DIBS News

White Discusses Dualities of Human Brain during Stanford Event

May 9, 2018

2018 International Health Humanities event celebrated 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Picture of Stanford Health Humanities Conference logo

2018 Stanford International Health Humanities Conference Logo

Leonard White, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology in the Duke School of Medicine and DIBS Associate Director for Education, spoke during the 2018 International Health Humanities Consortium Conference at Stanford University. The event, held April 20-22, was celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through an exploration of medically based ethical dilemmas and an examination of the relevance of Frankenstein in moral imagination today. Click HERE for a link to the event's program. 

Dr. White served on a panel, “Exploring the Dualities of Beauty/Horror and Empathy/Violence in the Human Brain,” with Quentin Eichbaum, MD, PhD, from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Here is the panel abstract:

The story of Frankenstein contains elements of both “beauty and horror” as well as “empathy and violence” and, as such, embodies these same dueling attributes in human nature. Thus, humans are at once the most empathetic as well as the most violent of species. Likewise, humans have a deep appreciation for beauty (and a striving for the sublime) that co-exists alongside a morbid fascination with destruction and horror. These unchartered dualities present a conundrum to our understanding of who we are as moral, thinking and spiritual beings. These dualities are moreover of relevance in the practice of medicine where physicians (especially diagnosticians like pathologists) are daily confronted with the sublime visual and cognitive “beauty” of diagnoses and disease (e.g., a fascinating case or beautifully stained microscopic specimens) that may portend the horror of terminal illness and untimely death.

This session will explore these dualities of “beauty/horror” and “empathy/violence” in the human brain through three lenses or perspectives: (1) art/humanities; (2) meta/neurocognition; and (3) human neuroanatomy.  The arts/humanities lens will explore these themes through the eyes of a range of humanists, including philosophers, contemporary visual artists, such as Libia Posada, and writers, with a particular focus on the text by M. Shelley. The metacognitive lens will explore these dueling attributes from various cognitive angles including attention, perception, memory, narrative, empathy, and neuroplasticity. The neuroanatomic lens will explore the structure and function of brain regions and pathways that are implicated in empathy, dehumanization (violence), the appreciation of beauty (the sublime), and the experience of horror. Participants in this session are invited to the confluence of ‘beauty and horror’ by visually and haptically examining (preserved) human brain specimens.

This panel explores the complexities and ambiguities of these unresolved human attributes that render us at once tender, resilient and caring - but also violent and fascinated with horror and annihilation. A corollary aim of the session will be to debunk the myth of the “two cultures” by showing how the same brain systems mediate the sciences and the humanities, and illustrating the rich dialogue that is possible across disciplines.

Leonard White, PhD

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