The Brain

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Nicole Ferrin

Published on March 29, 2011 , Modified on June 10, 2011

  • Description:

    Brain: The Inside Story attempts to take the visitor on an in-depth tour by examining five themes: Your Sensing Brain, Your Emotional Brain, Your Thinking Brain, Your Changing Brain and Your 21st Century Brain. Through the use of objects, models, games, interactive components, videos, and other more hands-on components, visitors are invited to explore how the brain has evolved and how it works.

    Entering through a life-size art installation that simulates the life-size neuron networks of the human brain, I was prepared to be blown away by the rest of the exhibit. Despite the large amount of material, research, design and time that obviously went into this exhibit, overall I felt the interactive elements fizzled.

    Overall Pros:
    During my exploration of The Brain exhibit, there were definite times when I was forced to stop, think and discuss the different functions of our brain, using the same organ I was learning about to do the learning!

    Designed to allow the visitor to process what is most significant to them, the different components are structured to allow varied levels of engagement.

    Overall Cons:
    However, inevitably in an exhibit as large as The Brain, some interactive components are bound to be weak, both relative to others in the same exhibition and stand-alone on their own.

    As time is limited in the exhibit, it seemed hard to be able to fully interact with the many different components, so it might make sense to pick and choose what interests you during your visit!

    A brief description of the 5 sections and selected interactive components:

    1. Your Sensing Brain

    Thread Installation Component:
    One of the first interactive elements of the exhibit was a wonderful art installation by Devorah Sperber. At first glance, there seemed to be a random display of colored spools of thread covering the wall. Using a spherical lens to gaze at the display, the spools actually created an inverted image of the Mona Lisa.

    Connecting easily to the “main idea” of the exhibit, the visitor learns that vision involves more than just eyesight; that seeing actually incorporates various parts of the brain and draws upon our previous knowledge to interpret and understand what is seen.

    “Stop & Listen: What do you hear?” Interactive Component:
    During this successful interactive, the visitor walks up to a large image of a woman holding an umbrella and the large printed instructions read: “STOP & LISTEN: What do you hear?” Stepping into the covered area, I believed I heard the sound of rain drops. Intuitively following the directions on the next panel, I peered into a small window with instructions that directed “LOOK INSIDE: Now what do you hear?” Quickly I realized I had not heard the sound of rain drops, but rather the sound of bacon sizzling!

    Again, easily connecting to the main idea of the exhibit regarding how all the complex ways the brain functions this interactive component makes the point that human senses are interconnected. Thus the picture of the woman in the rain tricked my brain into thinking it was hearing the sound of rain drops.

    In all aspects of the exhibit there is MUCH printed text, so the visitor is always welcome to read for further information. Reading the printed explanations for further information, I learned that due to the fact that the brain builds a unified perception from packets of incomplete information, it can be easily deceived!

    2. Your Emotional Brain
    Overview: In this section, the exhibition examines the importance and evolutionary roots of emotions. Humans have an especially large prefrontal cortex, which provides the ability to think about our emotions before we act. Overall, I found this section to be quite text heavy and dull.

    Build A Brain Interactive:
    There was a hands-on interactive component that required the visitor to fit brain pieces together like a 3D puzzle, but I found it somewhat “minds-off” as I didn’t retain any information on what the actual components the puzzle represented.

    3. Your Thinking Brain
    Overview: Designed to show how the cortex has evolved in humans to produce more complicated thoughts than other mammals, this part of the exhibition explores the executive function of the brain, which are related to the way we think (language, memory and reasoning). Here my visit seemed to slope slightly downhill after my initial ascent. The “Say the Word” component, which was seemingly created to help the visitor explore the language learning part of the brain severely fizzled.

    Language Section Interactive:
    A computer and microphone were set up to record the visitor’s ability to say phrases in different languages. The monitor then displayed a graph of how well the recorded voice matched a native speaking the same phrase. Placed in a large area of the exhibit and the recorder often had trouble picking up my voice in the midst of all the other voices within the exhibit. Furthermore, while it was fun to attempt to say the foreign phrases, the computer wasn’t the most intuitive to use. Presumably it was designed for children, so it didn’t take too long to figure it out but I feel it could have been clearer.

    Unfortunately, after using the element, which didn’t have a clear end point, I didn’t really have any sense of what it was trying to connect to with regards to the main idea of the exhibit. Even after reading the rather lengthy description above the computer, I was unable to find a useful explanation or see the full connection between the concept and the activity and it definitely didn’t seem to support deeper inquiry like the “Stop & Listen” component earlier.

    4. Your Changing Brain
    Overview: This section focuses on the fact that no two brains are exactly the same, despite the fact that all human brains share the same structure. It explains how the activities each person does, such as drive, ride a bike, play a musical instrument change our brains by making neural connections and how those connections are strengthened by repeating those actions.

    Long-Term Memory Section Interactive:
    My least favorite interactive came near the end. Designed to demonstrate how long term memory worked, this interactive element had a London map displayed on a low table with cards that provided directions from one specific location to another sitting beside it. The children in line after me were between 9 and 10, so I believe the interactive was geared to a younger audience. Regardless of age, this was just a boring component with no noticeable benefit. Not only was it not intuitive, I kept looking around for directions or some sort of indicator that I was doing the activity correctly, it lacked a cohesive purpose and no new knowledge was gained.

    From what I gathered, the visitor was supposed to choose a direction card, find the starting point on the map and trace the directions written on the card with their finger on the map. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to connect this component to how long term memory functioned within the brain (the cards didn’t even say to repeat without the card which would have at least made a connection to short term memory)! No resets were built into this component and it seemed to be a definite dud and empty interaction.

    5. Your 21st Century Brain
    Overview: This part of the exhibition discusses the way technologies impact the medical field in terms of how they diagnose and treat disease, and how technology presents challenging questions today.

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