What happens when an energetic and inquisitive brain visits the Franklin Institute? Starting June 14, it can see itself.
The new Your Brain exhibit leads visitors on a tour of the inside of the human brain. It explains the basic elements of the brain's structure and underlying mechanisms through which it controls almost everything people do.
You can walk through a tangled passageway that simulates the paths through which neurons connect. You can see whole brains – both models of them and the real thing. You can view MRI images of brains as they age through the lifespan. And you can interact with displays that fool your brain into sensing things that's aren't there, like a "ride" that makes you feel like you are spinning 180 degrees without ever moving.
And for the truly inquisitive, Your Brain also leads somewhere else entirely. It ends with an exploration of the ethical dilemmas posed by new discoveries in neuroscience – the discoveries that made the exhibit possible.
Where will our growing understanding of the brain lead? Will we develop pills to make people smarter? Will we discover ways to erase painful memories? And if we can, should we? Advances like these hold tremendous promise for treating devastating illnesses like Alzheimer's disease and post-traumatic stress syndrome. But they could also lead to undesired consequences, like students gaining unfair advantage on tests and patients forgetting key aspects of their past.
Questions like these don't lead us right or wrong answers. They lead us to engage in serious thought. And that is what the ethics display prods us to do.
Lead developer of the Your Brain exhibit Jayatri Das sees the ethics display as part of a broader shift in the Franklin Institute's focus from public understanding of science to public engagement with science.
"It's not enough just to have a one-way delivery of knowledge," she said. "We need a two-way conversation."
And ethics is a perfect place to start. She sees the field as "one aspect of trying to make connections between science and society." Giving it a display of its own can help visitors frame their questions and facilitate conversations "they were going to have anyway."
Science does not advance in a vacuum. Discoveries ripple out in many directions. After wowing us with state-of-the-art exhibits, Your Brain reminds us that the knowledge that science brings is only as valuable as our ability to use it wisely.
In other words, human brains need to understand the environment in which they function in order to truly understand themselves.
That reminder is an important one. It is a crucial part of the process of discovery that belongs in all science museums.
Elizabeth Buck is a Program Manager for Policy and Advocacy at the Camden Coalition, where she works to improve housing options for high-utilizing patients of the healthcare system in Camden.
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