination

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From ancient etchings to electron microscopes, or what aspirin has to do with visualizing consciousness.

Since time immemorial, humanity has been turning its gaze outward, ordering the heavens, and inward, mapping the mind, in an effort to better understand who we are and where we belong. The human body itself has always been a fascinating frontier of inquiry as we’ve bridged art and science to visualize the living fabric of our shared existence. The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a breathtaking selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. Contextualized by medical historian Julie Anderson and science writers Emm Barnes and Emma Shackleton, these magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Organ Man, with Arteries, the Stomach and Internal Organs, artist unknown, from The Apocalypse, c. 1420–1430

ink and watercolor

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

Nude Female Anatomical Figure, artist unknown, from Arzneibuch, 1524–c. 1550

color wash and ink

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London

Charles Williams (1798–c.1830), 25 June 1813

etching with watercolor

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

El hombre como palacio industrial (Man as a Palace of Industry), Fritz Kahn 1888–1968, 1930

lithograph

color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images, London

(For a related treat, see this 2009 student animation based on Kahn’s iconic infographic.)

Artist Anthony Gormley writes in the foreword:

The body is the root of all our experience, through it all our impressions of the world come and from it all we have to share with the world is expressed. A collection such as Wellcome’s is an extraordinary resource for thinking about the body, both as a thing, a metaphor, and the place where we all live and on which our consciousness depends.

We live in and with the body, yet as many of the images here show, we need to constantly re-imagine it. Wellcome’s collection, open to the convergence of the forensic and the imaginative, allows for the mind of the curious to recognize the body as a time machine headed on an ultimately entropic journey.”

Aspirin Crystals, Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, 2006

color enhanced scanning electron micrograph

color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph

Image courtesy of Annie Cavanagh and David McCarthy, Wellcome Images, London

Quinidine Crystals, Spike Walker, 2006

polarised light micrograph

Image courtesy of Spike Walker, Wellcome Images, London

Day 711, The Daily Stream of Consciousness, Bobby Baker, 2008

watercolour and pencil

etching with watercolor

Image courtesy of Bobby Baker, Wellcome Images, London

(You might recall Baker’s Drawing Mental Illness, superb in its entirety, from pickings past.)

Equal parts fascinating and fanciful, The Art of Medicine is a magnificent almanac of the body’s timeless mystery and its visual vocabulary.

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19 JANUARY, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

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Why “information overload” is the wrong lens on the issue, or what sugar and fat have to do with Hollywood.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson — best known for managing Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, then directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation — draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and ushered in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That’s why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.”

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood’s entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we’re products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we’re products of the information we consume — and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us — 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 — is mind-boggling.

Using Google’s n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term “information overload” became popular in the 1960s, surging 50% by 1980 and then again by 2000.

But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:

The concept of information overload doesn’t work, however, because as much as we’d like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don’t actually die of overconsumption: we don’t see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it’s unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.”

Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox-zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:

It’s a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.”

Still, Johnson cautions that we’re wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”

Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:

Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book’s site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.

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