If you could magically shrink yourself and walk through your own brain, what would you see?
A new exhibit at New York City's American Museum of Natural History lets you take just such a walk. Visitors enter Brain: The Inside Story through a tunnel of sparking, twinkling, snapping, and crackling electrical impulses.
That's what goes on in your brain all the time. You have 100 billion tiny brain cells called neurons. They're always making connections — sending messages — to other neurons.
But neurons don't write messages on little yellow sticky notes. Their messages are lightning fast and chemical. Neurons send electric signals that trigger the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters.
See a Brain the Size of a Golf Cart!
The exhibit has a few preserved, real brains on display, but it also uses models to explain the mind-blowing way it works. Some are actual size and some fill the room. How about a brain the size of a golf cart that lights up? There's also a sculpture of the subcortical brain (the thinking brain) that reaches to the ceiling at 35 times its normal size.
The models demonstrate how your brain has different parts that do different jobs like keeping you breathing, using words to communicate, and storing happy memories so you can enjoy them later (like remembering a great birthday party!).
After passing through the tunnel of crackling brain cells, you enter a mini-theater where you can follow a high school student who's preparing for a dance audition. She waits for her turn, gets nervous, calms down, performs her dance, and then feels great about it afterward. With each step in the process, visitors can monitor a 4-foot-high model of the dancer's brain to see which regions light up with each action and reaction.
Bravo for the basal ganglia! Visitors learn that it's the brain part that stores "procedural memory," which allowed the dancer to easily perform moves she had practiced many, many times.
Think about all the stuff you do without having to think about it. Maybe you can turn a cartwheel or whistle. If not, just about everyone can tie shoes! That's procedural memory, too.
The exhibit lets visitors play with models of the human brain — like a 3D puzzle — and challenges them to piece them together correctly. Researchers believe the human brain evolved over millions of years to get bigger and better able to handle complicated stuff.
We still have some of our original brain components — sometimes called our lizard brain. Your lizard brain can do some basic stuff that keeps you alive and kicking, but if you want to speak in words or plan your vacation, you'll need your prefrontal cortex. That's a newer part of the human brain in your forehead area. Without it, we couldn't plan, solve problems, or create in ways that animals cannot.
So now you know the human brain has changed over millions of years, but did you know your own brain will change a lot in your lifetime? You've probably noticed that babies grow at an amazing rate. Something else amazing goes on inside a baby's brain, even before he or she is born. An unborn baby adds a half million neurons every minute while still in the mom's belly.
By the time the baby is born, just about all the little person's neurons are in place. But the real excitement happens in the first 2 years when connections start to form between those brain cells. Until about 4 months of age, babies don't see very well. They start seeing well after more connections are made in a part of the brain called the visual cortex. That's why little babies shouldn't drive cars!
From age 2 to 12, your neurons sprout branches called dendrites and make more connections than your brain will ever need. It's during these years that you gain important skills like being able to walk, run, talk, and think about things you can't see, like "fairness."
By age 12, you're pretty smart, but your brain isn't done developing until about age 20. Most of the parts are set for life around 12, but your cortex continues to develop. That's the part of your brain that handles the most complicated tasks, like making a plan B in case plan A doesn't work out.
Your brain changes as you grow up, but the different activities that you do can actually "shape" your brain, researchers have found. They include reading, performing music, playing sports, studying, and meditation.
The exhibit lets visitors attempt to "drive" through the maze-like streets of London, like an English cab driver would. An exhibit kiosk gives elaborate instructions — turn left here, right here, go straight here — and visitors can test their navigational ability. A study of London cab drivers found that a part of their brain called the hippocampus was larger than average — perhaps because they had committed the street map of London to memory.
Celebrity MRIs in the Brain Lounge
The brain exhibit concludes in the Brain Lounge, where there's nightclub lighting; loud music; hip, gray couches shaped like brain matter; and a large, circular flat-screen TV inset in the floor. What's playing are MRIs — brain scans that show how blood flows in a person's brain. An MRI is used to spot problems in the brain, but it also can show which parts of the brain are active in healthy people.
The MRIs on display in the Brain Lounge aren't just any MRIs. They're notable people doing highly skilled tasks. A United Nations interpreter does a live translation of a speech from Arabic to English. New York Knick Landry Fields analyzes video of himself playing basketball, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma listens to music. The brain scans show blood flow as flashes of color, lighting up the active regions of the brain.
As a parting thought, the brain exhibition reminds visitors that we humans are the only animals who can think about thinking! If you're thinking about visiting this exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, it will remain in New York until August 14, 2011. (It's the same museum featured in the movie "Night at the Museum" and yes, you can see the statue of Teddy Roosevelt out front.)
After New York, the exhibit heads on a global tour, beginning in China in November 2011, continuing to Spain in July 2012, and then to Italy in March 2013.