Mack Williams column: ‘I have a brain’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 15, 2015

The title for this week’s column is meant neither as self-assurance to me, nor re-assurance for you. It is merely a quote from someone in my past, whose identity you will shortly learn.

The current traveling exhibit featured at the science museum where I work concerns the brain, perception and identity. In one section of the exhibit, there is a large model of the human brain on a scale of about 20-or-more to 1. It is made of a plastic, putty-esque substance, and when touching it (the curious school kids and I are kindred souls), it brought back the time I actually held a real human brain in my hands (nothing macabre, just college).

Having graduated from East Rowan in 1969, in that special “people-oriented” time of the 1960s, I desired to get into a humanity-helping profession by heading off to Appalachian to major in psychology. My mother’s penchant for helping others showed in her sales clerk job at Salisbury’s W.T. Grants, and reached fruition when she worked at the old Rowan Cooperative Christian Ministry store on West Fisher Street. In my wanting to help others, I guess I’m just a chip off the old “blockette.”

At Appalachian, we had some very interesting psychology professors, as follows:

Several days in 1971, Dr. Duke  mentioned “the horniness of the college sophomore.” I don’t remember whether he was referring to an actual study, or if he felt research should be done on that topic (but I do remember hearing it during my second year at Appalachian).

Dr. Fox had a “kit” consisting of books, study sheets and paper within a string-tied folder, all of this the key to passing his course if one only applied the necessary effort. He gave this package a personalized name representing an amalgamation of his surname with the word “kit.” If it had been me, I would have called it “Fox-kit”, but he chose to call it “Fok-it,” for reasons known only to him.

If the last two paragraphs have managed to escape the Post’s censors, the following one will be “number five,” but if not, it will be “number four.”

In addition to the regular textbook, Dr. Wesley always required the purchase of his most recently published paperback, and sometimes those not so recent.

In addition to being prolific as a “paperback writer” (of the psychology kind), Dr. Wesley was just as prodigious in his smoking.

I recall when he would begin class with the words: “no talking, doctor’s orders” written on the blackboard. On those days, Dr. Wesley “lectured” via chalk  (pre dry-erase “white board” days). This was the only time I’ve ever seen someone write almost as fast as they thought (and I mean “Allegro,” not “Andante!”)

The psychology professor for whom today’s column title is taken was Dr. Willard Brigner, my first psychology professor at Appalachian, in, appropriately enough, Psychology 101.

Dr. Brigner was a most intelligent man, being published in journals primarily devoted to perception and research of the brain.

He was known also for his calming, almost monotone voice. He was always interesting though, just being monotone, not monotonous. To hear him again, practice your most perfect monotone, in which Ben Stein’s “BUE…ller” would actually represent too much emotion.

Not being used to a classroom with over 100 students, it was in Dr. Brigners class that I had a panic attack (despite his calming monotone). It is said that the best place to suffer a heart attack is in the hospital, so I guess the best place for a panic attack is in psych class.

One day, Dr. Brigner said (very “monotonedly”), “I have a brain. It’s in my office, and those of you who wish may come by after class to see, and even touch it.” (Dr. Brigner brought another very impressive brain to class every day, his own!)

For we few, out of a class of 100 or so who summoned up the nerve, getting to see and hold a human brain was an experience never to be forgotten. I remember thinking that there in my hands was an instrument through which the world had once been uniquely filtered, as it is with each and every brain.

Dr. Brigner told us the preserving formaldehyde had stiffened up that brain’s consistency. When alive, and capable of thought and emotion, it would have practically slipped through my fingers, the living brain’s consistency being that of egg yolk.

“Egg yolk” — apparently the perfect medium for the conduction of literature, mathematics, science, music, art, philosophy, prayers and ordinary, everyday thought!

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