Date Night
Braaaaains Edition
Brain: The Inside Story (Ontario Science Centre)

By Seán O'Sullivan - December 1st, 2014

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My wife loves brains. It’s a strange affectation. Mention a brain in casual conversation with her and she’s likely to blurt out that she once held a human brain (referencing her glory days in grad school where she got to prod at cadavers). As soon as I saw the invite for the preview of the new Brain exhibit running at the Ontario Science Centre from now until March 29, 2015, I knew my fate was sealed for that night.

The version of the exhibit that we saw was missing a few bells and whistles (as we were in the museum after hours, and before the official opening of the exhibit), but it still makes a great visual impact. After walking through the tunnel of firing neurons (an epic spaghetti web of cables and wires, with flickering lights emulating the brain’s frantic activity), users are taken on a journey that introduces the evolution of the brain, its various components, and explanations behind impulses and behaviours in animals and humans alike.

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Welcome to the exhibit – or the back of Papa Thumbs’ media centre.

Visitors will get a taste for evolutionary biology reading about fascinating insights from the likes of Darwin (who supposes a plausible reason for a number of evolutionary vestiges, such as why our hair stands on end when we’re scared). After introducing the different uses for parts of the brain that evolved (and tying them to ancestors), attendees are tasked with building a brain by adding limbic system on top of the brain stem, followed by the cerebrum and cerebellum.

The nuts and bolts of the brain are fascinating, such as how memories are stored and retrieved, how brain chemicals affect emotional statuses to drive action, and how visual and auditory information is processed. These complex concepts are introduced with great clarity, and strike me as essential learning for a critical thinker at any part of their brain. One of the interactive elements involves trying to trace geometric shapes while looking at a reflection of your hand (harder than it sounds!), and watching how repeated attempts forge neural pathways that make it easier to repeat. For reasons I haven’t been able to discern, my wife got particularly invested in improving on this particular life skill at the exhibit.

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Sully’s thoughts and Mrs. Sully’s thoughts. Guess which one is which?

The journey that attendees are brought on also looks to the degradation of the brain, with brain models that representing a healthy elderly brain, and one with Alzheimer’s. There are also some panels that explore where brain research is going (and the moral quandaries that we may find ourselves in), and a four-minute video that shows a fascinating insight into how the brain’s electricity can be harnessed to interface with computers, opening up the door to a new world of prosthetics.

Of all the features present, my wife was particularly fond of the Homunculus statue – a six-foot tall model mapping out the brain real-estate zoned to different parts of the body, so the hands and lips, with their demand for fine-motor skills and sensory nerves, are gigantic compared to the toes, which are typically called upon for no more than occasional wriggling of little piggies.

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Compare the 3D model (left) with the stuffy textbook version (from Wikipedia). Pfft.

What I appreciated most is probably a bit too meta for its own good – but the fact that the human brain is advanced enough that it has developed such an understanding of itself is something worth celebrating, and sharing. I’m thrilled to see that the Science Center has captured that wistfulness in its enthusiastic presentation, and it’s clear from observing the adults and kids alike poring over each station that this intensely fascinating subject has been done justice.

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