Affective Science, or the Sad Brain

by denielle elliott

The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston brings together scholars who study “emotions.” Bridging psychology and the neurosciences, they ask “how the brain creates the mind.” The Society for Affective Science was founded in 2012 and will hold the first annual Affective Science conference this year but these questions about the brain, mind, senses, and emotions are certainly not new. Philosophers, psychologists, scientists and anthropologists have long pondered similar questions about the relationships between the unconscious, the conscious, affect, the sensory, the interior, the exterior, and what lay between. My own unexpected encounters with the brain in multiple mediums and in various spaces led me to similarly think about the relationships between the materiality of the brain and affect.

My first encounter with a brain (other than my own)

As a young child I sat alone on the carpeted floor in front of our television, heavy drapes pulled in a dark room, and watched the black and white noir film Donovan’s Brain on television. Made in 1953, and based on the scientific fiction horror novel by Curt Siodmak (1942), the film regularly aired on public television in the 1970s. The basic plot focused on a medical experiment that goes awry. A scientist, who is unable to save his multi-millionaire patient who has died in a plane crash, decides to keep the man’s brain ‘alive’ in an aquarium-like setting in his laboratory, measuring brain activity through an oscillograph. The dead man is then able to communicate through the disembodied brain and able to control the minds of others, aiming (wickedly) to control the world.

As a child, growing up in small town rural Canada I found the film intensely frightening and would have nightmares at night, haunted by the slimy grey brain in the box. With its “satanic vibrations of evil” and ability to grow in the lab setting, that disembodied other was by far the creepiest thing I had imagined as a 7 year old child. Though my mother, yelling from some other part of the house, would scold me for watching it, I was too compelled to tear my self away from the television and would defiantly refuse to turn it off. At the time, I did not connect the brain that I was viewing through the television screen to something within me – it was far too horrifying, too ominous, too dark to be located within me but I was both enthralled and terrified by that living, dead brain. Pulsating, growing, calculating.


Donovan’s Brain trailer

In 1990 I enrolled in Dr. Orville Elliott’s (no relation) Human Osteology class at the University of Victoria and learned about the embarrassing history of Physical Anthropology and the absurd disciplinary practices of measuring skulls and brain sizes. It was there too as an anthropology undergraduate that I learned about trephination, a historical practice of drilling holes in the skull to, among other things, alleviate brain pressure.

In 2010 I visited the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité (Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum) where they had not dissimilar wet specimens of brains and brain samples on display as part of their exhibit on the history of medical science. Brains with tumours, sliced brains, oversized brains, deformed brains — they were reminders of that film. And again, so incredibly disconnected from me, or anything that might lie within me. They were simply brains without bodies, medical curiosities, equally unnerving as Donovan’s brain.


Photo: Daniel Alexander Photography

I was privileged enough with good health that I didn’t think much about my brain, about grey and white matter, or question if the tissue encompassed in my skull had a relationship to my consciousness, my mind, my soul, my emotions, or me. It just was. I just was.

The CT brain scan


I came to know my brain after a serious head injury five years ago during fieldwork in East Africa through its image, an image produced through a computer assisted tomography (CT or CAT) scan. Leaving the hospital in Johannesburg I was handed half a dozen large brown envelopes containing original films and CD copies of five CT scans, carried out over a one-month period. Measured at contrasting angles. Sliced at different degrees. These scans were structural – they imaged soft and hard tissue at a particular moment, temporal comparisons, before/after/during, denoting breaks in time and memory. They showed broken bones, swollen tissue, bleeds, frontal damage, temporal damage, a shift. I was off-balance for months – physically, intellectually, emotionally. Jarred.

I wondered — if optical senses are centred in the brain (as scientists maintain), how does my brain understand and see those images of itself, broken and bloody? Does it matter that the study of the brain, as scientific object and subject, is experienced through the visual, through the sensory, through itself? If seeing and reading are socially and historically mediated, how does one see itself in the neuroimage? Can it represent anything more than simple computations, or a digital-aged biotechnological phrenology?

At home, I downloaded free online software that enabled me to view the few hundred images on my personal laptop. I can colour, recolour, edit, deform, and measure the digital renderings. I try to make sense of the computerized images, the lightness, the darkness, wondering what secrets they might tell. Although inadequate representations of me, they are exquisite representations of something, something ineffable. I create my first visual ethnographic film – 10 seconds, as image frames speed by, transforming that frightening grey mass of tissue into something beautiful, and sad. Sadly beautiful, or beautifully sad.

Are emotions real?, is a question asked by the Affective Science Laboratory. A neurologist told me that “emotions” are localized in the frontal lobe; it was a cautionary tale.

The neurologists told my loved ones that I might be “different,” said I might get angry easier, and suggested there was a likelihood that my personality would change (they hinted for the worse – like poor Donovan and his evil vibrations). But I was unchanged except that for the first few months after when I cried. Tears rolled down, continually. The clinicians told me that “depression” was very common after traumatic brain injuries (they missed the irony of traumatic) but I didn’t feel depressed. I was just sad. The doctors didn’t seem to understand the difference. I was thrilled to be alive; I was scared; I was overwhelmed; I cried. I cried during dinner. I wept in the car. Tears soaked my pillow in bed at night. I blinked back tears during sex. During a clinical trial investigating brain injury recovery at the University of British Columbia, the postdoctoral fellow sat there patiently, compassionately, quietly, waiting to ask me questions about time, space, and memory, as I wept silently. How can we understand emotional moments and aff
ective states? I’m sorry, I said, I don’t know why I’m crying.

My 10-second ethnographic CT video ends as the image disappears into blackness, nothingness, a different kind of dark matter.


On the brain and neurosciences, see the work of Simon Cohn, Joe Dumit, Margaret Lock, Nikolas Rose, and Barry F. Saunders.