George Page, the on-screen host for the new PBS program "The Brain," promises at the outset that despite everything this eight-part series tells us about brains, when it's over "the magic, the wonder will still be there." It sounds almost like a subtle sop to "creationists" and their abhorrence of science. In fact, though, it's likely that after eight weeks of this program, the magic and the wonder inspired by its subject will be multiplied, not diminished.
"The Brain" is life itself, all we are and all we have failed to be.
The series begins, at 8 tonight on Channel 26 and the Maryland public TV stations, with an introductory chapter called "The Enlightened Machine" that is slightly messy in structure but tantalizing in glimpsing avenues to be explored on future programs. "Brain" will illustrate and summarize "what we know, and don't know" about that three pounds of gray matter we carry around in our heads -- an organ that has enabled us to develop more understanding about almost everything else in heaven and earth than about itself.
Produced by New York's WNEW-TV in conjunction with various collaborative organizations, and funded by a mishmash of public and private outfits, "The Brain" looks at its subject with both scientific realism and justifiable awe. The production, supervised by Jack Sameth, treads an artfully carved path between gimmicky hyperactivity and dry scholarship. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine not being fascinated by every minute of it.
One might expect the opener to be a "How Your Brain Works" primer. And perhaps it should have been. But the producers wanted to plunge right into practical applications, to put forward case studies that would personalize the subject and keep the treatment from being too clinical. This was the philosophy behind the CBS "Body Human" pop-biology specials, but there, each vignette ended with the equivalent of: "Another glorious victory for modern medical science!"
The cases recounted on the first of the "Brain" programs are not so tidy. The first involves a 10-year-old boy named Jason with rare primary epilepsy. His seizures are not particularly violent, but extremely disruptive to him -- like an electrical storm in his brain, we are told -- and at one time he was having 60 a day. Treatment reduces that number to eight, but Page notes that a "perfect cure . . . has not yet been found." Jason is videotaped while having a seizure and later calmly watches that tape played back for him as researchers look for answers.
Another report focuses on 3,000 blood-related Venezuelans who have an unusually high risk of contracting Huntington's Disease, a debilitating brain disorder. Research attempts to locate the "genetic marker" that has made members of this family so susceptible. And, in footage adapted from a BBC documentary, the case history of a girl named Sharon is recounted. Born hydrocephalic to parents who worried she would be "a cabbage" when full grown, Sharon was successfully treated and went on to be a better-than-average student in school.
Finally and most memorably comes Agnes de Mille, the brilliant and outspoken choreographer, who in 1975 suffered a brain hemorrhage that at first completely paralyzed her, later left her paralyzed on one half of her body. She talks with her usual lucid candor about the experience now. "There was no pain, no sensation," she says of her stroke. "You expect, when your life alters, a thunderclap, or something drastic. Nothing. This is deadly. This is really deadly."
De Mille's doctor is helping her down a hallway, as she regains the use of her right arm again, and telling her that the only thing she has to fear is fear itself, and de Mille says to him, "Well, I've got plenty of that," fearless though she appears. Many years ago the long-suffering hypochondriac Oscar Levant was told that an illness was "all in his mind." Levant, panicked, replied, "What a horrible place for it to be."
Included among the vignettes is a short history of the neurosciences, going back to the days when they were neither very scientific nor very neuro. Phrenology, after all, was once the rage, and people thought they could define personalities and behavior patterns on the basis of bumps on the noggin. Near the beginning of the program, a race-car driver analogy neatly and graphically illustrates which parts of the brain do what.
John Heminway produced, wrote and directed the program. It is an intelligent and absorbing preface. Future installments will deal with centers of violence, aggression and sex in the brain; with depression and other emotional disorders; with the differences between male and female brains; and with new frontiers in neurological science. In the "Vision and Movement" episode, Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis will be recruited to demonstrate the ways the brain coordinates what the body does.
A television program called "The Brain" invites cheap derision about the brainlessness of most television. But the existence of programs like this belies that kind of cavalier snobbery. It will be interesting to see, though, if the program will pinpoint which part of the brain it is that responds to and is engaged by television.
As the program begins, the viewer floats through a murky, otherworldly labyrinth that turns out to be human brain tissue magnified 10,000 times. As the camera tours this ethereal terrain, Page's voice says, "In this landscape, all things are possible: love, charity, hate, hope, fear, Beethoven's Fifth, Apollo XIV, the wheel, mass murder, 'Hamlet,' the hula hoop, the Pyramids." Here is a program that approaches a subject of the greatest possible human concern and proves itself up to the challenge. God bless "The Brain."