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MIND OVER MATTER
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Memory, Forgetting, Brain Donation and the Search for Cures for Dementia.

Dr Bronwyn and Ania Dabrowska.

12-23 October 2011,
Shoreditch Town Hall



Mined minds, The Lancet Journal, a review by David Holmes
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Eric Stannard's gimlet eyes pierce the gloom in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as he peers out from beneath his thatch of windswept hair, with its tobacco-tinted yellow streak courtesy of smoke from the pipe that dangles from his mouth. Eric died on July 12 last year, and donated his brain to science. His portrait, and his story, are part of a group of 12 similar pieces that form the nucleus of an exhibition and book which aim to lift the veil of anonymity that surrounds organ donation, and banish a few myths along the way.

Mind Over Matter is the fruit of a collaboration between Bronwyn Parry (Queen Mary University of London, UK) and the artist Annia Dabrowska, combining the portraits and biographies of 12 brain donors (five of whom have died since the start of the project) with material from their own personal archives, along with medical photographs and artifacts, and sound tracks that incorporate the voices of the donors. The result is sometimes funny, often moving, but always a fascinating and immersive exploration of philosophies and memories, and the motivations behind each of the subject's decision to donate their brain.

Stannard, who was an active Anglican Catholic, saw brain donation as the logical choice: “It's just a waste to burn it if it can be put to some good purpose”. A keen amateur dramatist, he counted Waiting for Godot amongst his favourite productions, and wandering through the cold musty labyrinth of the Town Hall basement, with its stark, exposed masonry and bare earth under foot, feels like walking on to the set of one of Beckett's plays. Around one corner an enormous translucent photograph of a wedding party looms out of the darkness, around another you stumble on a room of white doilies suspended in mid-air like snowflakes. The intimacy of the portraits, the haunting soundscapes, and the fragments of treasured memories give the impression of delving into the nooks and crannies of an ageing mind.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK recently published a paper that considered the various ways of encouraging people to donate organs, both for transplant and for scientific research, as a way to address the growing gap between supply and demand. The payment of donor's funeral costs by the state was the one of the suggestions that grabbed the headlines. But one of the overriding themes to emerge throughout Mind Over Matter is the sense of hope that the donors have that their generosity (although they do not see themselves as generous) will help to relieve the suffering of others when they are gone. Mind Over Matter celebrates the lives of the 12 donors, and in so doing celebrates the sense of selflessness and solidarity shared by them all. Were those values to be celebrated more widely, perhaps the need to encourage organ donation would not be quite so pressing. Keep an eye on the website for announcements on where the exhibition will be showing in the future.

David Holmes

For more on the exhibition see http://www.mindovermatterproject.co.uk/about.html