A Festival of Neuroscience

For four days in early April, London’s Barbican Centre was taken over by neuroscientists.  Most of them were professional researchers attending seminars and symposia organized […]

For four days in early April, London’s Barbican Centre was taken over by neuroscientists.  Most of them were professional researchers attending seminars and symposia organized by the British Neuroscience Association for its 2013 Festival of Neuroscience.  In addition to the conference delegates, however, another group of scientists and medical personal roamed the Barbican’s halls and foyers, sporting badges that read “Ask Me About BRAINS.”  These neuroscientists were there to run a collection of talks, performances, demonstrations, and activities collectively titled “Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain.”  The events, jointly organized by the Wellcome Trust and the Barbican, were aimed at communicating neuroscience to the public.  For an aspiring science communicator like myself, Wonder offered the opportunity to observe an array of approaches to making neuroscience engaging, understandable, and relevant for a non-scientific audience.

At the centre of the public portion of the Festival of Neuroscience was the Wonder Street Fair, a hall full of booths and displays through which the public was free to wander, offering a creative sampling of ways to engage with neuroscience.  At an artistic booth, visitors could peer down a microscope at neurons and then draw them, thus following in the footsteps of Ramón y Cajal, a famous neuroscientist who deduced many key principles about the nervous system simply by examining it under the scope.  Another arts-and-crafts exhibit was put together by Knit a Neuron, a project begun in Bristol that has inspired knitters worldwide and has resulted in several art commissions, including knitted portrayals of brain activity during a stroke or in neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.  As Helen Featherstone, one of the co-founders of Knit a Neuron, told me, knitting is a great way of bringing people together and facilitating conversation, giving members of the public a chance to discuss neuroscience in a comfortable atmosphere and to ask questions of neuroscientists who participate in the events. Knitting, among other activities, seemed successful at engaging visitors – he attractions drew a significant crowd including many families.

Other exhibits offered perspective into the complexities of research and medicine, complexities that the general public rarely gets a chance to see.  A member of a Cambridge-based team called The Naked Scientists, who broadcast a science radio show online, used EEG equipment to allow visitors to witness their own brain waves moving in real time.  Volunteers manning a station called “Are You Smarter Than A _____” guided kids through tasks researchers have used to assess intelligence in different types of animals: dropping stones into a vase of water to displace a less dense treat, which crows and jays do deftly; and cooperating with a partner to obtain a reward that can only be achieved with teamwork, which both elephants and monkeys are able to do.  And three times a day, a team of medics performed a brain surgery demonstration, complete with scrubs, stretchers, bloody bandages, real surgical tools, and a highly realistic gelatin brain.

In addition to the Street Fair, Wonder included a series of theatrical performances and film screenings that tackled neuroscience from various angles.  Comedian-neuroscientist Ruby Wax performed a show about her own experience of depression and the way in which her study of neuroscience has affected that experience.  Audience members could devise their own questions about the brain heard at “I’m a Neuroscientist: Get Me Out of Here!,” at which a panel of neuroscientists fielded questions and competed to come up with the best answer. The Salon Project, my personal favorite, allowed participants to don period costumes, mingle with leading neuroscientists and other intellectuals, discuss cutting-edge research and ideas – all in the nostalgic setting of a Parisian salon of the 1800s.

Wonder also offered ways to dip a toe into neuroscience.  At Packed Lunch, a program regularly run at the Wellcome Trust that relocated to the Barbican during the Festival of Neuroscience, working people can spend their lunch break listening to an hour-long interview and Q&A with a scientist or medical professional. The topic? Gambling addiction. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, the interviewee and a doctor and researcher at Imperial who runs the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London, discussed the definition of addiction, types of experiments one might use to study it, and the trajectory of her own career. However, perhaps the most interesting part of the interview was not the content on addiction itself but the reception. Watching Bowden-Jones describe her work in terms that would be both understandable to the non-scientists in the audience, as well as relevant to fellow researchers who were in attendance, proved fascinating to witness. Many moments arose when the interviewer had to jump in and clarify a term or reference as a striking reminder of the extent to which science can be jargon-laden and, consequently, insular.  Nevertheless, the event successfully gave the public revealing and unique insight into gambling addiction and the broader societal context in which it occurs.

Overall, the Festival of Neuroscience’s Wonder program offered the public a multitude of ways to explore neuroscience.  And for those involved in science communication, it provided a case study of different approaches to convey science to a wider audience – whether through discussion, humor, arts, or hands-on activities – that do not involve a paper abstract.

About Clio Korn