Neuroscience meets women’s folk art



Psychiatrist Dr Karen Norberg spent a year knitting this ‘anatomically correct’ human brain. She describes it as a playful project.

“It was a labour of love. For me, there were two humorous aspects. One was simply to undertake such a ridiculously complex, time consuming project for no practical reason. The second was the idea of making a somewhat mysterious and difficult object – a brain – out of a ‘cuddly’, cheerfully coloured, familiar material like cotton yarn.”

I think we can also see this as a delightfully subversive gender bending project rife with implications for feminist philosophy.

I recently had an appointment with a neurosurgeon and his office displayed a hard plastic ‘dissectible’ replica of a human brain. He walked in and said, “Hi Alpha, I am Dr. X.” I was tempted to reply “Hi Mark, I am Dr. Alpha,” but of course I didn’t. The room was cold and sterile and the power relations were gendered in expectable ways. How would that visit have been different, if the room displayed this knitted brain and the social and material environment complimented this piece of scientific art? Mark could have used the knitted brain to demonstrate the exact same injury and treatment that he used the plastic brain to demonstrate. It could have served the same function in our exchange. That is if the function was simply to help me understand what was inside my head. But there was another function, or at least a consequence, of the plastic brain and matching room. That room was a cold, efficient, scientific, medical space. One function of that room was to show that it was Mark’s space, not mine. A woolly brain would have been nice.

There are lots of other things we could use the knitted brain to question:

How does a piece of traditional women’s folk art about a scientific topic bend our notions of how both art and science are gendered?

How does the kind of representation of a material object impact the social, political and scientific knowledge that we create about that object?

What are the relationships between aesthetics and epistemology, and between aesthetics and philosophy of science?

Thank you Dr. Norberg.