An exhibition accompanies the visitor on a fascinating journey through the most amazing tool we possess: the brain

By Francesco Carelli – Professor Family Medicine, Milan , Rome

The brain, instructions for use is a great exhibition of a scientific nature that reveals also to a not specialized public the mechanisms that regulate our perceptions, emotions, opinions and feelings: a new and interactive perspective making the best possible use of technology to explain to people and get them involved.

 The exhibition, which is on view from the 18th October 2013 to the 13th April 2014 in Milan, in the halls of the Museo di Storia Naturale, the most important museum of natural history in Italy and one among the most prominent in Europe, is promoted 

 and produced  as the result of a collaboration between the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano and the American Museum of Natural History of New York, in collaboration with the Comune di Milano and 24 Ore Cultura – Gruppo 24 Ore.


The brain, instructions for use brings visitors up to date on the latest neuroscientific discoveries, highlighting the brain’s surprising ability to reconfigure itself  in response to experience, disability, or trauma, besides showing the new technologies that researchers use to study this organ and to find cures for pathologies such as Alzheimer, Parkinson and mood disorders.

The visitor will be accompanied  in the discovery of  the amazing tool that is the brain and of  the huge potential and capacities that  it offers, by a fascinating sensorial setup with exhibits, installations, games and films: a two meter tall homunculus  shows how much part  of  the brain  is dedicated to the sense of  touch; a multimedia video piece in which a clear resin brain shows the functional areas that light up in the mind of a girl undergoing a dance test; a screen of neuronal movements  revealing  the way brain  cells connect and communicate with each other; a model of the subcortical area of the brain –  the region containing the most “ancient” parts of the brain – illustrating the way in which the brain processes language, memory and decision-making; and, for the first time in a museum, a deep-brain stimulator implant.


The exhibition is divided into seven sections:


1.Introduction. After walking past a preserved human brain, visitors step through an installation of Daniel Canogar that simulates neuron activity by using a lighting system. This piece of work – almost seven hundred kilos of electric wires hanging on a structure that extends over more than ten meters – was created by using recycled materials.  

2.The introductive theatre. To acquire  some  basic information on the brain and on how it works. A video projection shows the activities that a girl undergoing  a dance test carries out by correlating them simultaneously with the activity of certain areas of her brain.

3.The sensing brain. In this section of the exhibition, the specific areas of the brain devoted to hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing and touching will be highlighted  thanks  to  a series of  interactive experiences. An installation of the artist Deborah Sperber incites visitors to visually  interpret  the pieces of  a visual puzzle – colours, angles, figures – to create the image of a painting that is universally known. Among the other items there is an almost two-metre tall homunculus with  enlarged hands and face, to represent the brain’s management of the sense of touch; Kiki and Booba, forms that, during a famous experiment, up to 98 percent of people of different language and culture have identified as such; and a  screen of neuronal movements allowing visitors to use their hands to understand how neurons communicate with each other. 

4.The emotional brain.  This section  explores the mode through which emotions are elaborated in the brain and its evolution. A series of animal models, as well as an interactive exhibit of the construction of a brain, illustrate  the brain’s  evolution, by  comparing  parts of the human  brain with those of  lizards,  mammals and  primates.  An interactive  booth  stimulates  visitors to explore the message transmission mode between neurons with the classical dilemma of the box of biscuits. Finally, this section presents some marvelous neuron models in dark red coloured resin, with computerized control lighting that stimulates the exchange of messages between neurotransmitters.

5.The thinking brain. In this section intelligence is represented in all its complexity  as the  sum of  different  types  of  Intelligence. Visitors can  be able  to enter  a “brain”  by walking  in a room lined with lighted fabric material representing the cortical folding (the external layers of the brain), which allows people  to think,  plan and imagine.  Dominating the centre of the room  stands the rounded sculpture of the brain’s subcortical area: 35 times larger than the real size, made  in non-transparent resin and connected to the exhibits of  this section,  it highlights  the cerebral connective links between the internal and external regions of the brain and makes functions like language, memory (short term, procedural, long term and emotional) and decision-making possible. 

Language is analysed  thanks to an interactive installation that shows how the capacity to pronounce some sounds with precision is more difficult  if  brain connections are not created at an early stage of life. Interactive exhibits connected to memory include the game of number sequences, a  game that  aims to prove  that,  to remember  long number sequences, it is useful to divide these in small groups;  drawing a star, an exercise that proves how practice can simplify the difficult task of  drawing a form when looking in the mirror. This section also has the task of explaining the mechanisms that are responsible for the modifications and the reliability of people’s memory, as well as the importance of  sleep  in transferring  short term remembrance to long term memory.

The executive part of the brain, the one devoted to reasoning, is explained by using  two games:  an exercise of  concentration on  colours  that  illustrates how the brain decides which pieces of information are relevant; and a stacking game, that requires a targeted strategy to stack bricks in the shortest possible number of moves.

6.The changing brain. This part of the exhibition examines the development of the brain during a  lifetime and its incredible capacity to reorganize  itself. To evoke the extraordinary speed of neuronal development in a human fetus – during the first five months, neurons develop at an average speed of half a million per minute –  Canogar has created a second artistic installation, the sculpture of  neuronal development: a funnel-shaped mass of copper and silver filaments.  Brain development,  however, does not stop at the time of birth: the brain continues to mature, by creating new connections and by eliminating those that  have  not been used, during  all one’s life.  Sometimes the brain’s plasticity will  allow it,  if necessary,  to co-opt new areas: a blind person, for instance, uses the visual cortex to read Braille, and an interactive installation of  palpable Braille  allows  visitors to try to use  the sense of  touch to read.  A brain that  grows old can be seriously affected  by illnesses such as Alzheimer, as  can be observed in a preserved damaged brain. Activity, over time, can however contribute to preserving its acumen, as highlighted by three brain-teasers developed by neuroscientists that show visitors how they can increase their grey matter.

7.The  brain  of the future.  What we consider futuristic is actually already here: electrodes are implanted in the brain to keep epilepsy seizures under control;  patients affected by Parkinson’s disease  or by depression are treated with direct electrical stimulations;  implants are made to allow deaf people to hear and blind people to see, and brain-computer interfaces are being developed  to help people affected by paralysis  to operate computer controlled devices and maybe  even recover  motor functions. Finally, visitors  have the possibility to relax  by sinking  into the biomorphic seats of the brain lounge to experience  the surprising c onclusion of  the exhibition: floating projections of magnetic resonance images that tell the story of four persons: a United Nations interpreter incessantly switching from Arabic to English, a musician of classical music playing;  a rock  star performing and a basketball player moving on the court in response to game actions. By observing the magnetic resonance images, visitors are able to sense how their own brain may function in similar situations.


“Brain. The brain, instructions for use” is organized by the American Museum of Natural History of New York in collaboration with the Comune di Milano-Cultura, Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano, Codice. Idee per la cultura, 24 ORE Cultura – Gruppo 24 ORE, the Guangdong Science Center, Guangzhou and the Parque de las Ciencias, Granada.