Brain, The Inside Story – AMNH, New York

AMNH employee making a brain for the exhibition,
AMNH employee making a brain for the exhibition,

The American Museum of Natural History in New York has a new exhibit called “Brain: The Inside Story“.‘s New York correspondent, Ben Ehrlich, sends this report:

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. 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. (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.

The exhibition is open now, and is in New York until August 14 2011. After that it goes on international tour ( requests visits to Medellín, Colombia and Sheffield, England!)

Link to Brain: The Inside Story

I stopped talking when I was six years old

I’ve just revisited the indifferent indie classic Child Psychology by British band Black Box Recorder that has perhaps the only description of ‘selective mutism’ in pop music.

Selective mutism is a curious psychological disorder where children refuse to speak, or refuse to speak in certain situations (like school), despite having no speech problems.

The first verse of ‘Child Psychology’ describes the experience from the child’s perspective:

I stopped talking when I was six years old
I didn’t want anything more to do with the outside world
I was happy being quiet
But of course they wouldn’t leave me alone
My parents tried every trick in the book
From speech therapists to child psychologists
They even tried bribery
I could have anything, as long as I said it out loud

I’ve never been able to find out whether the singer is describing a real experience or it’s just poetic license for the sake of the song.

Rather ironically for a song about selective mutism, the song was banned from radio and MTV because of the chorus which goes “Life is unfair, kill yourself of get over it”.

UPDATE: Thanks to Kate for posting in the comments that the lyrics to “She’s Given Up Talking” by Paul McCartney also describe the condition. If you know of any other songs, do add them in the comments.


Link to Child Psychology song on YouTube.
Link to Wikipedia page on selective mutism.

Treating the most dangerous

If you only listen to one podcast this week, make it this one.

The BBC World Service Exchanges at the Frontier has a compelling discussion with Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, who discusses on working with some of the most dangerous psychiatric patients in the country.

I was left both moved and inspired by the programme as Adshead discusses the humanity in caring for those who may have committed some of the most dreadful crimes and how one works to rehabilitate those many people would consider ‘evil’.

The discussion doesn’t shy away from tackling the hard questions of forensic psychiatry, scientific and ethical, and you’ll find no better introduction to the sharp end of dealing with people may be both patient and prisoner.

There’s also an extended hour long version of the programme that you can stream online.

Humane. Challenging. Revealing. Enlightening. Genuinely unmissable.

mp3 of podcast.
Link to programme page.
Link to page with streamed hour-long extended version.

2010-11-19 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The now expanded megalist of ‘Psychologists on Twitter’ is going strong over at The BPS Research Digest.

New Scientist has a special section that collects coverage from the recent Society for Neuroscience annual megaconference. From orgasms to virtual reality.

The debate over the earliest use of tools by humans has become all scowls and flying handbags. Not Exactly Rocket Science has brilliant coverage of the heated debate.

Discover Magazine covers a technical but fascinating phenomenon called the ‘psychological refractory period’ – sort of like your brain’s recovery zone – and what it tells us about how your brain manages cognitive load.

There’s a really fantastic piece on the neuroscience of time perception over at io9.

The New York Times on covers how children as young as 3 are less likely to help a person after they have seen them harm someone else – suggesting an early development of the ability to understand intention.

This may be one of the most enraging pieces you read all week. OpenMedicine covers how AstraZeneca buried negative findings on its antipsychotic drug Seroquel. Taken from company emails that came to light in a recent court case.

Time covers a fascinating study on stoners, stereotype threat and the cognitive impact of marijuana.

A Swedish girl developed all the major symptoms of autism at 14, following a viral infection. Another wonderful post from Neuroskeptic covers the case.

Discovery News has a piece on how some ancient Peruvian temples may have been designed with acoustics designed to interact with mind-altering drugs.

Mental illness suspected in ‘fairy abduction’. Another curious case covered by the wonderful Providentia blog.

The Guardian has a great piece on the latest development in optogenetics – light control of neurons – hot from SfN.

Neurowriter Jonah Lehrer is one of Salon’s sexiest men of 2010 (aftershave coming soon). I suspect because of this brilliant analysis of the recent ‘precognition’ study.

The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the psychological strain of art school and why it has specific mental health needs.

There was lots of misleading coverage of the genuinely interesting ‘Tetris and trauma’ study. The Neurocritic discusses what was actually done.

Is a roller coaster and a Red Bull a smart first date? asks Barking Up the Wrong Tree. I didn’t know there was any other type to be honest.

All in the Mind from ABC Radio National had a good discussion from two authors from recent ‘brain gender myth’ books.

Does money matter when raising children? More from the ever-fascinating Evidence Based Mummy.

The Economist has a fantastic piece on the ‘uncanny valley’ of robot eeriness.

The Phenomenology of Being a Jerk. A deadpan but genuine attempt to discusses the phenomenon over at The Splintered Mind.

Wired Science covers a fascinating network analysis of the economic entities in the run up to the 2008 crash.

There’s a fantastic piece on the Changizi Blog on the philosophy behind scientific inference.

CNET News says that the human brain has more switches than all computers on Earth. I would like to add that the interfaces are also much better.

The history of photography in the study of madness. Wonderfully illustrated post from Academitron.

The New York Times has an in-depth article on the high-fat ketogenic diet which has been proved to help control epilepsy.

I’ve just been really digging the h-madness history of psychiatry blog recently. Great stuff.

RadioLab has audio from a recent talk on whether technology can be thought of as an active component in evolution. A more subtle idea that I first assumed.

The bright side of the “depression-risk gene”. David Dobbs is developing an important and innovative view of psychiatric genetics, this is a great example from his Neuron Culture blog.

I can’t hold it any longer

Sometimes, medical case studies tell as much of a story by what they omit as by what they include. This sentence, from a recent case study published in the Canadian Journal of Urology, is one such example:

To complete the therapeutic approach, we focused also on the possible psychiatric implications of the self insertion of a foreign body into the urethra, and the initial evaluation reached the diagnosis of depression.

You may not be aware, but there are hundreds of cases in the medical literature of people ending up in hospital after putting objects in their cock or mimsy.

Allen key? Done. Pencil? Yes ma’am. Telephone cable? Hold the line. Plastic cup? At your service.

As far as I can tell, the matter has not been systematically studied, although hospital admissions seem to be most commonly linked to sex games that, excuse the pun, have got out of hand, or, are the unfortunate results of mental illness.

One interesting case from last year was reported in a chimpanzee. Do mention that next time you bump into an evolutionary psychologist. It should keep them busy for a while.

Link to PubMed entry for case study.

Surgery beyond your wildest dreams

I’ve just read a fascinating 2009 study on dreaming during anaesthesia that looks at how different drugs can alter our unconscious reveries during surgery.

One section was on ‘near-miss awareness’ where dreams incorporate the outside reality of the hospital because the patient is on the threshold of consciousness.

This is the wonderful list of these dreams from the study where the patients report strangley surgical fantasies.

“She dreamt that she wanted to argue but could not because there was something in her mouth stopping her talking.”

“A patient dreamed that he was at a fairground and someone was throwing darts at his stomach. The patient was undergoing a gastro-enterostomy and vagotomy.”

“A patient undergoing a uterovaginal prolapse repair dreamed of a dragging feeling around her perineum and of having a baby”.

“A patient had an unpleasant dream in which he was accused of being under the influence of narcotic drugs.”

“A patient dreamed of a party in a public house in which there was a generous supply of gin and the anaesthetist was the landlord.”

“(A patient) dreamt about a fish in a tank and seaweed surrounding her. Splashing around and the colour blue.” (The theatre staff were talking about fishing).

“One patient dreamt about aliens and thought aliens had taken over the operation” (Theatre staff had had a conversation about aliens during surgery).

“I dreamt that I heard your (the researcher’s) voice which made me feel very relaxed but I don’t remember what you said.” This patient was played an audiotape of a story during anaesthesia.


Link to DOI entry and summary for locked study.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

The forest of hope and despair

VBS.TV has a short poignant documentary on the Aokigahara forest in Japan, which has become one of the world’s most popular locations for people to commit suicide.

The film is from the perspective of the warden who discusses why people are drawn to the forest and how people spend some of their most difficult moments.

The popularity of the location has been attributed to a best-selling novel in which two people end their lives there and the fact it was featured in the controversial Japanese book The Complete Manual of Suicide.

The 20 minute documentary is by no means gratuitous although does have a few difficult scenes. Mainly though, it is one man’s philosophical reflections on the beautiful but troubled environment that ultimately ends on a note of hope and optimism.

An understated but quietly powerful film.

Link to streamed documentary on Aokigahara.