Reindeer and Angels

It’s that time of the year.  A time to get a bit fanciful and so I thought we could look at Reindeer and Angels, maybe not as you know them.

For those of you who follow the blog, you will realise that both of these feed back into a pet project – flight with functioning forelimbs.

It is an interesting intellectual problem to try and establish an anatomy that would allow for functioning wings whilst still allowing forelimbs to work.  I’m not sure its possible with what we know about avian and mammalian anatomy.   Of course, anything with functioning wings and forelimbs wouldn’t be avian or mammalian and therefore might have an anatomy we are yet to discover (if such a winged thing existed.)

Reindeer are interestingly different to this whole story line.  We are quite prepared to accept that Reindeer can fly without the need for wings.  Obviously not actually accept it, but we are happy for stories to exist that don’t incorporate wings whereas we tend to put them onto other flying beings – some superheros excepted but you have to look at that whole thing with capes.) . This reindeer is an example from the BodyWorks exhibition.  Its not how we normally see Reindeer but even it is posed in flight.  This is just accepted – at Christmas, Reindeer fly.

There are a number of spoof scientific publications along the lines of ‘Why Rudolph’s nose is red’ and this year there is even a book out about the science of Christmas looking at how reindeer fly.

Although they don’t really fit into the Christmas story (unless you are watching TV this year), Dragons are the really interesting issue in this conundrum.  Their depiction differs.  Sometimes they have functioning forelimbs and wings or sometimes, as in Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, the producer has thought about it and depicts them like bats; where their forelimbs are actually their folded wings.  The really interesting thing about Dragons is that stories of them appear in every civilisation at almost the same time period.  There isn’t a lag that would have allowed stories to move across continents with travellers which means each civilisation independently came up with the same idea!  Isn’t that fascinating? (We shall gloss over the alternative theory)

Angels are another interesting topic with which, I have to say, I have an interest in their depiction.  The ones we see at Christmas are all peaceful and spreading good news.  In fact the word angelic sums up that sort of image.  I prefer this sort of depiction in the painting by Reni.  Much more feisty.  Either way, they always have wings.  I had an interesting discussion with an artist about this, who suggested it was more to do with early painting techniques.  It used to be hard to judge whether a small figure high up in a picture was actually angelic or simply far away (I’ll wait while you all think about Father Ted).  This problem could be solved by adding wings which then made it clear to the viewer how that figure should be viewed.

It’s hard to reconcile functioning arms with functioning wings with the anatomy that we know.

These are interesting puzzles to muse over but let’s not forget that we are dealing with mythical beings.


I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.  I have several projects on the go next year, amongst which is the publication of a fiction tale revolving around angels (optional wings).

Anatomy Nights

Last February, Kat Sanders and I launched Anatomy Nights.

The concept had actually been dreamt up at a conference dinner a few months before.  There is a big push for public engagement with science.  There were currently a few people around the UK doing odd things as festivals but no big, coordinated effort.  Rather than asking people to come to the University open days to engage with us, could we really take anatomy to them?

On February 14th 2018 we had 5 different UK venues sold out with anatomists from the local medical schools taking the public through an animal heart dissection in pubs (and a school).  It was proof that the public wanted to know more about their bodies and, from the data we collected, it was clear that this method worked; people left knowing more about their bodies.  Along the way we raised nearly £1000 for the British Heart Foundation.

We repeated the success in October with animal brain dissections.

Amanda Meyer is currently attending ANZACA (The Australian and New Zealand Association of Clinical Anatomists).  At the end of her talk yesterday she put up a slide Kat had prepared asking if they wanted to join in with Anatomy Nights in 2019.

Twitter lit up!

We’ve had dozens of people joining us wanting to be involved, not just from Australia and New Zealand but from Indiana, Philadelphia, across the whole world.  A push for UK and Europe is planned for next week.

2019 looks to be an interesting year.

Hectic October

This October has been a bit manic.  Mainly due to a local science festival.

I attended the Midlothian Science Festival to deliver a talk about Burke.  This was great – I love talking about the most infamous criminal in Edinburgh because although everyone thinks they know the story, they never know it all.  I’m not sure anyone knows it all, and they never will.

Burke continued to have an effect over the month as I got a request for his photo for a talk down south about body donation.  You might think that that is a strange link but it was partly due to the actions of Burke and Hare (committing murder to supply medical school with bodies) that the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed by parliament.  It’s this act that controlled how medical school obtained bodies and large parts of it are still in force today.

He also raised his head at a great project last week where a group of enterprising Spanish tour guides booked in for a session to ensure that they are telling the correct story about Burke and Hare.  We are getting the facts out there slowly.

Another talk I gave at the festival was about the neuroscience of zombies.  This was a really interesting talk to give.  There had been months of research, watching zombie films, looking through history books etc.  The concept was to take the characteristics of zombies and use classical neuroanatomy to try to work out which part of their brain had been damaged.  The research brought home how much neuro anatomy we know because of the less than perfect design of the military helmet.

We talked about Broca, Wernicke, Holmes, Von Economo, Bodamer, Posner, cerebral ataxia, neglect, telegraphia, Patient Tan, Patient S and A, interspersed with movie clips and relating conditions to the behaviour of zombies. A bunch of teenagers sat for over an hour.  It was great! Maybe not your typical engagement event but it seemed to work.

Its now only a couple of weeks until the next Anatomy Nights event – brains.

Tickets are available at ticketsource

Come and join me for a brain dissection!


Do we cry because we’re sad – or are we sad because we cry?

My recent foray towards the humanities exposed me to the William James quote above which got me thinking on a recent holiday.

On this holiday I found myself on the Island of Capri (I was just there, it wasn’t some sort of spiritual epiphany). The Island has two towns, Capri and Anacapri, the later been known for its chairlift to the top of the Island.

I don’t really do heights but to put that into context, I took up skiing for my Duke of Edinburgh because I knew if I got good enough I would have to tackle cable cars and chair lifts and I took up amateur dramatics because I hated public speaking so, don’t like things but definite tendencies towards feeling the pain and doing it anyway.

And so, having declared that I was not going to ride this chairlift, I found myself at the base station, ticket in hand and my fit bit telling me that my resting heart rate was 110 – it’s usually low 60’s.

It was at this point, in an effort to think about something else, that I was reminded of the blog post title, and my favourite derivation of it ‘Do we stop playing because we get old or do we get old because we stop playing?’

Was my heart rate 110 because I was scared or was I scared because my heart rate was 110.

Having had a trip the previous year to Adelboden where we went on half a dozen cable cars and my pulse was over 100 for the whole day, I can confirm that it makes you feel very ill and you start to worry that something serious is going to happen. That is the start of a vicious cycle that leads to a full blown anxiety attack. You don’t want to go there when you are hanging in a chair from a cable all on your own.

So, what was happening? I was perceiving the chair ride as a threat to my life and limb and so my body was going into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

The second I thought about the chair lift, I was hijacked by my amygdala. A small almond shaped part of my brain which posed the eternal question, ‘Should I stay or should I go now?’ (You will remember the tune to the well known song.)

Because either option is going to require energy, the amygdala kicks your adrenal glands into action to produce adrenaline. (They are also called your suprarenal glands because they sit on top of your kidneys and adrenaline is also called epinephrine but that doesn’t sound so logical.)

It isn’t that simple though, far from it. Your amygdala tells your hypothalamus that there is cause for concern. This then produces a hormone called Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) which acts on the anterior (front part) of the pituitary gland. This is only a few centimetres away from the hypothalamus but they communicate by releasing the hormone into the blood stream – so now everywhere knows there is cause for concern.

The anterior pituitary responds to this by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which tells the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. This whole network is called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal network or HPA for short (because everyone has to get a mention).

The end result is that your body is flooded with adrenaline along with steroids, corticosterone and testosterone. Your likely to be more snappy and aggressive (just speak to anyone who has shared a cable car with me), your heart rate will increase, you will sweat and feel sick.

This whole process takes milliseconds. It has developed so that in situations of real danger you are ready to act. A chair lift is not a real danger. Most of our stressors today are not real dangers. Robert Sapolsky has written a great book on it called ‘Why zebras don’t get ulcers’. You should read it.

Standing there waiting to be scooped up towards oblivion the summit, I was able to pull my frontal cortex into play, the part of my brain that had been bypassed; the part responsible for rational thought.

There must have been a moment when my brain decided I needed to be scared and yet I didn’t have the symptoms. The symptoms were caused by my reaction to the chemicals that my brain had caused to be released. My brain had decided I needed to be ready to act and that had caused me to be scared. (This encroaches on whether I am more than my brain – which is a whole different blog post).

Speculating on this got my pulse down to 80 and saw me arrive at the top of the Island.

Weirdly I don’t get the same reaction on the way down where the risks are exactly the same – go figure. Neuro is weird!

This art by @DrRabbitHeart sums up the process. Thanks for letting me use it!

Human remains as a tourist attraction?

I have just returned from a holiday in the South of Italy where we did the trip to Versuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum.  For those of you who are not aware, Mount Versuvius erupted in 79AD and destroyed four Roman settlements; Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae.  The first two have been excavated to some extent.

Pompeii was buried under 6m of ash killing many of the inhabitants before they could escape.  It attracts over 2.5 million visitors a year.


This is an area on the main forum in Pompeii.  the enclosures contain artefacts that have been found over the site.  Guess which two contain human remains?

Pompeii is rather unusual in that when they were originally excavating the site, Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist, found cavities within the ash.  He wondered if these were where the people had been and so developed a technique of pouring plaster into these cavities before they were excavated.  What this process produced was very detailed life like casts of the people who had perished at Pompeii.  These casts are displayed around the site.image4

Some of these casts are fairly rough like this cast of a person who clearly huddled into hiding spot hoping they would be safe. Some are much more detailed like the group that were found within a garden.  The story is that they were a family group trying to escape the city.  The first figure does have a bag of some sort and the group is clearly a mix of adults and children.  The detail captured in the face of the man is amazing.


I was prepared to believe that these were not human remains but were plaster casts of the spaces and then we came across this selection of the casts in a store within the city.

image2This is the cast of a four year old child.  you can see the roughness of the plaster that is the same as many of the other specimens.  Now look at the top of the child’s head.  That looks like very smooth bone.  When we got back to the UK I did a little research and found out that the 86 original plaster casts have been through a CT scanner.  The remains of that child are enclosed within the plaster; the smooth surface at the top is the actual cranium.  We did find multiple copies of the same casts around the city so it may well be that the originals containing human remains are not actually on display but these are the items that people come to see in Pompeii – why?  What is it that attracts us to human remains?

We moved from Pompeii to Herculaneum.  Herculaneum differs from Pompeii in that it was covered in pyroclastic material rather than ash and so much more of the city has been preserved including the original wooden beams.  The buildings were not destroyed under the weight of the ash resulting in many two storey buildings still being present.  Herculaneum suffered a pyroclastic surge which means that gases at a temperature of 250oC passed through the town at 100mph.  A little ash had fallen on the town in the first day of the eruption and it was thought that most people had evacuated the coastal town.  It is only in recent years (1981) that they have excavated down to the boat houses and discovered 55 skeletons with another 250 being discovered in the 1990’s.image1

The skeletons were found in the boat houses which are the arches at the bottom of this photo.  It is the highlight of the tour and people took multiple pictures.

Its difficult to know whether these are actual human remains or not.  You can find differing opinions, although the majority seem to think they may well be genuine.

I am troubled by this desire to see human remains.  Why do people flock to these sites?  It was clear from the crowd distribution at both sites that human remains are a big tourist attraction and there did not seem to be any qualms about photographing what were either the skeletons of people who were essentially vapourised or the cast of the final fearful moments of someone trying to escape a deadly ash cloud.

Did it add anything to the experience?  Did it allow people to connect to the human tragedy?  I would argue that it didn’t add anything that a model couldn’t have added but as one of my fellow tourists pointed out, that would have cost more than using the actual human remains.

I would have thought human remains couldn’t be equated to a financial equivalent, isn’t that what the Anatomy Act was all about?

Full disclosure – I am associated with the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh which, along with every other anatomical museum displays human remains.  Those that are not historical have consent.  I am the author of a book on William Burke whose human remains are on display and who people travel to see.  It was explicitly part of his sentence that his remains be on public display.  I have profited from that publication.  Those profits have been shared with the museum and the Oddballs charity (you will have to attend a talk, or read the book, to find out why.)
The irony of this post is not lost on me.


Technology. Does it help?

I have been at a few meetings recently where the use of technology has been discussed and I think it poses a few interesting questions.

Does technology help us?  Does it enhance our engagement and does it enhance our education system (I do not believe those are the same question.)

I have resisted the need to have a voice controlled device in my house.  I am perfectly able to walk across the room and turn the light switch on myself and I can pick my own play list – in fact last week I was listening to vinyl so even had to get up to turn it over.

I think you would have to be a dyed in the wool luddite to argue that technology hasn’t helped us in some ways – the off shoots, maybe not so much.

Has it helped with our engagement, and from my point of view, anatomy engagement?  I use the curioscope virtuali-tee to talk to people about their organs.  There is no denying that this is a magic bit of kit and this week it took a big step forwards.  Through some fancy technology, the t shirt can now show your actual heart beat!  You can put on the shirt and see your resting heart beat, run around the block and see the increase.  I can’t wait to show this to a class room of kids.  It blows their mind when they see the organs anyway, to see it actually responding to what they do is going to be great!

Does this technology help medical students learn?  You would think so wouldn’t you and yet there don’t seem to be too many studies looking in to the effect it has on grades – it’s a bit too early to tell and cash strapped Universities don’t want to invest heavily without any proof that it is beneficial to the students.

This week I got to try out a virtual reality anatomy teaching tool.

It was an unusual experience.  A group of 6 of us standing in a room wearing headsets looking at anatomical models that were not there.  You could push your face in towards the model and look at what was inside the chest.  You could look down through the layers of someones abdominal wall and see the layers of muscles.  Did it help me understand it any better than models and books – not sure.

The week before I saw a demo of another virtual reality set up from an Australian University.  They had one head set, and a corner of their room was cordoned off and had a crash mat on the floor.  In this set up you entered a virtual lab where shelves were full of models.  You could take a virtual model and place it on a virtual podium which then blew it up to massive proportions inside the virtual room.  Then you could walk inside!  This way you could end up standing inside someones skull looking at the blood vessels.  You could see how they all fitted together, you could understand the flow of the blood.  For something like neuro I could totally see that this would be a valuable learning tool but again, one headset, hard to produce any evidence it does effect grades.

Does technology always have to be computers?  I suppose it does now but I think there have also been advances with ancient technologies.

We have run several successful workshops on modelling facial muscles with wax.  Its not really a technology nowadays but I’m sure at some point, back in the day, it would have been thought of as ground breaking.

There has been some interesting developments in the UK using plasticine to model muscles in the throat.  Its not quite the wow factor of VR but its a lot cheaper to try out.  it would be an interesting little project to see which enhances learning more – the lump of clay or the VR head set?