The Exploratorium, a beloved science and art museum in San Francisco, was the brainchild of a physicist named Frank Oppenheimer (you may have heard of his brother Robert, best known as the father of the atomic bomb). In 1949, near the peak of McCarthy-era paranoia, the House Un-American Activities Committee blackballed Oppenheimer from scientific research. After a dejected stint as a cattle rancher, he became a high school science teacher, often ditching the textbook and letting students get their hands dirty. The municipal dump, for example, was a favorite field trip destination for Oppenheimer: he saw not a heap of garbage, but a wonderland of mechanical, electrical, and thermodynamic possibility. As the political climate cooled, Oppenheimer found more opportunities to formalize and catalogue his library of experiments, amassing more than a museum’s worth. When he opened the Exploratorium in 1969, Oppenheimer finally unleashed his hands-on approach to learning upon a city whose citizens’ wide-open minds were ripe for experimentation.
In February, the Exploratorium conducted a little experiment of its own by hosting an exhibit called Cognitive Technologies. The exhibit took visitors through an interactive, glowing, “bio-sensing” environment, a playground for testing the power and flexibility of their own brains. Visitors wore wireless EEG (electroencephalography) headsets that read their brain waves from the surface of the head. As they walked around the room, installations glowed or moved in response to changes in these brain waves. In one corner was a “calmness booth” in which visitors learned to control their mental states through breathing. Nearby, a glowing sculpture changed color like a mood ring as visitors’ focus on a puzzle waxed and waned. Neuroscientists from UC Berkeley showed off stunning maps of the brain at work. Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets offered two options: zooming through the brain’s tangled maze of blood vessels, or navigating beautiful landscapes that changed in response to brain waves. “This may be the first, and certainly the largest, museum exhibit to take these particular scientific tools, remix them with good design, and put them in your hands,” said exhibit director Stephen Frey.
The exhibit was the latest installation to grace the museum’s Black Box, a space dedicated to immersive audiovisual experiences created by a rotating cast of local artists and scientists. “The Black Box was the perfect metaphoric backdrop for an exhibit about the brain and cognition,” said exhibit designer Robert Hanson. Indeed, the brain is its own sort of “black box,” a near-total mystery to even the best and brightest scientists. “With all we know about the brain and all the technology we have to understand it, all the brilliant minds working on it, we still know almost nothing about how our own minds work,” said Mike Pesavento, who created and displayed 3-dimensional scans of brain tissue for visitors’ perusal. While the museum generally features solidly constructed exhibits that illustrate established scientific principles, Cognitive Technologies bravely took visitors for a walk along the bleeding edge of current neuroscientific knowledge and technological possibility.
To bring this psychedelic menagerie of technologies to the Black Box, curator Pam Winfrey reached out to the Berkeley-based Cognitive Technology Group. The group, an incubator for brain-computer interfaces and brain research, includes neuroscientists, artists, engineers, and hackers from around the San Francisco Bay Area’s vibrant “maker” scene. Some members have futuristic leanings, dreaming of a world populated by hypercompetent cyborgs. Others have more educational motivations, hoping to clear up the fog of mystery surrounding brain science and show people the current state of neuroscience research, for better or worse. Cognitive Technologies did not shy away from uncertainty, but instead invited visitors to see what their brains can do: controlling a robotic claw by imagining arm movements, for starters. The EEG headsets used in the exhibit are far from perfect: most visitors had mixed success with mind control. Still, the control was often precise enough to be either thrilling or unnerving, depending on who you talked to. “Generally, people walk away from the headset experience with a sort of empowered sense that they can change their brain, that they can influence it more than they previously thought,” said Frey.
The real-time feedback provided by the headsets also trains people to recognize the mental states associated with different patterns of brainwaves. This recognition could someday help people more easily access desirable states like mindfulness, focus, and positive attitude. Alexis Finch, an experience design consultant who helped the researchers translate their work into exhibit pieces, sees the use of this feedback as a kind of self-hacking. “We can actually see when we are relaxed, or concentrating, or under stress,” she said. “Just as the Fitbit revolutionized exercise by allowing people to see their workouts and track their body’s improvement, personal EEGs can help anything from stress and the associated diseases of the heart, on to improving study habits and the likelihood of children to succeed in schools.”
Because these technologies are still in their infancy, Cognitive Technologies represents a risk that paid off for the Exploratorium. Born out of hackathons and meetup groups, the spirit of experimentation and open collaboration permeates the exhibit’s genesis story. Originally conceived of as a sort of open laboratory, scientists would be on hand to talk about their projects. As the group’s ideas grew more elaborate, however, so did their needs. Finch recruited artists from the local industrial arts collective m0xy. Exhibit designers Robert Hanson and Jordan McCorkle worked with the artists to bring their concept designs to life. “Making the exhibit functional and cool on paper was one thing, but making it physical and cohesive was a bit of a leap of faith,” said Hanson.
“At our first planning meeting, our Google Docs were brimming with bright ideas, but not one of us had a project ready to be displayed for the Exploratorium,” said brain-computer interface maker John Naulty. In addition to beautiful artistic design, an army of volunteers, and engaging scientific content, the exhibit required high-tech infrastructure to keep it humming along. Wireless EEG headsets, though sleek, have only recently been developed for personal use. At the Exploratorium, programmer William Wnekowicz created a network to analyze data from twenty headsets simultaneously, projecting the data in real time onto a screen overhead. Interaxon, the company that manufactured and supplied the headsets, sent help in the form of additional developers. The resulting technology allowed visitors to become part of the exhibit and provided a platform for brain data analysis on which future exhibits might expand.
As funding for science is slashed from school budgets around the nation, a community of passionate science communicators has sprung up in unlikely places. In bars, in warehouses, in bookstores and museums, diverse groups of science enthusiasts think and talk and work and build. They write code, they make models, they plan presentations, they raise money. They think about how their work could be adapted for future use: traveling workshops, science festivals, classroom visits, and yes, more museum exhibits. Cognitive Technologies brought cutting-edge gadgetry within reach for museumgoers, allowing them to experiment and play freely. The exhibit changed the way people think about the problems of neuroscience and about themselves. It empowered visitors both to change their minds, and to change the world with their minds. Frank Oppenheimer would have been proud.