“Intelligent Nightlife” and the Time Traveling Brain

Brandon Barrera
March 15, 2018
Image: Caveat

The night promises to unfurl a bit of mystery. A cryptic figure tells us there has been a crime–sort of. We will come to learn that there is, indeed, a victim but the crime is not one in the traditional sense. The crime scene is the brain and episodic memory-loss the perpetrator. We’re told that with a little sleuthing, we can get closer to the truth.

This dramatic performance is the Mark Kennedy-McClellan directed “The Talks Progress Administration: The Time Traveling Brain,” a staged talk brought to life at Caveat in New York City on Tuesday. One of many events showcased during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), the piece feels similar to a long form TED talk, mixed-in with interactive storytelling. Our narrator frequently steps off-stage and into her “lab” (see: audience) to ask questions about breakfast, to squirrel away treats among audience members, and even hand out glowsticks. All done in the name of science, to be sure, and it’s effective in creating fun, illuminating narration.

Our scotch-sipping gumshoe for this Clue™-infused caper is Paula Croxson, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is the recent recipient of The Science Educator Award granted by the Society for Neuroscience and sponsored by the Dana Foundation. Recognized for her excellence as a science communicator, she frequently employs the art of storytelling to educate the public about neuroscience and is a producer for The Story Collider, a science-focused storytelling show and podcast.

Croxson introduces us to the case of Clive Wearing—one of the most extreme recorded cases of amnesia. In a brief clip, we witness how having less than 30 seconds of memory affects Wearing’s daily interactions, including his relationship with his wife, Deborah. In a constant loop of “waking consciousness,” he frequently greets loved ones with unbridled enthusiasm mid-conversation.

“He can’t have relationships,” said Croxson. “His children don’t know how to interact with him. This man truly is a victim of memory loss.” A viral encephalopathic illness caused widespread damage to his brain, resulting in a memory that only lasts for precious scant seconds. Remarkably, he retained his ability to conduct and perform music.

Croxson also touches upon the case of Henry Molaison, or HM, as he is frequently referred to in the neuroscience community. HM’s median temporal lobes were surgically removed to alleviate epileptic seizures. In the process, areas of the cortex were severely damaged—the entorhinal cortex and perirhinal cortex. After the procedure, the seizures ceased but with them also seemed to end the creation of new episodic memories, affecting his ability to remember the past and plan for the future.

This hybrid of academic presentation and theater performance is the result of a collaboration between The Story Collider and Caveat. The project goes by the name of The Talks Progress Administration (TPA), and the group endeavors to pair academic lecturers with theater directors. “We are really bringing out the stagecraft of what it means to talk about science and other academic topics here on stage,” said Ben Lillie, co-founder of TPA and The Story Collider, a physicist himself.

The show takes some turns, and where you end up might not be where you expected. But sometimes it’s about the journey—and the knowledge gleaned from the voyage. In the case of the “Time Traveling Brain,” the ride is a thought-provoking and entertaining romp through the landscape of neuroscience.