NY Museum Turns the Brain Inside-Out

by Carl Sherman

November 19, 2010

In the beginning is the brain.

The first object visitors will encounter in Brain: the Inside Story, at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, is the thing itself:  pale and plasticized, the size of a cauliflower.

 A bit farther on, there’s the life-size image of young dancer auditioning for the Juilliard School. As she plans her routine, gets nervous, dances, and commits the experience to long-term memory,   a clear resin 3-D brain beside her lights up, prefrontal cortex, sensory and motor cortices, amygdala, and hippocampus enacting their own choreography.    

  The exhibition ends in a series of enlarged fMRI videos showing highly trained brains—a professional basketball player’s, a world famous cellist’s, and a U.N. translator’s—at work.

In between is a grand tour and celebration of what lead curator Rob DeSalle of the museum calls “our 21st century brain,” snaking its way through a multimedia wonderland of neurons, neurotransmitters, brain regions, and the circuitry that connects them. Explanatory displays and dynamic models present concepts and facts, which visitors can then experience through interactive videos, artworks, and brain games.

For example: a display that traces the brain’s evolution (complete with sea slug,  iguana,  and raccoon from the museum’s vast collection of mounted specimens) ends with a hands-on opportunity to build a model of  the human brain  from the brainstem up, adding modules in a sequence that recapitulates phylogeny.  

After learning how the prefrontal cortex integrates planning and problem solving, the visitor can put these faculties to work on a familiar puzzle that involves moving a stack of rings from one spindle to another.

“I hope that this exhibition changes the way people think about themselves,” says Joy Hirsch, one of the principal neuroscience consultants for the project. “That by the time they leave they can imagine who they are, what they are, how they feel as a byproduct of the neurophysiology of the brain.”  

Hirsch, who is director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Neuroscience at Columbia University and a former Dana grantee, worked with AMNH staff in developing the concept of the exhibition, as well as filling in specifics. The fMRI images come from her lab (www.fmri.org).

Other exhibits of particular interest include installations that enlist the power of art to illuminate the brain. “I think art has a way of evoking a strong emotional response,” says New York artist Devorah Sperber. “When you have the jolt of seeing something you had not anticipated, it makes you more curious.”

Her piece involves hundreds of spools of thread, arrayed in rows and columns to form vague, abstract smudges of color. When viewed through a spherical lens that rotates and condenses the image, however, a familiar figure appears:  the Mona Lisa. The installation and accompanying text lead the viewer to appreciate first-hand how the brain draws meaning from raw material gathered by the senses. 

“In fact, there’s not enough visual data there to form the Mona Lisa’s face,” Sperber says. “I’m trying to accentuate how the brain is processing and creating reality, rather than just experiencing it.”     

AMNH Kiki and Booba - Spotlight
In an intriguing cross language and cross-culture experiment, 98 percent of people around the world agree on which of these odd-looking shapes should be called Kiki and which should be called Booba, reflecting a general tendency to link sights, sounds, and other sensations. 
Alongside the fine art is state-of-the art neural technology: examples, explanations, and videos of deep brain stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, brain-computer interfaces, and retinal implants. A giant neuron shows the interplay of inputs from multiple synapses, and a sculpture of the subcortical brain, 35 times life size, joins various exhibits with lighted wires to demonstrate how brain regions work together for language, decision-making, and other functions.

Connectivity, in fact, is an underlying theme of the show, as of current neuroscience research, Hirsch says. “I’d like it to convey that behavior is much more complex than can emerge from activity in a single area of the brain,  that understanding the brain, in part, means understanding connections between brain areas and how they share information and modulate each other.”

The ultimate insight Hirsch hopes visitors will find in this information-packed extravaganza is “how little we know,” she says. Her cutting-edge fMRI images may provide a rousing finale for Brain: the Inside Story, but they make her think of unwritten chapters. “Why can’t we do it better? Why do I have to look at these blobs in the brain and make inferences about what’s going on?

“Yes, five years ago I couldn’t even have imagined them,” she adds. “But now that I can do this, I want to know more. And I would hope people will walk away from this exhibit with similar sensitivity: Let’s do it better. Let’s answer these questions in a more profound, significant way.”

Brain: the Inside Story will be on view at the American Museum of Natural History from Nov. 20, 2010, to Aug. 14, 2011. Public programs related to the exhibition will include lectures, workshops, and other events for children and adults on subjects including sleep, meditation, neuroeconomics, bird brains, dog brains, taste, and creativity. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is providing support for some events.