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Brainstem Cross Sections

The brainstem, the gateway between the body and the brain, contains a bundle of functional pathways that move in three dimensions through its three parts: the medulla, pons, and midbrain. Learning to “localize the lesion” in the brainstem involves mapping neurological symptoms onto this tangled network carrying incoming sensory fibers and outgoing motor fibers. In preparation for our neuroanatomy exam, I poured over cross sections of the nervous system, following each functional pathway until I could recognize the soft gradations of color and texture.

This tripartite piece shows the medulla, pons, and midbrain as squish paintings. The squish painting technique involves loading paint onto one side of the canvas and squishing the canvas in half so that the paint spreads symmetrically. Factors like the three-dimensional application of paint, squishing pressure, and paint viscosity all combine to make the paint spread near impossible to control. The chance element of this technique recapitulates the seemingly spontaneous layout of pathways running through the brainstem. The color was inspired by myelin stain commonly used for easy visualization of anatomical landmarks in brainstem cross sections.