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Come Climb a Jungle Gym of the Mind

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The 18 ft. Neural Climb is a main attraction at Your Brain. Visitors will “fire” neurons, signaled by bursts of white lights, and hear actual recordings of neurons firing as they step, climb and jump through the elaborate web structure that provides a new perspective on the dynamic connections happening inside your brain every second.

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.

  • Neural Climb: The central iconic experience of the exhibit, this 18-foot-tall climbing structure with interactive sound and lighting effects was designed to create an immersive, emotional connection to the dynamic activity of the brain.
  • Fire a Model Neuron: Using a sequence of lights as the “action potential” and ping pong ball “neurotransmitters,” we developed this large-scale model to demonstrate the fundamental mechanism of brain signaling.
  • Imaging Technologies Wall: This large digital collage shows techniques used in current research to study the brain, while the aesthetic beauty of the images creates a work of art and inspired the visual design of the exhibition.
  • Turn Your World Upside Down: We use this compelling illusion, a tumbling room that makes you feel like you are upside down, to show how fun brain tricks actually give insight into how your brain prioritizes sensory information.
  • Pay Attention: Using eye tracking technology to follow your gaze as you watch a video, we are able to demonstrate how your brain is wired to notice particular environmental cues.
  • Ethics Discussion Tables: These interactive, media-facilitated tables allow visitors to explore how their values affect the applications of emerging research like memory modification or cognitive enhancement. As an experiment in connecting science to societal impact, we plan to conduct in-depth evaluation to see how visitors engage with these issues.

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 Neurons gallery takes design inspiration from brain imaging as it demonstrates fundamental concepts of cellular structure and function in the brain, including the aesthetic beauty of the Imaging Technologies Wall illustrating many of the techniques used in current research to study the brain.

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.

Jayatri Das About the Author: Jayatri Das is Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute, one of the oldest not-for-profit centers of science education and development in the country. She is the lead developer of Your Brain, and is currently working on new exhibits about the human brain and sports. She is also involved in national programs to help communicate advances in nanotechnology and materials science to audiences in science centers across the country.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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