FPR Review of “Brain: The Inside Story” at NYC Natural History Museum

NYC-based science writer Karen A. Frenkel reviews “Brain: The Inside Story”  for the FPR.

Only 0.001 percent of all living, named species have brains and the potential for consciousness, says Rob DeSalle, co-curator of The American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, Brain: The Inside Story. Put another way, he says homo sapiens is the only species – 0.00001 percent of all species – that is conscious. The exhibit emphasizes that the human brain results from millions of years of evolution and also changes from moment to moment, as we experience our world. By showing visitors how the brain processes stimuli and engaging them with multi-media exhibits, artistic renderings, games, and just simple interesting information, DeSalle says he hopes to change their brains for the better.

The exhibit entrance immediately zaps your brain to attention with a spaghetti of wires that buzz and crackle with lines of light projected onto recycled wires meant to represent firing neurons and the brain’s connectivity. The sculpture, by Spanish artist Daniel Canogar, evokes the human brain’s 100 billion neurons and yet there’s an irony to it–we may be the planet’s smartest creatures, but we’re also the most wasteful.

You emerge from this spidery canopy to watch a video of a dancer auditioning for Juilliard. As she moves, the narrator describes the limbic system and how the brain integrates its specialized regions (which work somewhat independently) so that we can accomplish such feats of control and elegance. Parts of a 3-D model of the brain light up in correlation with the dancer’s movements to show that they are controlling motion.

A section on the senses comes next. Soon you arrive at an installation by artist Devorah Sperber, who uses spools of thread to play with perception. Here she’s arranged coils of color that, viewed through a lens, appear to be a matrix resembling Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Nearby is a plaster-of-Paris homunculus with features exaggerated in proportion to the number of senses we have. Its lips are plump and its fingertips swollen because they are especially sensitive to touch, whereas its eyes and ears are comparatively small. This simple sculpture was one of my favorites. Kids will love this, as did my inner child.

Another installation demonstrated how our senses can be fooled by the power of suggestion. Under a speaker, at first you think you are hearing rain, but around the corner a diorama of fried bacon shows you that you were really listening to sizzling pork. The curators also inserted information about some rare diseases, like synesthesia, when a person “sees” a symphony. You listen to Alexander Scriaben’s music while looking at notes on a musical staff—the key of C is red, D yellow, F-sharp violet, and so on. Another clever depiction of how genes cause sensing neurons to communicate in unusual ways are two shapes, one spiky, 3-D, pronged star, and another with bulbous protrusions. When asked which might be named Kiki and Booba, 98 percent of people across different cultures assign the harsher sounding name with the sharp-edged shape and the softer name with the smoother shape, according to a famous experiment. During the next month mascot people will wear these shapes touring New York City, to get people thinking about their brains and direct them to the exhibit’s website and vote on their names (and of course publicize the show.)

My favorite part of the exhibit was the neuron gesture table. There I ran into a colleague and we spent about five minutes sliding our hands around and watching the system convert our digits into verisimilitudes of neurons. Their axons strove to connect with neighboring dendrites and create synapses [1]. The table was mobbed.

But nearby were two huge, hanging axons and dendrites that my friend dubbed the “Las Vegas neurons.” We wondered why the makers had painted them a rusty brown and moved on quickly. But beyond octopus-like Vegas, we were rewarded with several excellent descriptions of how synapses work.

Here you can see a video about building the exhibit models:

We came upon a display about Darwin’s work on facial expressions, which addressed the question of whether they are unique to humans. (They are not.) Darwin realized that certain reactions that seem useless, like hair standing on end, can be explained by evolution. We gazed at a photo of a 19th century woman, who, for all her Victorian garb, seemed to snarl like a tiger.

Then we assembled and disassembled plastic brain sections (which brought back memories of a heart puzzle we had when I was a child) and, then (appropriately) moved on to a section on memory and language. The famous H.M. [2], who was trapped in the past by a hippocampal injury, was mentioned. In contrast, autism was presented as having too much memory for details, which interfere with the large picture. And then there was the London Taxi Interactive game. Research has shown that London taxi drivers [3]—who must memorize complicated routes—have enlarged hippocampuses. To play this game, visitors follow the voice of a driver reciting a route from memory.

The 21st century brain section and the conclusion included a video about new therapies like the use of neural implants for paralyzed people and raised ethical issues about brain enhancement. Somehow we missed the Brain Lounge, in which visitors could experience floating projections of the fMRIs of four people: a translator from the United Nations who seamlessly moves from Arabic to English; a classical musician playing tones contrasted with a jamming rock star; and a basketball player reacting to action on and off the court during a game.

In The Brain Shop at the end I cozied up to a grey, stuffed neuron and contemplated buying it for my poodle. He’s smart, but I’m sure he’d treat it like a bone. I wonder––were he to stroll through this show, would his brain alter just a little, too?

Dr. DeSalle is curator in the museum’s division of Invertebrate Zoology and is a researcher at the museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. He is also the author of several books, including the illustrated children’s book Brain (Bunker Hill Press, 2010) and Your 21st Century Brain; Amazing Games to Play With Your Mind (Sterling Publishers, 2010). Two prominent local neuroscientists, Joy Hirsh, Director of the Program for Imaging Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University, and Maggie Zellner, a research associate in Donald Pfaff’s lab at The Rockefeller University, and were consultants.

The exhibit starts November 16, 2010 and runs through August 14, 2011. After that it will go on tour to Comune di Milano—Assessorato Cultura, Italy (from March 2, 2013, to August 18, 2013); the Guangdong Science Center, Guangzhou, China (November 19, 2011, to April 30, 2012); and Parque de las Ciencias, Granada, Spain (July 14, 2012, to January 6, 2013).

The international collaborators had input regarding the exhibit’s design and language, and may insert their indigenous research into the version of show that appears in their country.

For the museum’s preview video, “First Look at Brain: The Inside Story,” see:

For more information, visit amnh.org.

Footnotes/further reading and viewing

[1] Micheva, K. D., Busse, B., Weller, N. C., O’Rourke, N., & Smith, S. J. (2010). Single-synapse analysis of a diverse synapse population: Proteomic imaging methods and markers. Neuron, 68(4), 639–653.

Below is a 3-d video by the Smith lab at Stanford which was included in the paper’s supplementary material: it  provides a stunning visual representation of the billions of synapses in the mouse somatosensory cortex.

[2] For more information on H.M., visit UC San Diego’s Brain Observatory (“Deconstructing Henry: The Re-Examination of the Brain of Patient H.M.”).

[3] Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 97(8), 4398-4403.

[Abstract] Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.

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