The Anatomical Theater: The Brain (part 2)

Ah, the brain.  Fergus Henderson devotes an entire section of his Nose to Tail cookbook to Lamb’s Brains.

Why lamb’s brains?  When brains were available, lamb’s were cheap compared to the calf’s, but still delicious, creamy and rich, and no other ingredient offers you better possibilities of the gentle give and crunch combination.  (58)


Thank you Mama K for the image; a Tumblr site taking a contemplative, interactive approach to cooking.  Here’s Henderson’s recipe for Cold Lamb’s Brains on Toast.

This is a dish for those who particularly enjoy the texture of brain.

Bring a pan of water with all the stock vegetables and herbs up to a simmer for 15 minutes.  Then gently lower you lamb’s brains into the pot, let them cook gently for 8 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon, and leave to cool on a tray.  Meanwhile toast the bread.

When the brains are cold and firm, separate the lobes, slice lengthwise 6mm thick, lay in fish-scale fashion on the toast and top with some Green Sauce (the give of the brains, the crunch of the toast, and the bite of the sauce.)  (59)

Give and crunch.  How delightful.  With the thought and taste of brain on our minds, let’s turn to a favorite book of mine on thinking, What Makes Us Think?  This thoughtful book features neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and philosopher Paul Ricoeur attempting to discuss brain and mind, which is more difficult then you might think.  Let’s listen in.

Changeux: When we have a headache, we do not feel pain in our neurons but rather in the meningeal envelope that protects our brain.  One can introduce a scalpel in the brain and remove a piece of the cerebral cortex without the subject feeling pain.

Moreover, most surgical operations on the brain are done with the patient awake. Precisely in order to prevent the essential functions of his cerebral cortex, such as the use of speech, from being altered, the surgeon talks with the patient.  The surgeon asks the patient to describe what he feels, to pronounce words, to think about something while the operation is taking place.  Consciousness occurs in the brain, but we have no conscious perception of our brain!

Ricoeur: I do not understand what it means to say “consciousness occurs in the brain.” Consciousness may know itself–but the brain will forever remain an object of knowledge; it will never belong to the experience of one’s own body.  The brain does not “think” in the sense that thought conceives of itself.  But you, as a neurobiologist, conceive of the brain.

Changeux: Of course–but thought cannot conceive of itself without the brain! (51-52)

Couldn’t resist slipping in that tasty bit from Hannibal.  Thinking.  Someone once said it’s being and the only way we know we are being. Michel de Montaigne addresses thinking at the start of his essay “That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them.”

Men, says an old Greek maxim, are tormented by the opinions they have of things, not by things themselves. (33)

Of course, referring to this quote from Marcus AureliusMeditations.

If you are grieving about some exterior thing, then it is not that thing which is troubling you, but your judgment about that thing.  (VIII< 47)

Which follows from a saying by Epictetus.

What troubles people is not things, but their judgment about things.  (Manual, 5)

What does William Shakespeare think about all this thinking?

Speaking of tossing brains around, what does the brain have to do with all this mess? Consider a passage from Eric Kandel‘s thought-provoking study of the arts, psychology and the neurosciences, The Age of Insight.

Thus, what we see in “the mind’s eye” goes dramatically beyond what is present in the image cast on the retina of our real eye.  The image on the retina is first deconstructed into electrical signals that describe lines and contours and thus create a boundary around a face or an object.  As these signals move through the brain, they are recorded and, based on Gestalt rules and prior experience, reconstructed and elaborated into the image we perceive.  Luckily for us, although the raw data taken by the eyes are not sufficient to form the content-rich hypothesis called vision, the brain generates a hypothesis that is remarkably accurate.  Each of us is able to create a rich, meaningful image of the external world that is remarkably similar to the image seen by others.

It is in the construction of these internal representations of the visual world that we see the brain’s creative processes at work.  The eye does not work like a camera.  A digital camera will capture an image, be it a landscape or face, pixel by pixel, as it appears before us.  The eye cannot do that. Rather, as the cognitive psychologist Chris Frith writes: “What I perceive are not the crude and ambiguous cues that impinge from the outside world into my eyes and my ears and my fingers.  I perceive something much richer–a picture that combines all these crude signals with a wealth of past experience . . . . Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”  (234)

So then the dream world is the world we are in when we are awake, more or less.

And there we go, from a neuroscientist and a philosopher discussing thinking to Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page acting as thinkers thinking about thinking and dreaming; from a slave and an emperor musing on reality to René Redzepi talking about timing and thinking with a signature dish from Noma.  Bon Appétit!


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