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When Show and Tell Gets Real

I owe a lot to someone I’ve never met. He’s gone now…but he lived to be 101 years old and was said to be very astute up until the time he died. His brain turned out to be slightly larger and showing fewer signs of deterioration than a typical person his age, and there’s probably a correlation. That’s what neuroscientists told me about him. And that’s the information I shared with a TEDx audience as I held this man’s donated brain in my hands.

The idea was that it would be a prop – a very precious one and something to be handled with extreme care and reverence – but essentially an item to help illustrate a point. The point was that there’s an urgent need for Americans to donate their brains to neuroscience when they die. It’s because that precious tissue is critically needed to help scientific investigators find answers about brain diseases and disorders that impact some 50 million Americans and their families.

Honestly, it was pretty effective. When I revealed what was in the container next to me on stage and gently lifted the brain slightly so that it was visible to all 550 people in the theater, the place became remarkably still. It was a powerful moment for me. My objective is to sort of de-mystify the brain to help people become more comfortable with the idea of donating theirs when they die. And yet, when I held the one that belonged to a stranger and spoke rather clinically about the diseases that researchers could potentially eradicate thanks to brain donation, it was hard to feel detached.

And that became even more pronounced as I packed up the brain, carefully, according to precise directions to ship back to the brain bank. It was a goodbye that felt much more tender than the situation actually warranted. I’d love to acknowledge this gift—not only of the man’s donation of his brain, but his attendance and assistance in spreading the message. Per standard practice, I don’t even know his name. Normally, I’d send a love note thanking someone who so generously helped me with something very important to me. Come to think of it, maybe I just did.

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