Thursday, August 26, 2010

Body Worlds

Yesterday, Stefan and I went to see the "Body Worlds" exhibition, which is currently in Offenbach, close to Frankfurt, Germany. Body Worlds is a traveling exhibition that displays human bodies and body parts that have been preserved using a technique called plastination. Basically, it works by removing all bodily fluids and fat from the tissue by washing it out with acetone, and then replacing these fluids with silicone. That is to say, the exhibits are not anatomic models but actually real. The method of plastination used for these purposes was invented by Gunther von Hagens, then at the University of Heidelberg. His work there likely was inspiration for the horror movie "Anatomy," starring Franka Potente, which still causes me the occasional nightmare.

The exhibition itself was absolutely non-nightmarish. It had in fact a high educational value, and at least for me no yuck-factor. Besides that, it also had a missionary theme, that of documenting and explaining the process of aging and not only the complexity but also the fragility of the body. Besides many whole-body exhibits in fancy positions - dancing, playing saxophone, jumping over fences, during intercourse (must be 16 or older to see that) - they had all organs separately, some showing various illnesses and diseases (fatty liver, cancerous uterus, smoker's lung), as well as artificial joints. Some of the organs were cut into small slices or into half, so you could see inside. It is quite amazing really, to see all the muscles, bands, and nerves. Most stunning I found the capillary system that leaves behind the shape of the body after plastination (see picture to the left, more here).

It is not allowed to take photos of the exhibits. The ones you see here are from this and that url and there's some more on the website Alternatively, do a Google image search for Body Worlds and get a nice selection.

What I found somewhat annoying about the exhibition is that in all of the full body exhibits there were necessarily parts missing for better visibility (or possibly because they were just missing? Who knows what these people died from.) To begin with, most of the skin had been removed, but sometimes one or the other muscle, or this or that band. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to find a detailed explanation of what parts had been removed, so I was sometimes left wondering if there shouldn't be another muscle on that leg or another part on that spine or so. Also, I could have done without the photos of happy 100 year old men water skiing, proclaiming that happiness is the key to a long life. On the other hand I learned one or the other thing. For example, I wasn't aware the liver lies to closely below the diaphragm. And did you know that your testicles are doomed to shrink after you've passed your mid 40s? Or, more amusingly, that two centuries ago it was believed sperm is produced in the brain. Because, you see, that's were the soul is located and how could it be produced elsewhere. (Of course today we're more enlightened and know that the male soul sits in the testicles ;-).)

The bodies that are being used for plastination stem from people who donated them during their lifetime by signing the necessary forms. You can indeed donate your own body if you want to be conserved for educational means. Presently, there's more than 10,000 people who have signed up, and I suspect that most of them will not be used for exhibitions but rather for anatomy courses. On the other hand you might become famous post-mortem on Lady Gaga's stage. Apparently, the Lady has expressed interest in a decoration consisting of human bodies. In the exhibition guide, there's a selection of donors summarizing their motivations, which ranges from a love for science over some sort of immortality to admiration of von Hagens' work. The anonymity of the endproduct's origin I guess sorts out most narcissistic motivations. As to me, I'm signed up for organ donation, in various countries, and prefer to maximize my educational value during my lifetime.


  1. I've always wanted to see this exhibit - hopefully it comes (back) to my neck of the woods soon.

  2. (Of course today we're more enlightened and know that the male soul sits in the testicles)

    Women create babies, men create civilizations and their contents as a like from of immortality. As every mitochondrian in both sexes is maternal, I'd say women have an edge here short of in vitro work.

    "When the little head wakes up the big head falls sleep," but you already know that.

  3. Hey Bee,

    Lately some of my singularitarian friends have been talking about the possibility of post-mortem brain preservation through plastination -- for eventual "upload," as an alternative to cryonic suspension. Lots of technical challenges, and it's a huge long shot of course, but interesting.


  4. Oh that Gaga! Of course, she just has to be the most cutting edge (maybe literally someday) and avant garde. I say, "Lady, Lady Gaga - queen of the weird frontier ..." You folks really must see "Bad Romance" if you haven't before. The video has been seen by around 250M people.

    Garrett: there were two big argument threads at Pharyngula teasing the Singularity and wondering if a person's mind could really be downloaded somewhere else. It was ironic, many of them thought that moving your mind around "like a sort of fluid" was actually dualism! I told them, if whatever makes you what you are happened somewhere else then why wouldn't it be you, as much as yourself in the future in the same body.

    I'm not sure it works like that, just a matter of consistency. But they did bring up all those philosophers' "duplication" wrangles, such as: if they make a copy and the original is still around, the original will continue life as itself and won't get the "live on" as the double, but if the original is destroyed then wouldn't that be the same as continuing? Personal identity is a profound mystery, IMHO a "harder" problem than the experiential nature of consciousness.

    PS I propose we call this plasticization process being "inturged", since that's my Captcha. And Al, women help create civilization too and keep it civilized.

  5. Hi Alyssa,

    Hope you get a chance to see it. It seems there's upcoming exhibitions in Vancouver and Calgary (see website), maybe they'll move Eastward then? Best,


  6. Hi Uncle,

    Last thing I heard it takes two to create a baby. Best,


  7. Hi Garrett,

    Wasted money if you ask me. It's not the hardware that you need to preserve, it's the software running on it. Best,


  8. Hi Bee,

    Interesting post about an exhibit I wouldn’t mind seeing myself. There was a showing in Toronto some time back yet I missed it. However there currently is some objection to a similar exhibit being shown in Winnipeg were I learned there is some controversy surrounding the source of the cadavers which are by by some reports from China and the allegation made being many were those of condemned prisoners who it’s not known if their consent was given. It all focuses around a much larger issue of China’s involvement in the organ for transplant business. However this issue withstanding I think such exhibits are educational and useful in the more general sense.



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  10. Body worlds, body minds.

    Doesn't the collapse of the wavefunction prevent any true reproduction of anything other than a single particle?

    Btw, that was a very nice take on the problem Bee re downloading the software over the hardware.

  11. Again, Bee: I wish and hope the best for you with your health concerns. I hope your body world stays fit.



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