Creating a Field Guide to the Human Brain

Creating a Field Guide to the Human Brain

Guest post by Randy Roark, Producer for Sounds True.

I’ve recently returned from recording a new program with Rick Hanson in Corte Madera, California. I first worked with Rick and his co-author Rick Mendius in 2009, when we recorded Meditations to Change Your Brain and Meditations for Happiness at the late, lamented Ursa Minor Studios in San Rafael, with the always amazing Ben Leinbach as our engineer. One of my fondest memories is watching Ben teach Rick how to get the best sound out of his Tibetan bell. It was at these sessions that Rick told me about a book he was writing. He was thinking of calling it Buddha’s Brain.

My favorite story about working with Rick happened during pre-production for his online teaching program The Enlightened Brain. We were discussing the part where Rick demonstrates the physiology of the brain, and Rick wondered if we could find a better way to illustrate it than a wooden model. We looked online and it was a matter of plastic models or wooden models, none of them much better than the rest. The video guys suggested CGI animation. Then Rick got an idea. “How about a real brain?”

And I said “What?”

And he said, “You know, a real human brain, like they use in med school.”

“Umm, I don’t think . . .”

“Have you ever held a human brain?”

“Ummm . . . no.”

“It’s such a strange feeling. In one way it’s like holding a handful of cottage cheese, and in another it’s like holding the most mysterious thing in the entire universe. I could put on gloves and reach into a white basin and pick up a brain and hold it up to the camera. What do you think?”

“Ummm . . . okay. All right. I’ll check it out. We have a teaching hospital in Denver. I’ll give them a call.”

I had no doubt I would never have to make that call. First I had to get a budget approved. So I sent Tami an email, explaining the situation: We have a choice between having Rick narrate the structure of a human brain using a wooden model, which would cost us virtually nothing, and be pretty effective, I think. I’ve heard him do it on audio without even a wooden model. It’d be fine. Or we could create some animation, which I’m guessing would cost about two days’ work by our computer graphics artist. Another option that Rick wants to consider is using a real human brain. That would mean an expensive location shoot at a Denver teaching hospital for about ninety seconds of film, which would probably be more effective and less distracting if we shot it in the studio with Rick and a wooden brain.

My phone rang almost immediately. “Can you get a real human brain for the video?”


“Do you know where you could get a real human brain? I think that would make for powerful video.”

“Well, the University of Colorado teaching hospital in Denver would have one, I imagine. I can make a call. I mean, if you really want me to.”

“Yeah, that’d be great. See if you can get a human brain.”

I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. Now there was no way out. I had to make the call.

Sarah (not her real name) was on duty at the teaching hospital’s library when I called. I explained that I was a producer for a publishing company called Sounds True in Louisville, Colorado. We’re filming an online course with a REAL NEUROSCIENTIST, who’s teaching a course on what modern science has to teach us about the possibilities of positive neuroplasticity and he would like to show them a real human brain on screen for no more than maybe 30 seconds.

We don’t have any money but we can give the school full onscreen credit. What we’d need was no more than one day for the actual shoot: a couple of hours for setting up, and then a couple of hours for filming, and then another couple of hours for packing out. And the art director and a camera guy and I would have to come in for a site review to check things out as soon as possible; lights, outlets, windows, reflections, that sort of thing. Not more than an hour or two, probably. Then on the day of the shoot we’d have a crew of maybe eight, tops. I promise we’ll be very respectful and professional throughout.

“Mr. Roark,” Sarah replied “We . . . do . . . not . . . loan out . . . human brains. Under any circumstances.”

“Um . . . okay, I get it, sure. Do you know anyone who might?”

“Mr. Roark, you will find that nobody loans out human brains. Donors trust us to treat their body parts with respect. Would you like to see your relative’s brains displayed in a video? You should use a model, like everyone else. You can take them apart, each part is color-coded, they’re designed to illustrate the physiology of the brain much better than an actual brain. Have you ever held a human brain? Yuck! It’s like holding a handful of cottage cheese!”

“Okay, okay, Sarah, I get it, sure. Thank you for your time.”

And it was over! I could tell Tami and Rick with a clear conscience that I’d called the medical library and they didn’t lend out human brains under any circumstances, and they told me that unfortunately nobody else would either.

• • • • •

Randy Roark worked wRandy Roarkith Allen Ginsberg from 1979 until the poet’s death in 1997. Since 1998, he has worked for Sounds True, including producing seven programs with Rick Hanson.

His monthly travel column is available at //

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

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Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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