Your brain is always changing. That’s the message of Your Brain, a new exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Covering topics ranging from basic neuroscience to cognitive psychology, Your Brain creates fun, hands-on experiences to look inside your own head. In this exhibition, this approach of personal discovery serves as a gateway to core scientific concepts and emerging research.
The intense personal relevance of the brain has, throughout history, placed it in the focus of both scientific research and popular culture. Today those dual lenses are stronger than ever, with major international research initiatives advancing in parallel with Hollywood blockbusters playing on the brain as a rich source of mystery and curiosity. Yet there are surprisingly few opportunities where these parallel worlds of science and culture actually intersect for the public. Your Brain aims to bridge this gap.
Early in the exhibition development process, we found that interest in the brain was uniformly high among children, adults, and educators–driven both by its inherent personal relevance as well as awareness from mass media and popular culture, as expected. We also found that understanding of brain science was also consistent across all groups–but at the level of a middle school student. In retrospect, this is probably not surprising. Many major research advances have occurred since most adults finished their formal education, and hardly any topics in brain science are explicitly addressed in current K-12 science education standards.
Given this combination of rapidly advancing research, high public interest, but relatively low public understanding, an exhibition about the human brain is, well, a no-brainer. Your Brain immerses you in learning about the brain, creating environments that take you from the complex web of a neural network, through the incongruities of sensory illusions, to the every day situations where you take your brain for granted. You learn how your brain is constantly signaling, changing, and carrying out every function that creates your unique world. For example, watch the following video, which illustrates the relationship between sight and sound:
Watch the video on the left, then the video on the right. How does the sound change? Actually, the sound (“bat”) is the same, but the video on the left shows the mouth movements of a different sound. Even listening to speech, when your eyes and ears send conflicting information to your brain, your eyes win.
In designing experiences for the exhibition, we considered the challenges of developing a long-term installation about a rapidly evolving area of science. The exhibition includes several explicit models of well-accepted neural mechanisms. There are opportunities to observe real specimens or scientific data that can change throughout the lifetime of the exhibition. Most devices, however, are based on phenomena where the effects are timeless but explanations can be updated as we gain new understanding of the brain.
As I watch visitors play and learn in the exhibition, I am struck by how each person creates a unique experience in a shared space. Mirroring how the brain develops, the path you follow and the meaning you make are shaped by your past experience and your individual perception. For young children, simply realizing the existence of the brain is a revelation. Older children and adults enjoy comparing their reactions to discover their commonalities and differences. Seasoned scientists find new energy in seeing their work presented and celebrated beyond the boundaries of academia.
The multilayered, interdisciplinary nature of brain science offers an ideal framework for each of us to discover how we interact with our world. Whether your interest comes from the movies or your research lab, whether your passion lies in art or engineering, whether you are six or sixty-six, we invite you to visit Your Brain to create your own connections. As you think about how you think, you will change your mind.
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