Without doubt the best thing about this whole blogging thing is the dialogue it enables. Under its first name of “needled”, I started this blog ten years ago, and over the past decade I’ve met some of my best friends and colleagues through this online space. Many of you correspond with me, and though it can take me a wee while to respond to emails and other enquiries, I do read – and really appreciate – every single one of your comments (and particularly when you are sharing your own experiences). Thank you!

Occasionally, one of you will send me something that really strikes a chord, and that was the case today when the postie dropped a card through my letterbox depicting a crazy phrenological head.

Reproduced courtesy of Wellcome Images (L0060935)

The head is part of an advertisement for Hudson’s Extract of Soap, was produced around 1910, and was sent to me by Anna, who was reminded of it after reading my reference to phrenological heads in a recent blog post.

Reproduced Courtesy of Wellcome Images (L0060934)

This advertisement is really completely, wonderfully whacko. It of course suggests the popular currency of the dangerously nut-job pseudo-scientific language of phrenology in the early years of the last century, but its use here as a marketing strategy also seems, in this particular context, spectacularly weird. Reading the bumps on the Edwardian housewife’s head reveals a brain emptied of everything but Hudson’s inane repertoire of slogans and jingles: “LANGUAGE is quite inadequate to describe the multitudinous uses of Hudson’s Extract of soap” “MIRTH – nothing to do but laugh at the wash-tub with Hudson’s extract of soap in it.” The inference that Hudson’s soap – and, by extension, domesticity itself – constitutes a form of brainwashing seems pretty unavoidable.


Thanks so much, Anna, for this postcard – I laughed out loud when I retrieved it from the doormat, and I’m now going to stick it to the pinboard behind my desk, to watch over me as I write about brain-related things. What Anna couldn’t have known (nor do any of you know) is that, as a child, I found phrenological heads, anatomical drawings of the brain, and basic brain biology completely and utterly fascinating. What really sparked my fascination was this book, which my dad had randomly inherited, and which sat on a bookshelf in the front room of my childhood home.

Many of you may also own, or have come across this popular household manual. As young children, my sister and I would lift this heavy tome down from the shelf and pore over its pages for hours. The pages which fascinated us most were those which included the fold-out anatomical human figures.

How I loved to look under the figure’s skin and skeleton to reveal its heart, spleen and intestines! In the accompanying text, I discovered many lurid “facts” about the human body and its dissection which both fascinated and horrified me: a healthy lung, taken from a corpse, would crackle softly when pressed, and float (if required) on water. Who knew?

Even better than the torso were the head-shaped pages, by which I was completely mesmerised.

Following the veins and arteries and musculature of the face were cross-sections of grey matter which looked like nothing I’d seen before – some of the stuff vaguely resembled vegetables, but I recall the feeling of having no real frame of reference for the weird substances and objects my head apparently contained.

The final page showed the mind divided into irregular, pastel-shaded phrenological areas with strange labels such as “amativeness” or “conscientiousness.”

There was something about the coupling of the legible human features of eyes and ears with these mysteriously labelled categories that really grabbed my attention.

What did it all mean? In the book I learned that, despite these labels, which were associated with something called phrenology, the brain was really an unknown landscape, whose powers and functions were very little understood. About the brain, the book said, there was much yet to discover. I felt I had to know more about it.

At my local library you could take out other books that were meant for older children about medicine and biology. I rolled the exotic Latin words around my mouth: pons, hippocampus, medulla oblongata. I discovered that each brain was protected by three layers, one thick and spongy (dura mater), one named after its spiders-web-like appearance (arachnoid mater) and a final light and delicate layer, whose religious-sounding name of pia mater suggested its purpose as the mind’s protecting veil. After a visit to London, during which I’d learned about evolution, I wrote to the Natural History Museum with queries about human brain development and a nice man replied, with textbook photocopies of essays about primate research that I didn’t really understand. A year or so later I created a school science project —The Brain and its Functions— which I illustrated myself with anatomical drawings whose tangible colours and textures really pleased me.

I wish I could now show you a photo of The Brain and its Functions (which I produced at age eleven) but I think it is either at my parents house, or otherwise lost in time.

Anyway, I have thought of my childish brain obsession many times over the past few years. As things often do in retrospect, it seemed mildly curious that I’d been so fascinated and bothered by my brain, and then, a quarter of a century later, had to deal with the implications of owning a damaged one. Looking back, I can see that an obvious childish narcissism lay at the root of my investigations: I was primarily interested in the substance of myself, in my own agency, and the relationship of my mind and will to the world around me. I’m motivated by rather different questions now, but am still as gripped and fascinated as ever by the mysterious materiality of the brain.

34 thoughts on “are you domesticated?

  1. Hi Kate,
    Thought you might be interested in the work of a California neuro-scientist, V.S. Ramachandran. Check out this New Yorker article for an introduction: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/john-colapinto-ramachandrans-mirror-trick.
    Also, Siri Hustevedt’s “The Shaking Woman,” is brilliant and a first person account of a mysterious neurologic disorder. While not directly parallel to your experience, it could be food for your own thoughts.

    xoxo Love your work.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susan – Ramachandran’s mirror trick was how a physio helped me to initiate movement in my lower leg, ankle and foot. I am forever grateful for our ability to trick the brain!


      1. How remarkable! I love that someone as academically brilliant as VSR brings plain old curiosity to his work. There’s something marvelously delightful about his dreaming up the box-mirror idea and then banging a prototype together. And, I’m so happy that to know that his work helped YOU!


  2. I’m stunned by the extraordinary definition (in your last picture) of ‘Hope’ as ‘Disposition to minimize trouble’. I’ve always been slightly puzzled by the frequent habit in Victorian texts of mentioning ‘hopeful’ as a characteristic of the ‘deserving poor’ – in fact, practically as a secret sign indicating that a lowly person is deserving and may safely be empathised with without endangering the foundations of society. But this explains it entirely! Clearly, whoever wrote these definitions went about the job like a descriptive dictionary-writer and based them with the clarity of a four-year-old child on what he (probably a he) heard around him every day, rather than prescriptively imposing any preconceptions of what one might think the word was supposed to mean. What gems, both the postcard and Vitalogy (great word, by the way – shame it was pushed out by ‘biology’).


  3. Dear Kate, I would have pored over your father’s book on Vitalogy too! On our shelf we had an old medical tome, but not with such wonderful pull-out anatomical illustrations. It had the marbled frontispieces and beautiful colour drawings of bisected bodies and brains and male/female anatomy, including a pregnant woman that fascinated me no end. On the more grim end of the scale, were photographs of horrible diseases…..I would love to borrow and share two of your photo’s that you featured here, of the areas of the brain with dictionary definitions. I hope this is all right.
    regards, Jeanne


  4. Old medical texts are nearly as fascinating to read as old recipe collections, their now outdated and superseded certainties long gone. My grandfather was a doctor and wrote a book called Vita Sexualis, of which my father was very fond. He regarded its content as the sacred words of a learned man whose life was brought to a untimely end by the holcaust. For my part, when I read Dad’s accomplished translation, I was horrified by what we now regard as sexist misinformation if not downright misogyny. It is a good reminder that progress continues to be made in all areas of knowledge and that it is vital to examine the context, not simply the content. What an interesting discussion. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Kate
    I seem to have trouble connecting to you directly but will try again. I have a cousin by marriage who had the same kind of cerebral vascular accident that you had, at the same age, and had most of the same severe post CVA issues that you did. After rehab, and still feeling disconnected from her body, she became involved with a yoga program for people with neurological issues and ultimately made an excellent recovery. Prior to this she had been a special efucation specialist and psychologist, today she is a yoga instructor who works exclusively with people with movement disorders and neurological difficulties, with grants which enable her to do this free of charge. I think you would find her approach interesting. You could look at her website: http://www.yogareach.com, and the website would lead you to some of the interviews and articles that have been written about her. (I am trying to be circumspect about identifying her because I am always mindful of trolls, but this website address has been published nationally).

    In Minneapolis, the Bakken Museum ( a small museum housed in the home of the founder of Medtronic, a medical device company) there is a collection of phrenology “devices” and other strange electrical devices which purported to “read” the brain. Did you know that Darwin resorted to phrenology in hope of finding relief from his chronic medical problems? I am so looking forward to the book you are working on…I hope it comes doon!


  6. I think one of the best things about your posts is the immense variety. Love this one.
    We had a book a bit like the one you describe, but it was not the same – but like yours it had card cutouts of the various organs, where they went/belonged. There was even a pregnant woman and you could take the baby out, still attached by the umbilical cord – too grown-up for words. I don’t know WHAT my parents were thinking of, and now it is all on YouTube and young people can actually see it all in motion…I think if it had been that vivid for me I would never have dared to have children, ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kate,

    I shared your fascination at an early age and used and abused a library card in search of all available information at that time – I, to this day, pull all the books off the shelf on any particular subject matter and digest their content, performing my own condensation of these tomes. Those early lessons taught me that no one source contained all the info I needed to form my own view of the current subject of my research, whether the brain or any other issues. I ran the gamut. I found your list of books you’ve already read a reminder of those days. I await your hash and rehash of the facts you’ve uncovered, as well as, the results of your own experience in dealing with the brain and how to rehabilitate yourself post-stroke. It appears this is leading you to write your own book. I await further word of this here. Best wishes to you always,


  8. Love the Hudson’s soap ad and Vitalogy! I remember reading our set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid and marveling at the layered plastic images of a frog’s body and the human body. Vitalogy reminded me of leafing through the encyclopedias to soak up all kinds of knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I too have an ancient “medical” book that was my grandmother’s home remedy book. I will have to check to see if it is the same as yours. It too has (or had!) all the paged illustrations. It is a HUGE book and has been well studied by 4 generations so far. Apparently it will be fought over by our children when we die! The portions about the brain, mental illness and female “problems” are fascinating

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Something said to me the other day – we think of our skull as being ‘inside’ ourselves. But our brains are inside our skulls, therefore our skulls are actually outside of us…


  11. I have worked in the OR for 30 years and get to see the insides of people all day long. And I *still* love the many and beautiful illustrations of the human body. Your book looks exceptional. The 3D-ness of the fragile paper is something really special. I noticed the font ( I am geek for fonts) and labeling of the structures. I wish the real thing came that way sometimes.Frank Netter, an American Surgeon and medical illustrator produced over 4,000 images that remain unparalleled today. We still marvel at his volumes of beautiful illustrations of both the healthy and ill body. I have hanging on my wall, the vintage print Phrenology head ” A picture of good health” . There is something intriguing about these big heads, divided and labeled in the various ways. For as complex as the brain is, the real live view is not as impressive. Which really makes it even more impressive!
    There is an Etsy artist that has felted small images of the abdomen and inner ear structures. For privacy, I have left out the name. The small, framed cross section of a felted inner ear structure is jaw dropping. They are really, really good.
    Thank you for reading so many responses to all of your detailed posts. I sometimes hesitate to write when I might have something to say as not to overwhelm you with chatter. I am not sure I have much to add that isn’t original. But today, yes. Today’s post and that book, got my heart beating:) And when you get to hold a real beating heart in your hand, it never gets old.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Stacy, your mention of the felted anatomical images reminded me of one of my favourite silly knitted things of all time: Matie Trewe’s knitted digestive system http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/knitted-digestive-system . I wish I could give credit to whoever first drew my attention to it, but it was in 2009 and I have no record. I remember suggesting it as a cover illustration for the Christmas issue of the medical journal Endoscopy, for which I was a freelance copy editor at the time. Sadly, although the editorial office staff enjoyed the joke, the chief medics would not be persuaded.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I think it’s curious, too, that you had this intense curiosity (“obsession” as you call it) about
    the brain when you were coming of age. Not satisfied with the Vitality book
    you poured over as a younger child, you sought answers on your own as an 11 year-old – just like you did years
    later when you had the stroke.
    Did the early interest in the brain make a difference in your recovery process?
    Did it help you stand up to your doctors and your continued curiosity today?
    Or would you, by nature (because you’re determined and bright) have done the same anyway without the
    childhood interest?
    In other words, should you discard the possibility of mysticism in life’s events?
    I certainly don’t have the answer to that one but I’m glad you’re writing this book. It may help
    a lot of people.


  13. I think I would have remembered my anatomy at college far better if Vitology had been one of the texts! Really enjoying your explorations / analyses of your CVA journey. It’s resonating with me both from a professional perspective (I’m an OT) and a personal one (acceptance of a diagnosis of ME 6 yrs ago)


  14. J had a great thought one day. The brain is the the only truly self aware thing in nature as it studies itself to see how it works.


  15. Such interesting avenues our lives take us down. I found it quite interesting that the ‘Vitality’ book’s pictures match the colours of your yarn! By the way, I knew I had seen that script font of the ‘Vitaity’ word…Pearl Jam!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks Kate. I’ve only recently become intrigued by the folded (almost pleated/smocked) texture of the brain – ‘mysterious materiality’ is the perfect phrase.


  17. Ha ha, Not where I thought the word Domesticated was going to take us!! Fascinating stuff none the less. You have certainly put your brain to GOOD use for your healing and for our immense enjoyment. Be well.


  18. Hi Kate. My comment is only peripherally related to your post, but I wondered if you knew of Rebekah Taussig? I just read her interview on Design Sponge, which mostly discusses disability and home design, but it seems as though you might relate to her views on disability stories finally starting to be told from the first person point of view, rather than from a third person, “normally-abled” view. Here’s a link to the interview, in case you’re interested: http://www.designsponge.com/2017/04/qa-with-rebekah-taussig.html


  19. Love the cut-outs!
    I’ll answer the question in how I see myself-Am I domesticated? If it means able to sew my own clothes, mend my holes, cook my dinner, clean up after myself and my pets, send thank you cards,knit my own sweaters and so on, then yes, I am proudly domesticated. It seems it got a bad rap years ago when girls like me had to take Home Ec. in middle school but being able to care for myself (and others) is a skill I am happy to have. Throw in some creativity and you have an occupation!

    Liked by 1 person

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