The “Life of a Neuron” exhibit’s main gallery. 
Courtesy of Matthew Koehler

By Matthew Koehler

As the winter season approaches, colder temperatures drive many people inside. So perhaps it’s fitting that Artechouse’s autumn exhibit, a fusion of art, technology, and a whole lot of neuroscience, takes an inward journey as well. Enter Life of a Neuron, a collaboration between Artechouse and the Society of Neuroscience that “brings artists and scientists together for a groundbreaking collaboration to explore how the brain shapes the shared human experience.”

John Morrison, University of California Davis Distinguished Professor and one of the scientists on the project, says that Life “[i]s the first of its kind to use data like this to bring key neuroscience principles to life. We’re able to bring to the world an exhibit like no other – artistic interpretations of scientific data and principles to allow the public to experience neuroscience in a whole new way.” He says he hopes the exhibit will “spark curiosity” in people and encourage them to learn “more about the universe between their ears.”

Stepping onto the main gallery floor, visitors enter an utterly immersive, vertigo-inducing inner universe– literally. Floor to wall vibrant, 3D animation shows the life cycle (approximately 20 minutes of run time) of the neuron in high-definition, from pre-birth to death. Sounds of babies laughing, children playing, and moments of sadness drift out of the surround sound to indicate what stage of life the neuron is experiencing.

The self-titled main gallery tells the story of the hero neuron – a “highly plastic” neuron that “processes new information every day” and ostensibly is what makes us human.

A staff member said that people worry about stepping on the floor because, at times, it seems there is no floor and are, instead, drifting through the synapses. She suggested sitting in the middle of the room in order to get the full experience. I and the few other visitors did so. Sitting in the middle of the floor does actually make it feel like you are inside a synaptical universe.

Wondering if the few other patrons were experiencing the same inner universe, I asked. One mesmerized woman commented that it was “really beautiful.”

“It’s really cool. Especially since it reacts to you!” she continued. She also confirmed that the experience was mildly dizzying.

To the right of the main gallery, you invade the brain as an addiction in Imposter. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) senses your presence and transforms you into a drug that gradually co-opts neural connections in the brain. From right to left, panels indicate a healthy neuron going through the stages of addiction, and fiber optic cables above each panel signal your presence in the brain. The numbers on the lower left of the screens indicate the level of binder proteins (FosB) in the system. FosB has been identified as playing a crucial role in the “development and maintenance of addiction.” FosB also plays an oversized role in the response of neurons to more natural, healthy rewards, like tasty food, exercise, and sex.

To the left of the main gallery, and journeying deeper into recesses of Artechouse, the great eye of Edge of Illumination greets you. Visitors can walk along the neural connection of sight and learn how the brain constructs images from vision. One of the staff explained that “our eyes don’t actually see” but are biological mechanisms for processing light. Through a complex process in the brain, and after a microsecond, light is converted into the reality we see around us.

Be sure to ask about the crossed pathways leading away from the eye!

You’ve no doubt heard the axiom: The family that plays together, stays together. Eureka, a small exhibit just past the great eye of Illumination, works on that same principle. Simply, cells that fire together tend to wire together – a simplified version of Hebb’s postulate, which I won’t reproduce here because it’s too long.

Through a series of YMCA-like arm movements, the screen gives patrons a view of “the intricate system of neurons across six layers of the prefrontal cortex.” By introducing external stimuli, your arm movements, you can induce the neurons to produce positive and negative interactions, as well as the reward response. You can also get the screen to mimic an “Aha!” moment by touching your head with one hand.

The deepest cavern of Artechouse’s Life brings you to Fragile – a dark room filled with music, noise, and erratically shifting patterns on five panels. By artist fuse* and lead scientists, Dani Dumitriu, MD, Ph.D, and John Morrison, Ph.D, Fragile uses an algorithm that converts real time tweets into sound and visuals and shows the impact of “external interactions on our nervous system and ultimately on our relationship with the outside world.” 

Perhaps the most relevant exhibit to our current moment in the 21st century (given the months of pandemic lockdowns, uncertainty, and misinformation) Fragile shows us what social media does to our minds. The visual assault on the eyes and symphonic clash of music with abrupt sounds, could be a representation of what is going on in our collective heads when reading something that triggers discordant thoughts of joy, rage, sadness, confusion, and despair.

Before leaving those deep recesses of human consciousness (i.e. the backroom of Artechouse), be sure to check out the horror that is Stres (to the right of Fragile). The silicon-based sculpture shows “group of displaced people in a heightened state of stress” due to the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life. A staff member told me to wait a minute while she unhooked the cordon and walked around the sculpture, which shied away from her as she moved around it.

Returning to the main gallery of Life, I got the sense that I was still trekking through Dan Deacon’s N-dimethyltryptamine-influenced video, When I Was Done Dying. I found myself hesitant to step out of this trippy internal waltz through Wonderland back to the mundane world. I had reconnected with my inner child, faced my demons, and accepted my ultimate fate with calm serenity journeying through the dizzying orchestra of animations and sounds. 

Once again, I sat on the floor and watched as more patrons came in, looked around to get their bearings and take an obligatory selfie. Like me, they settled to the floor and immersed themselves in the life of a neuron – their attention rapt. I was finally ready to leave and re-enter the world.

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