Brain Teaser

Brain Teaser

Engraved Human Phrenology Skull : from the Wellcome Collection.

Found this picture on the Craniophiles Blog:

Below is a work in progress (that I can’t get to format on here!) Anyway, it’s based on a truth that I learned from the anatomy teachers at Newcastle Medical School Anatomy Labs….


A human skull lies on a plinth. On one side a manila envelope rests, on the other a hammer, 1.25kg of chickpeas and 1.6L of water. The words OPEN ME are written in thick, black ink on the envelope. Two students stand next to the plinth, unaware they are being recorded. The girl picks up the envelope and runs her finger along it.

“Alas, poor Yorick!” the boy says, picking up the skull.

“Put it down, you’ll break it,” the girl says as she studies the contents of the envelope.

Disarticulate the skull; the hammer is a prop.

“What’s with the chickpeas?” the boy asks as he tosses the skull into the air and catches it with his other hand.

Swiftly she takes the skull from the boy. It’s heavier than expected. She traces the suture lines with a finger following the fissures and notches, fossae and processes.

“Chickpeas expand in water don’t they?” he says, picking a stray bit of crisp from a molar.

“You’re right, they do,” she says turning the skull over to look at the gaping black hole of the foramen magnum, not giving away a thing until she’s sure.

“You’ve only got it,” a small smile flickers on her lips.

She holds the skull upside down and waits whilst he pours first the chickpeas then the water, before carefully resting it back on the plinth.

The boy picks up the hammer.

“Would’ve been a lot easier if we used this,” he says.

The girl rolls her eyes at him.

They stand and wait, her arms crossed. He pretends to play hacky sac but quickly tires and starts to whistle a tune she can’t name. Exasperated she sits on the floor and he fast follows. Soon they are chatting. About campus life and who’s with whom, all the latest gossip. They have more in common than they thought.

The clock ticks, hours pass and nothing happens. The boy gets up and studies the skull. He pokes it with a finger.

“Hey, don’t. We’ve just got to wait it out.”

He rocks back on his heels and exhales a long, frustrated breath.

“God this is boring,” he says. “Look at this.”

The boy promptly lifts up his arms and throws himself into a handstand, all the blood draining to his head. With eyes bulging he smiles and sticks out his tongue. She shakes her head.

“You’re an idiot,” she says, trying not to laugh.

His body remains inverted for a few minutes but then he begins to wobble, starting to tip towards the plinth on which the skull rests, brim full of chickpeas.

“No,” she screams and leaps up, pushing his legs away. He collapses into a heap, narrowly missing the skull. “It’s like you want to fail.”

She sits down arms crossed once more. He waits it out, walks around the lab and pretends to look at body parts suspended in formaldehyde, foetuses arrested in development. When he judges she has cooled off he sits behind her. They rest back to back. The boy whistles quietly at first and then slowly builds to a virtuoso crescendo until she groans and he abruptly stops. As the daylight fades, their eyelids grow heavy. Soon they sleep, tired heads lolling.

Chickpeas swell and sutures part.

At dawn they wake as sunlight filters through the glass roof on to where they lie, cradled in each other’s arms. Faces flushed they jump apart before they even think to look at the skull.

Blinking in the sunlight they try to avoid each other’s eye. He mumbles something she doesn’t catch before they finally approach the plinth. Taking care not to disturb anything they move as if it were a crime scene. They see the skull disarticulated into perfect bone islands, on a sea of swollen chickpeas that look like tiny human brains.

When they realise what they have done they turn towards each other and hug, her laughter surfacing like air long trapped in water before he silences it with a kiss.






Words: copyright Eliot North (2013) – latest edit 2016


The Anatomist’s Hat

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt van Rijn 1632

The Anatomist’s Hat

after Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’

It is a cold January in Amsterdam, 1632. Seven bearded surgeons stand in the weigh-house at Nieuwmarkt. They gaze at the body of Adriaen het Kint who lies on a wooden slab in front of them. Physician Tulp, marked out by his wide-brimmed black hat, demonstrates to those assembled.

The Anatomist’s voice, low and sombre, forces the surgeons to crane their white-ruffed necks. My easel is set on the left and towards the dead man’s feet. Dr Tulp moves his scalpel like an extended finger as he parts the man’s skin, subcutaneous fat and fascia, to reveal the muscles and tendons beneath.

Rotting flesh pollutes the air. I breathe in through my mouth and exhale a rolling mist. The composition is set, body centre stage; waxen skin, smalt-blue lips and blood clotted like rust.  Forceps held in his right hand, Dr Tulp proceeds to talk in tongues: pronator teres, palmaris longus, flexor carpi radialis and ulnaris. The words fall from his lips like pearls scattered amongst swine.

Winter sun fades and candles gutter. The criminal’s arm appears to beckon. I feel my own hand tighten in response. The work progresses assuredly. Paint applied to canvas layer on layer as the man’s body is stripped back just as carefully, before being dumped in the drink.

Copyright 2013 Eliot North


I love Rembrandt, I love anatomy.

Anyone visiting Amsterdam should definitely check out Rembrandt’s House. He was a hoarder of cool things and it is a real gem of a museum. Probably my favourite museum in Amsterdam.

I wish I’d seen Body Worlds whilst it was touring and came to London….. one day!