Slipping into other people’s souls

The second part of States of Mind opens on 4 February, following on from Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation. Our new book supporting the exhibition is published on the same day: a collection of literature, science and art delving into the mysteries of human consciousness. Its editor Anna Faherty discusses the importance of fiction, as well as non-fiction, in exploring our states of mind.


Our new book is published on 4 February.

I famously (for those who know me) and shockingly (for the book-loving publishing students I teach) don’t read fiction. In reality, that statement is a slight exaggeration: I race through novels when I’m on holiday and I have a long-standing penchant for turn of the century tales of derring-do and early science fiction. It’s probably no surprise, then, that both Conan Doyle and HG Wells made the final cut in my selection of pieces for the States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness collection. Continue reading

A carnival of error

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The Wrong! event at Wellcome Collection on Friday celebrated wrongness with a ‘carnival of human error’. Iona Twaddell learned that being wrong can be entertaining, and can actually sometimes be useful.

One obvious way in which we all enjoy being wrong is when we watch magic. I learned this as I came through the door and a close-up magician convinced me that my chosen queen of spades had magically appeared in his wallet. The reason we fall for these tricks was explained later by Dr Gustav Kuhn, who spoke about the psychology of magic. Our visual system has inherent limitations. We think we see a full picture of the world around us, but in actual fact we only ever see a tiny amount. This is partly because the world is only in focus on a small patch of the retina, known as the fovea. We use eye movements to focus important objects onto the fovea but the rest is blurry. And even when we are looking at something is in focus, we might not consciously see it, because seeing requires attention. This is why driving while using your mobile phone is so dangerous: you may see an obstacle in front of you, but if you’re not attending to it you won’t notice it. This is also why magic works. The magician uses misdirection to make sure you don’t attend to the trickery. But, as Dr Kuhn told us, being fooled by a magician actually shows us that our brain processes information efficiently, only seeing what is relevant. We’re wrong because our brains didn’t evolve to spot magicians’ tricks but to spot important visual information, like predators.

And I got more used to being wrong throughout the night. In the Medicine Man gallery I learned I knew nothing about obscure medical facts. Who knew that transplanting faecal matter from healthy intestines into unhealthy ones to cure bacterial disease was a current medical practice? I certainly didn’t. You can learn a lot from being wrong.

Not feeling too bad about being wrong about facts I had no reason to know, I learned that I was even wrong about my own body. Various illusions showed how you can trick your body into thinking it’s not your own. They can induce the feeling that your face is merged with someone else’s or make you feel like a fake hand is your own. Several of these illusions occur because our visual system overrides what we feel: we trust sight more than touch. These mistakes can actually help us sometimes: a mirror box is used for amputees with ‘phantom limbs’ (they feel that their amputated limb is still there) to make them feel like they ‘see’ their missing limb and hopefully get rid of any pain that might be lingering there.

Finally, I learned how irrational our choices are from Dr Benedetto de Martino. He told us that instead of being like Spock, making decisions by weighing up all possible evidence, we are more like Winnie the Pooh. Various phenomena show this. For example, McNeil and colleagues in 1988 asked expert doctors whether they would choose surgery as a treatment for cancer. The risk of surgery was either framed as survival rate or mortality rate. The experts were more likely to go for the risky surgery if the risk was framed as survival (a gain) than as mortality (a loss). This risk-seeking behaviour for gains and risk-averse behaviour for losses is also seen in gambling tasks in the lab and seems to be determined in a large part by the amygdala, a brain region important for emotion. Those without an amygdala tend to make the same choices regardless of how the question is framed. But being logical on these tasks might not actually be being truly rational. If you consider rationality being optimally adapted to the environment, then in fact we are very rational. Dr de Martino explains this by considering that in nature, a gain will often be small (getting some water) and you will have another chance to get the gain if you fail. But a loss could be death, with no second chance. So avoiding loss is more important than making a gain. Though we may be wrong from Spock’s view, we are right for our environment.

I hope I’ve given you an idea of carnival of human error on show. But actually what I’ve learned is that a lot of the time, it’s all right to be wrong.

Iona Twaddell is an Assistant Editor at the Wellcome Trust.

Breathing for Speech

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott will be speaking at The Voice, an evening event on Friday 1 March at Wellcome Collection that explores the unexpected qualities of voices in all their forms. Here, she explains the importance of breathing for our ability to talk.

For animals with lungs, breathing is obviously central to life, making metabolism possible. What can be somewhat less obvious is that for humans, breathing is also central to speech, and the way that we breathe when we speak is very different to the way that we breathe to stay alive (called metabolic breathing). If you use a breath belt to look at the movements of the rib cage during metabolic breathing, you see a very regular, almost sinusoidal profile of expansion as air is drawn in, followed by an elastic contraction that forces air out:


When we breathe to speak, we breathe very differently, taking in a breath and then using our intercostal muscles and diaphragm to control a fine flow of air through our larynx. This enables us to produce a (relatively) lengthy utterance and to control aspects of the loudness and pitch of our voice. Although we think of speech as being to do with our larynx and our articulators, our voices are only really possible at all because of how we breathe.

We start to breathe for speech by using our intercostal muscles initially to prevent air from flooding out through the larynx, and to keep a constant pressure of air at the larynx (called subglottal pressure). Towards the end of a breath, we need to use our intercostal muscles to squeeze air out, and if you keep speaking long after you want to take another breath, your voice starts to fall apart, as this soundclip demonstrates:

The next image shows what happens to the movements of my chest wall (reflecting the actions of the intercostal muscles) when I speak this way. You can see that, unlike metabolic breathing, the movements of the intercostal muscles are much more constant, and that as I keep speaking without taking another breath, the intercostal muscles are starting to squeeze the air out – followed by a big inspiration as I take another breath – then some rapid spasms of the intercostal muscles, which is due to me laughing!


Strikingly, we can only breathe this way because we walk upright, which means that we don’t need to use our ribcages to support our weight. If you try and speak while using your ribcage to support your weight – for example, while doing press-ups – you get a sense of how hard this would be. The development of this fine control of our intercostal muscles was central to the evolution of human speech, and although we don’t typically think much about how we breathe to speak, we in fact have as much fine control of our intercostal muscles as we have of our fingers.

The fine flow of air from our lungs is just the start of the story of speech, but it’s an essential and often overlooked aspect. Of course, breath control is central to other ways that we use our voices – to sing, beat box or rap – and I’ll be discussing breathing and the human voice in greater detail in my talk.

The Voice takes place at Wellcome Collection on Friday 1 March.

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.

Seeing Myself See: Filming the event

It’s always a pleasure to cover an event with such a strong visual element; it makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Seeing Myself See had bright lights and bees, beautiful wooden instruments and crystallised bee flights – which not only looked great on camera, but were also clearly fascinating to the audience on the day. It was also very noisy, in the best possible way, so slightly less of a joy to edit it all together, but still fun.

The event was a very playful occasion that encouraged interaction as well as introspection, the idea being that people become more aware of the way in which they “see” the world. There was a particular focus on “sensory substitution”, replacing one sense with another. With the Seeing Instruments the colours of the user’s clothes were translated into music, whereas in the Mind Chair shapes are turned into touch.

My personal highlight, though, was the Bee Matrix. Whilst it definitely gave an insight into bee behaviour, what struck me most was the way in which it was developed in collaboration with primary school children and yet was producing genuinely novel scientific data – a potentially very interesting model for science education. It was also a success in keeping the bees contained, though I’m informed our thorough Events team had already appointed a “bee catcher” in the event of an escape when the box was opened to restock the “flowers”. Apparently they do stop flying in the dark so the lights are switched off during this process, but you can never bee too careful. (Sorry).

Watch the video to find out more, and don’t forget there are more on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our channel to keep up to date with new films.

Think happy thoughts


Smile. colodio/Flickr

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This post is going to be great, don’t you think?

If you do, that might be because you have an ‘optimism bias’.

According to Dr Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, around 80 per cent of the population tend to overestimate the positive outcomes and underestimate the negative in a given situation. For example, most people think they will live longer than others, have more success in jobs, marriage or believe they are less likely to suffer an accident.

The neurological basis of optimism is Sharot’s specialism and the subject of her talk at the latest Packed Lunch at Wellcome Collection. Her studies have found that people are unaware of this optimism bias and do not correct it, even when confronted by facts that seem to contradict their view. Continue reading

Exchanges at the Frontier: Patricia Churchland on the interface of neuroscience and philosophy

In autumn 2009, Wellcome Collection joined forces with the BBC World Service to host some of the biggest names in world science in a series of events called Exchanges at the Frontier. AC Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, discussed the social impacts of their discoveries and the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

In this video, Professor Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher based at the University of California, San Diego, talks about her recent research exploring the impact of neuroscience on our understanding of human nature and morality. In particular, she talks about the investigating the role of the hormone oxytocin in governing our social and moral behaviour.

You can watch the rest of the videos on the Wellcome Collection website (with transcripts), or on our YouTube channel. The events were recorded for a series of programmes broadcast on the BBC World Service which have been archived for listening.

Gall the Visionary

An old maid's skull phrenologised. Wellcome Images

An old maid's skull phrenologised. Wellcome Images

Today, the brain is regarded as the seat of identity, the home of everything we are. From memory, movement and consciousness to fear, knowledge and intelligence, the 21st Century brain is a humbling evolutionary marvel. Odd then, to think there was a time when the brain was considered largely irrelevant to human functioning.

Only in the last few hundred years has the brain made this journey from near obscurity to its current prized position and one of those who helped it on its way was German neuroanatomist, Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828), one of the nine lives in Wellcome Collection’s ‘Identity’ exhibition. Today, most visible evidence of Gall’s legacy is confined to the occasional piece of anatomical porcelain – bald, asexual busts with the scalp carved into numerous discrete, functional segments.

Each segment of the bust indicates a human characteristic, sense or trait (from how carnivorous one might be to how witty) that Gall believed was precisely mirrored by brain development beneath the skull. The more a person was predisposed towards, say, benevolence, the greater brain mass they would have in that specific area and the skull would, in turn, possess a larger bump to reflect this. Today, this form of neurological interpretation, or Phrenology, is considered a pseudoscience. And rightly so, as it turns out there wasn’t a shred of biological evidence to support this immensely popular theory of the time.

But it would be unfair to dismiss Gall and his thinking out of hand. Prior to Gall’s ideas during the late 18th Century, the brain was still widely perceived as a rather mysterious, grey mass. It had garnered a reputation of scientific import, largely thanks to the English physician, Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and his groundbreaking anatomical work, Cerebri Anatome (1664), but was still a largely unknown quantity with respect to precisely which bits do what. Gall had missed the mark by trying to assign specious functions to the shape of the exterior skull but he was absolutely bang on with respect to functional localization of the brain and its rippled cortex.

Following on from these ideas, other scientists were able to start biologically and functionally dissecting the brain, assigning not instincts and behaviours to specific anatomical regions but higher thought, movement, vision, hearing… The questions now surrounding the brain are less about which parts of this remarkable organ do what and more about how they achieve what they do in such a seamless, integrated manner.

Barry Gibb is a Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust