A Day at the Museum

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Brain: The Inside Story” is a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that will be displayed through August 2011.

I remember being a kid.  I remember being a kid and going on field trips.  I remember being a seventh-grade kid in New York City and going on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History.  That’s why, standing at the threshold of a new exhibit there—Brain: The Inside Story, curated by Rob DeSalle—I try to imagine that I am once again a child, beholding with that ceaseless curiosity and wide-eyed wonderment all that is around me.

This proves not-so-difficult.  The “tunnel” at the start the exhibition is draped with tangled clumps of recycled wire—1500 pounds of material.  It looks like some mischievous giants had a food fight with giant sticky spaghetti.  Meanwhile, beads of light are moving through the thick-and-thin strands.  The installation, by the Spanish artist Daniel Canogar, is meant to represent neurons firing their electrical impulses.  On a plain, white pedestal at the door, a preserved brain—small and shriveled—sits understatedly in a glass case, as if daring someone to underestimate it.  But the “tunnel” transports me inside its magical, gray matter, where I can walk beneath a sparkling canopy of nervous connectivity, a whole world alive within the wrinkles and folds, and I am as amazed as ever that all this happens inside of that.

Emerging from the “tunnel,” I am met by a life-sized projected image of a young dancer, sort of like the Princess Leah hologram only in spandex and a light sweat.  She is in the process of an audition; she is thinking, emoting, and moving.  As a recorded voice explains the correlating brain activity, a large three-dimensional brain model simultaneously lights its corresponding regions up in colors.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

This multimedia exhibit demonstrates the concept of regional specialization, while reminding that a brain controls a person who lives a life and has a story.  From the “tunnel”—which contains an interpretation of the anatomy and functionality of brain cells—to the dancer—which illustrates cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenomena—Brain: The Inside Story highlights some different approaches to neuroscience research, and their interrelatedness.

The rest of the exhibition is organized into five categories:  The Sensing Brain, The Emotional Brain, The Thinking Brain, The Changing Brain, and The 21st Century Brain.  At every turn are sights and sounds, and I am reminded of a carnival.  Stand here!  Look through here!  Build this brain!  Play this game!  Touch this screen!

There are illusions like an upside-down Mona Lisa made from spools of thread, and a picture of a rainy day coupled with the sound of what seems to be rainfall—until I discover it is frying bacon.

Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

(This deceptive influence of sight on sound is a demonstration of cross-modal perception).  A hulking homunculus stands awkwardly with its enormous hands and mouth, a little too late—sadly—for Halloween.  (The figure reflects the proportions of the somato-sensory cortex devoted to each body part).  And everything shown is also explained by writing and pictures that surround every room, like an engaging textbook on a wall.  Of course, unlike in school, no one has to read.

At about The Changing Brain, I notice a group of school kids making their way excitedly against the flow of we, the media.  They are a diverse seventh-grade class studying neuroscience at a city secondary school.  “I’ve always heard about the things memory can do, now I’m actually seeing it,” one boy tells me, excitedly.  Another boy tells me how cool the exhibition is.  Cool?  For a kid?  I ask him if it makes him want to study the brain more.  He says, without hesitation, almost annoyed (because after all I should already know): “Yes.”  And then he scampers off to play brain teasers with his friends.  This is the main reason that Brain: The Inside Story is such an important exhibition.  It informs and amuses and, although there are more and more educational resources about the brain in the public consciousness, the fact remains that—whether you are young or old or some of both—nothing beats a day at the museum.

For more:
  • Official website for the exhibit at the AMNH.
  • NY Times review of the exhibit.
Seen the “Brain: The Inside Story” exhibit? Let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below:

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

View all posts


  • Cool. Can’t wait to see it. It seems like Neuroscience is really breaking into the mainstream of public scientific discourse. Not that it wasn’t important five years ago or something, but maybe it’s more in ‘vogue’ now. Is this just my imagination or is there something to that?

  • I have heard it said that there have been more discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the last 15 years than in all history. This is probably due largely to advances in technology, specifically imaging. This type of progress led to George H.W. Bush declaring the 90s the “Decade of the Brain.” That was definitely a watershed moment for the public discourse.

    The excitement over such a young and growing discipline has since made it “hot” (to borrow a word from the Museum press release). Now you see lots of books and programming on outlets like NPR and PBS. It may be that the last five years have been particularly saturated, but on the other hand people of a certain age might tell you it all started with Bush’s proclamation:


  • It may also have to do with the baby boomers turning into Seniors. I think that generation, of which I am a part, tends to be interested in this type of science. Personally, I became interested in the brain when I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder 7 years ago. I also love to learn so it opened up a whole new area of learning for me. New imaging techniques for sure have given us so much new information. It’s fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *