Getting Ahead

L t was two nights before my anatomy final and I was in the lab at around two in the morning, memorizing the cranial nerves. There are twelve cranial nerves, each branching to take bizarre twists and turns through the inside of the skull. To study them, we bisected the skull from forehead to chin and sawed open some of the bones of the cheek. So there I was, holding half of the head in each hand, tracing the twisted paths that the nerves take from our brains to the different muscles and sense organs inside.

I was enraptured by two of the cranial nerves, the trigeminal and the facial. Their complicated pattern boiled down to something so simple, so outrageously easy that I saw the human head in a new way. That insight came from understanding the far simpler state of affairs in sharks. The elegance of my realization—though not its novelty; comparative anatomists had had it a century or more ago—and the pressure of the upcoming exam led me to forget where I was. At some point, I looked around. It was the middle of the night and I was alone in the lab. I also happened to be surrounded by the bodies of twenty-five human beings under sheets. For the first and last time, I got the willies. I worked myself into such a lather that the hairs on the back of my neck rose, my feet did their job, and within a nanosecond I found myself at the bus stop, out of breath. It goes without saying that I felt ridiculous. I remember telling myself: Shubin, you've become hard-core. That thought did not last long; I soon discovered I had locked my house keys in the lab.

What made me so hard-core is that head anatomy is deeply mesmerizing, in fact, beautiful. One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence. This chapter is about seeing that essence inside our own heads. And, of course, the heads of fish.

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