As a species, we’ve walked on the moon, explored the ocean floor and remotely probed the known limits of the galaxy, but our own human brains still conceal some of life’s greatest mysteries. This is exactly the subject of a permanent digital art installation on the ground floor of the new Jerome L. Greene Science Center at Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus. The project is called Brain Index, and it’s the product of a three-year collaboration between Laura Kurgan, Director of the Center for Spatial Research at the Architecture School, and Mark Hansen, professor and director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Graduate School of Journalism.
Commissioned by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Brain Index invites visitors to peer inside the human head and meet the Columbia neuroscientists that are on the cutting edge of this research. As the video below shows, this is achieved through large-scale models and seven touchscreens that glide from the floor to the ceiling. Pictures of Zuckerman Institute researchers are overlaid on maps of the brain that include the outer surface, blood vessel networks and various connections that link up vital regions. All told, eight scientists are introduced sequentially, along with displays tied to the parts of the brain they study.
“We’re trying to make the science in the building accessible and personal, and at the same time communicate how much we have yet to learn,” said Laura Kurgan, one of the work’s creators and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “The brain is this messy mystery of billions and billions of neurons.”
Indeed, the popular phrase (or excuse depending on how you look at it) that human beings only use 10 percent of their brains is a myth. We actually utilize 100 percent of our personal supercomputers for different tasks and operations at different times throughout any given day. The mystery, however, remains as we only understand roughly 10 percent of how these miraculous organs function.
“The Brain Index is meant to teach and capture the public’s imagination,” said Hansen. “That was our only design constraint. The human-sized moving screens navigate the research taking place in the building and, like opening doors, invite the public to step up and explore.”
The ground floor of the Greene Science Center is open to the public and serves as a neighborhood resource for brain science education. Across from the Brain Index is the Education Lab, which hosts a variety of hands-on programs year-round.
“It extends our mission to every person who walks through our lobby by giving them a vivid sense of what we’re trying to accomplish upstairs and why it matters,” said Kelley Remole, the Zuckerman Institute’s director of education and outreach.