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Abby Normal? Nope: Psychiatrist knits anatomically correct brain

The brain is among the body's more intimidating pieces of anatomy, but a child psychiatrist has made it warm and fuzzy — by knitting a copy.

Karen Norberg, a research instructor in psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, spent a year crafting the brain (click on the image for an enlarged, labeled version). A "semi-professional artist," Norberg got the idea while working on another knitting project whose ruffles "reminded me of the cerebral cortex," the thinking part of the brain.

"It appealed to my sense of humor because it seemed so ridiculous and would be an enormously complicated, absurdly ambitious thing to do," Norberg tells ScientificAmerican.com.

Norberg hasn’t knitted another brain (now housed at Boston's Museum of Science) since completing the project a decade ago. But the wacky sculpture seems to have seasonal appeal, she says, getting media attention in January when crafty folks are thinking about what to knit in the cold weather.

She spent three months studying neuro-anatomy textbooks before putting her needles to work ("there weren’t any knitting instructions out there," she notes) and nine months with yarn in hand. Her colorful brain isn’t modeled after Abby Normal's (cue "Young Frankenstein") or anyone else's in particular, but Norberg does imagine that it belongs to a woman.

"It has a robust corpus callosum, reportedly an attribute women have that's superior to men's," she says. The corpus callosum is made up of "white matter" that acts as a communication channel between the brain's right and left hemispheres.

Norberg says the hardest part was knitting structures deep inside the brain, such as the limbic system, which processes emotions. "The spatial relationships aren’t well illustrated in anatomical drawings or two-dimensional slices," she says.

Now, like other neuro-inspired artists, she's working on two-dimensional projects, including a patchwork quilt illustrated with the hormones as oxytocin and vasopression, which may be involved in the mediation of social bonding and trust. Another brain-themed artist is Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon, who's creating a rug with the image of an fMRI scan, New Scientist noted last month.

If you're not in Boston, you can see Norberg's brain (the knitted one) and other neuro-art at the online Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art — seriously. 

Image courtesy of Karen Norberg

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