Why I Captured This MRI of a Mother and Child

A venerable symbol of human love, as you've never seen it before

Scientists reconfigured a magnetic resonance scanner to capture a woman and her baby. (Rebecca Saxe and Atsushi Takahashi / Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT / Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT)
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A mother and her child are curled up together inside the tube of a 3 Tesla magnetic resonance imaging scanner in April 2015. The scanner bangs and beeps, shudders and screeches. The baby is finally sleeping, pressed firmly against his mother’s chest, and so is still enough for the MRI to see inside his head. A single MR image, like this one, takes several minutes to capture. Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen. The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.

While they lie there, the scanner builds up a picture of what’s inside their skulls. Often MR images are made for physicians, to find a tumor or a blocked blood vessel. Scientists also make the images, to study brain function and development. In my lab, at MIT, we use MRI to watch blood flow through the brains of children; we read them stories and observe how their brain activity changes in reaction to the plot. By doing so, we’re investigating how children think about other people’s thoughts.

This particular MR image, though, was not made for diagnostic purposes, nor even really for science. No one, to my knowledge, had ever made an MR image of a mother and child. We made this one because we wanted to see it.

To some people, this image was a disturbing reminder of the fragility of human beings. Others were drawn to the way that the two figures, with their clothes and hair and faces invisible, became universal, and could be any human mother and child, at any time or place in history. Still others were simply captivated by how the baby’s brain is different from his mother’s; it’s smaller, smoother and darker—literally, because there’s less white matter.

Here is a depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?

As for me, I saw a very old image made new. The Mother and Child is a powerful symbol of love and innocence, beauty and fertility. Although these maternal values, and the women who embody them, may be venerated, they are usually viewed in opposition to other values: inquiry and intellect, progress and power. But I am a neuroscientist, and I worked to create this image; and I am also the mother in it, curled up inside the tube with my infant son.

About Rebecca Saxe

Rebecca Saxe is a neuroscientist at the Saxelab at MIT. Her works focuses on Theory of Mind, the way that people think about other people’s thoughts.

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