Franklin Institute Carves into Your Brain

"Your Brain" is the chief educational attraction of the new Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion.
"Your Brain" is the chief educational attraction of the new Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion.
Posted: June 11, 2014

THE BRAIN. It's how we perceive and create our world. It's our motivator and best protector - and sometimes our undoing.

All this and more are explored in the super-spiffy interactive exhibit opening Saturday at the Franklin Institute - a $10 million installation celebrating "Your Brain." It's the big come-on of the Institute's new, 53,000-square-foot addition: the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion.

An entertaining hands-on, eyes-on, full-body experience demonstrating how our noggins' work, "Your Brain" - and the three-story museum addition that houses it - culminates seven years of planning and a whole lot of fundraising by the museum, explained incoming president/CEO Larry Dubinski. A capital campaign, "Inspire Science," raised $65.2 million. Of that, the Karabots Pavillion and "Your Brain" claimed about $41.5 million.

All this reaffirms the educational commitment, leadership and broad appeal of our 80-years-young, nationally prominent science museum - a delight and inspiration for busloads of school kids, and for grown-ups, too.

"We're Philadelphia's most popular destination for tourists after the Independence Hall historic district," Dubinski noted.

Think about it

"Your Brain" was a "natural" realm for inquiry, added Franklin Institute senior vice president Dr. Frederic Bertley. "It's important work touching on the frontiers of science, where discoveries are still being made."

So, while "Your Brain" is a permanent exhibit, it's also a work in progress.

Visitors should certainly come away with a better understanding of brain circuitry, the eruption and movement of chemical and electrical impulses called neurons, and how the brain compartmentalizes tasks.

In one stimulating, hands-on scenario, stuff blows up real good as you crank up a Model Neuron. The explosion is akin to "the jolt to the brain you feel after you've drunk a cup of coffee," clued Bertley.

You also can climb up and around an 18-foot-tall, 23,000-pound structural "web" of neural connections. The pathway is convoluted and the learning exercise a romp, destined for comparison to the Franklin Institute's much loved, walk-through Giant Heart, a museum staple since the 1950s.

Preopening test groups have been hands-on and hanging in the 8,500-square-foot "Brain" space "for an average of 50 minutes, which is outstanding for a science exhibit," Dubinski said.

There's so much "Brain" to see that yours might be overwhelmed. We're here to help with our guide to a dozen don't-miss displays and activities.

1) See your nervous system

At the end of the entry hall, visitors' silhouettes are captured on a big screen in quasi-X-ray (not dangerous) fashion, showing how your brain and nervous system are connected. As you wiggle, your on-screen skeleton shakes (triggered by a modified Xbox Kinect sensor). Then, in the next room, "Scan a Brain" at a mocked-up MRI station. If only Dr. Frankenstein had owned one!

2) Neural climb

The biggie of the exhibit, literally and figuratively. Crawl and climb through a two-story neuronal network as dynamic lighting and eerie sound effects emulate the chemical and electrical triggers that make us do stuff. Be forewarned, grown-ups: The etched, tempered-glass stepping platforms slant and some openings are tight. Don't wear slippery-bottomed shoes!

3) Test your neural speed

Step onto a stimulating platform, pressing hands "just so" onto blocks and a trigger button. When you feel a vibration in hands or feet, immediately let go of the button. This shows that it takes longer for the stimulus on the feet to reach your brain.

4) Confuse your vision

As a stopwatch ticks, read out loud a list of colors where the font color matches the meaning. Then pronounce a list of colors printed in nonmatching font colors. Reading the second list takes lots longer, showing how the brain is stymied by conflicting streams of information.

5) Cue your fear

Watch a video of a guy sitting in a row boat, first with a pleasant soundtrack playing, then with ominous music that immediately triggers that "uh-oh" fear response, as if "Jaws" is about to pounce. What you see isn't always what you'll feel.

6) Connect your pathways

A large, heavy piano dangles overhead. Do the ropes holding it appear sturdy? Are you feeling a nervous adrenaline rush? Dare you walk underneath (and quickly!) or should you take the longer route around? Brain, do your best!

7) Turn your world upside down

Our personal fave. Strap into a seat in a four-seat mini movie theater. The lights dim and on comes that famous Fred Astaire movie scene where he appears to be dancing up the walls and onto the ceiling. And as he does, the theater (or you) also spins around, making you feel like you're dangling upside down. Lots of fun and (hint) not really dangerous.

8) Confuse your touch

One side of a metal cylinder is warm to the touch. The other side is cool. Both are bearable. But when touching the middle section of the cylinder, its alternating warm and cool metal strips create a startling, stinging effect, like an electrical shock, that makes you instantly pull your hand away. The brain just can't make sense of the odd combination.

9) Tilt your world

Lie down in a surrealistically designed room whose walls are tilted at a 42-degree angle. Once you are prone, the brain somehow adjusts to make the room seem to straighten up. But when a visitor walks in, that person appears to be seriously off-balance. Welcome to Wonderland, Alice.

10) Lie to me

Sitting at opposing computer terminals, one visitor is the questioner and the other is the liar who's asked to pick a number (from one to three) and then deny the choice. The liar's true and false answers are video-recorded, so the questioner can replay the facial movements in slow motion and detect micro-expressions that often indicate when a subject is lying. Most of us can't help but flinch.

11) Count the hits

Visitors play a game of Kinect tennis and are asked to count how many times they swat the ball. Meanwhile, lots of other scenic changes are taking place on the game screen, but you don't notice any of that until you're told about it. Sometimes, selective concentration can be a good thing.

12) Ethics discussion tables

Last stop on the tour. Sit down with a bunch of visitors at an interactive ("virtual" button-pushing) table to vote on related ethical issues. If brain surgery could erase horrible memories, should the sufferer go for it? How about taking a drug that temporarily makes us smarter? Hey, wasn't that a movie plot? Hmmm, can't remember!



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