Digitizing the Human Body

Posted by on Jan 28, 2014 in Digital Projects | No Comments

Colour cryosections of Visible Male's head

The Visible Human Project (VHP) offers an interesting example to think though issues surrounding representation and digitization.

VHP project is sponsored by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, focused on:

  1. “[creating] complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies…in MRI, CT and anatomical modes”; and
  2. “…produc[ing] a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats such as the names of body parts.”

To this end, one male and one female cadaver were frozen then cut in the axial plane (perpendicular to the body) at 1mm and 0.33mm respectively. The resulting slices were were then photographed and and digitally tagged. After the individual slices were digitized, they were recombined (stacked) and re-scanned (using MRI, CT and X-Ray technology) to produce full 3D scans of two human bodies, each of which can be rotated a  360 degrees, dissected from head to toe, animated and manipulated, as required.    You an see an example of how the project has mobilized the digitized specimens in the video The Visible Human Project: Java Based Visualization and Anatomic Content Delivery.

Following Sperberg-McQueen (1991), I think that VHP begs the question: what constitutes an adequate representation of the human body?

This project, as Waldby (2004) suggests, imagines the human body as a data set that contains information that can stored, retrieved and manipulated according to the needs of a given research question or medical training procedure. Although VHP is deeply involved in the material realities of the human body (freezing and slicing cadavers, finding and naming anatomical parts), the project seems uninterested in the unique relationship that emerges between the physicality of body and the information it bears and shares. Rather, VHP seems to be focused on representing the body as a database that can be searched and studied as if it were merely a text. It seems that for VHP the human body is adequately represented in data and code.

VHP also seems to suggest that the human body can be adequately represented through two kinds of bodies: ” male” and “female”–colloquially named by project participants as “Adam” and “Eve”. The ‘markup’ (for lack of a better word) used to tag the VHP images reflects this binary construction: every element of the VHP database always specifies the cadaver’s sex. The female brain is always differentiated from the male brain, the male heart is differentiated from the female heart, etc. This representational choice serves to reify notions that human beings  have only two sexes and, concomitantly, that every body neatly fits into one of two possible genders. VHP, as a scientific tool and as a representational object, works to obscure every body that does not conform to this binary construction.

Additionally VHP suggests that adequate representations of the human body must be representations of ‘normal’ bodies. In invoking normalcy VHP treads on tricky terrain, as notions of the normal are always historically contingent and socially produced. Since VHP never specifies exactly what is meant by “normal” in the context of this project we are left to make our own assumptions: normal means non-diseased, normal means North American, normal means white, normal means middle class, etc. Moreover by presenting Adam and Eve as ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ specimens, even though both of these cadavers were damaged during the freezing process and Adam is missing a few crucial parts (have a look at the VHP Wikipedia page on the project for a catalog of the so-called “problems with the data sets.”) the digitization process works to gloss over the kinds of physical anomalies and differences that are indeed normal to all human bodies.  VPH obscures  the reality of all humanbodies in service of creating the human body.

If, as Sperberg-McQueen has suggested, markup reflects a theory of the text then the VHP’s “markup” of Adam and Eve reflects a specific, and arguably problematic, theory of the human body.

Works Cited

Sperberg-McQueen, C.M. “Text in the Electronic Age: Textual Study and Text Encoding, with Examples from Medieval Texts.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 6, no. 1 (1991): 34-46.

Waldby, C. (2004, March 9). The visible human project: Informatic bodies and posthuman medicine. Routledge.

Leave a Reply