Designing Brains

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Long before each exhibition opens at Wellcome Collection, we begin the process of designing the gallery to display the objects, taking multiple sources of inspiration, including the objects themselves. Museum and exhibition designer Calum Storrie explains how our Brains exhibition came to look the way it does.

Very quickly after reading the brief for the Brains exhibition and meeting the curators I revisited an old idea lifted shamelessly from the work of the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. This was the sculpture pavilion designed for the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in 1966, composed of a series of parallel walls in concrete block. By pushing and pulling the shapes of the wall van Eyck suggested individual rooms and spaces for the sculptures. As one of the key concepts of the Brains exhibition as expressed by the co-curator Marius Kwint was ‘slicing’, I applied the idea, quite literally, to the plan. It was an idea that, as I explored the detail of the exhibition, solved a number of problems. It provided a structure to contain a diverse group of exhibits and it suggested an organized route around the exhibition while also allowing the possibility of disrupting that route. By making doorways and windows in the walls it allowed me to refer to links between the exhibitions themes and links between parts of the brain. As we got closer to a definitive list of objects the size of the exhibition grew and, at the same time, the layout became more complex.

Half way through the process I stopped thinking about brains. At this point the exhibits became shapes that needed to be accommodated on walls and in showcases. It was only when the first objects (films, medical apparatus, books and, eventually, real brains) were delivered that I began to consider the exhibition’s content anew. All exhibitions are, for me, like a laboratory experiment and there is a moment when the initial idea for the design bumps up against the many practical considerations and, if everything is in place, a kind of fusion occurs. Negotiating and facilitating this fusion is my job… acting as an intermediary between ideas, objects, space and people.

The making of an exhibition involves collaboration between curators, exhibition organisers and designers and the conversations we had in the development process were crucial in defining the form of the exhibition. Throughout the process of design I worked closely with the graphic designers Lucienne Roberts+. One of their initial ideas was for the treatment of the title and the texts within the exhibition. These took as their starting point storage, labelling and archiving. This offered another rich layer of complexity to the mix and helped me focus on what the 3 dimensional elements could achieve. One particular way in which this part of the design influenced my work was in making the exhibition structure monochrome… concentrating the use of strong colour on the title at the entrance.

The layout that emerged from the process of design allows for long views down the gallery and it emphasizes the idea of splitting and cutting. Long stretches of wall have been deliberately left ‘empty’ to give the exhibition a comfortable pace and to clarify how the material is read for those that choose to follow the sequence. The finished design incorporates both a clear diagram and an element of choice and maybe even chance.

This is the third exhibition I have worked on at Wellcome Collection and I never fail to be impressed by the energy of the team and their commitment to the design of their exhibitions.

Brains: The mind as matter is open until 17 June. Find out more about Calum Storrie’s work at

A brainy book

Brains: The Mind as Matter

Brains: The mind as matter

Accompanying our current Brains exhibition is a new book, featuring more than 100 astonishing images from the exhibition, as well as illuminating essays from art historian Marius Kwint and neuroscientist Richard Wingate. Barry Gibb takes a look inside…

Humans are governed by the thought that if we look long and hard enough at something then its purpose and function will become evident: planetary motion, DNA… The brain, however, seems to happily evade such scrutiny. We see folds, channels, pigmentation and, on much closer inspection, neurons. But the gulf between what we see and what this thing allows us to be still seems utterly intractable.

Brains: The mind as matter, the new book accompanying Wellcome Collection’s latest major exhibition, unashamedly eschews both scientists’ and the media’s contemporary fascination with brain scanning and neurological function. Instead, it gets straight to the meat of the matter, the brain as a physical object.

It’s a pleasant departure. A timely reminder that, while today’s electronic brains at the heart of machines allow scientists to probe the secrets governing the flows and tides of information throughout the brain’s iconic architecture, for centuries it remained a largely impassive, impenetrable mass.

By way of introduction to this vast subject, the book begins with a brief, entertaining history of our culture’s growing understanding of the organ from Marius Kwint – a lecturer in Visual Culture – taking in everyone from Galen to Frankenstein. Richard Wingate, a neuroscientist, then moves much closer to the subject matter, giving a richly deserved nod to the painstaking and insightful work of Ramon y Cajal – a giant in the field of neuroscience who first revealed the cellular architecture of the brain.

But it’s the photographic study from Daniel Alexander that really sets the tone for the remainder of the book, split into four logical sections taking us deeper into the brain and what it means to be human. Brains weaves the brain’s greater history into a collection of sometimes macabre, often striking and frequently hypnotic images taken from art, science and that fertile cauldron in between.

This is a book for anyone with an interest in this mythic organ extending beyond the now, and for those interested in taking a step back from how the brain does what it does and, quite simply, marvelling at what it is and the enigmatic road we are still travelling to comprehend ourselves.

Barry Gibb is a Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust and author of The Rough Guide to the Brain. Buy Brains: The mind as matter online at Blackwell’s.

A game of nerves



Our new game Axon is now live. It accompanies our new exhibition,  Brains: The Mind as Matter, which opens next week. In this fast-paced game, you must click on protein targets to grow your neuron, connecting new brain regions. Climb through the tissue, outcompeting rival neurons to form the longest connection you can.

Where our last game, High Tea, explored the history and culture of drugs with this one we wanted to get closer to the science. The ‘Brains’ exhibition provided just the right opportunity. We began the process last year, when we sat down with guest exhibition curator Marius Kwint, neuroscientist Richard Wingate and Phil Stuart and Chris Cox from Preloaded for a day of instense collaboration. We wanted to see if we could find a way to ‘play the brain’. Richard and Marius spent the morning showing us the neuroscience (including the extraordinary video of a foetal chick’s neurons forming that you’ll find in the game), and then in the afternoon Phil and Chris explained the structure of casual games and the relationship between goal, jeopardy and score. We discussed the role of competition in forming connections in the brain, and looked at other games whose aesthetic seemed to reflect what we’d seen in the video.

We knew we were onto something, and so the process of development began. This kind of collaboration is key to how we make games: marrying the creativity and imagination of a games agency like Preloaded with the knowledge and critical thinking of scientists and exhibition curators. The result is (we hope) games that genuinely spur engagement with the concepts and ideas embedded within them. We’re particularly proud that Axon contains 27 different links to Wikipedia pages describing different kinds of neurons. Your high score could be just the start of a journey of discovery into how the brain works.

We’re very interested in how games work, and so we’re watching our Google Analytics, conducting a survey (just follow the link from the game) and undertaking interviews and analysis of responses to the game. Further down the line we hope to be publishing an evaluation of Axon, showing what we’ve learned from it, as we did with our evaluation of High Tea. And at Museums and the Web this year, we’ll be presenting a paper on evaluating games, co-authored with colleagues at the Science Museum and the Space Science Institute. The Wellcome Trust is also interested in supporting gaming as a medium through grants and awards for  ideas that bring biomedical science stories to life, as this article in Wired explains.

The game launches to major gaming portals including Kongregate and Newgrounds  this weekend, where hopefully it will find an audience keen to both play a gripping game and find out more about neuroscience. Play Axon now and see how long you can grow your neuron.

Reflecting on Mirror Neurons

MRI scan. Wellcome Images

MRI scan. Wellcome Images

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Packed Lunch is not just about science; it is also about the lives of scientists. At a recent event, Lydia Harriss found that happenstance plays a part not only in scientific discoveries but also in scientific careers…

History is littered with stories of great scientific discoveries happening by chance. The haphazard drifting of mould into a dish of bacteria that led to the discovery of penicillin. The sloshing bath water that inspired Archimedes’ principle of displacement. A pocket full of melted chocolate hinting that microwaves could be used to cook food. But the one about the monkey and the peanut? I confess that this particular example of scientific serendipity had passed me by, until I went to a Wellcome Collection Packed Lunch event in which Dr Zarinah Agnew spoke about her research on mirror neurons.

It turns out that mirror neurons, nerve cells found in the brain that are activated when an individual carries out an action or sees someone else performing the same action, were also discovered by chance.

In 1992, researchers in a lab in Italy had just finished their experiments. They had been looking at the electrical activity of a particular neuron inside a monkey’s brain as the animal picked up a peanut. While clearing up, one of the researchers picked up a peanut, causing the same neuron to activate in the monkey’s brain, even though the animal stayed still and was only watching the researcher pick up the peanut.

This ‘mirror’ response was totally unexpected, and since then mirror neurons have generated a great deal of excitement. It’s been suggested that they are able to match an observed action to an executed action, and could be responsible for our ability to understand, recognise and imitate actions. Wilder speculations have included proposals that mirror neurons may play a role in autism, where a person’s ability to understand other people’s actions is affected. For example, ‘broken’ mirror neurons might prevent a person from mentally simulating an action that they’ve seen someone else perform, stopping them from correctly understanding the reason behind it.

Dr Agnew was quick to point out that although these theories linking mirror neurons to autism might be true, they are a massive leap from the evidence we currently have. No direct evidence of mirror neurons has yet been found in humans, as we can’t readily be experimented on with the electrical recording technique used to identify these neurons in monkeys.

During her PhD, Dr Agnew was able to show that human brains do produce a mirror response similar to that seen in monkeys, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a technique that can measure brain activity by showing which parts of the brain require increased levels of oxygenated blood. She found that a particular region of the human brain becomes active when people both perform and watch an action, such as a hand-wave.

She also discovered that this system is more complicated than previously thought, by showing that mirror responses vary for different kinds of action. This intriguing finding indicates that the brain does not simply simulate every type of action in the same way, but encodes different actions in different ways.

Curiously, Dr Agnew’s first encounter with mirror neurons also happened by chance, when, after finishing her undergraduate degree in neuroscience and frantically looking for a PhD, one of her housemates showed her an article about mirror neurons in a copy of the Economist. Inspired, she scrambled off to write the proposal for her PhD project straight away. It took Dr Agnew a year to search for funding and a supervisor, but once she got her PhD underway, she went on to do exactly what she’d described in her initial proposal. Impressive stuff, given that the path of a PhD is often winding (my own certainly took a few twists and turns), and very few people actually achieve what they set out to do at the start.

Since finishing her PhD, Dr Agnew has moved on to using MRI to look at the links between action and perception in relation to speech, as it’s been suggested that mirror neurons might also be involved in understanding sounds made by the mouth. Describing her research as “a lot more fun than I thought [it would be]… a real adventure”, she shows every sign of continuing on her terrifyingly directed career path.

It seems that the ‘right place, right time’ variety of chance certainly has its part to play in research, but success takes much more than mere luck. From hearing Dr Agnew talk about her own career, it’s clear that determination, ability and passion are essential for making the most of those tantalizing moments of serendipity when they do come along.

Lydia Harriss is a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust.