Gazing bug-eyed, 11-year-old Steven Behrens climbed through a giant brain at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
"Now where am I going to go next," muttered Behrens, of Keyport, N.J., at the endless possibilities surrounding him in the dimly lit netted jungle-gym-like structure. "Found it, found where I am going to go next!"
Behrens got a sneak peek at the giant replica of the human noggin where visitors, beginning Saturday, can take a neural climb, like the 86 billion neurons traveling in their own heads. At 8,500 square feet "Your Brain" will be the biggest permanent neuroscience exhibit in the country. With 70 interactive experiences it is part of the larger Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion addition to the museum.
Jayatri Das, the Franklin Institute's chief bioscientist, is the exhibit's lead developer. Her list of accolades is long -- she has a B.S. in biology, a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology. The majority of her professional life was spent doing biology research but ever since she started at the Franklin Institute in 2006, her life's work has been devoted to this exhibit.
"We know that people remember things that are emotional and when you can create a connection to something like this that is really unforgettable then you are going to remember the science that goes along with that as well," explained Das.
Das grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and both of her parents were scientists. At a young age, the Franklin Institute became like a second home to her and her sister. She never thought she would come back to work here but now she calls it a "dream job."
The exhibit demonstrates that the brain lets us know when something is hot, when to take caution and what to keep our minds focused on. For example, when looking at a video of a man in a boat the brain tells us to be cautious of there is eerie music playing but the brain tells us to expect good fortune if there is upbeat music playing.
It also reminds us that the brain is the reason that humans give into optical illusions. One interactive portion of the exhibit is a room with a single bed in it surrounded by walls that are painted so that they appear crooked. When visitors lay down in the bed it appears that people standing in the room are standing on an angle.
"Wow everything looks crooked!" Behrens exclaimed when he laid down on the bed and glanced over at his parents and his friend who were standing on the side of the room.
Diving into the more granular science of what is happening in our brains, the exhibit displays neural activity at a "larger than life" size so that we can understand how messages travel inside our heads.
11-year old Alexis Jupko, who was on the tour with her friend Behrens, got to thinking about how the wheels turn inside her brain.
"Thinking of when I do stupid stuff, should I do it or not." And what does her brain tell her to do? "Go for it, and I usually do it," Jupko said, her round cheeks try to contain her laughter.
Based on research collected before they constructed the "Your Brain" exhibit, the meter for understanding the brain is not just low for kids, it is also very low for adults.
"When it came to knowledge about the brain everyone was on the same page as an 8-10 year old and yet everybody was so excited to learn about the brain," Das explained.
Last year, visitors to the Franklin Institute came from all 50 states and 13 countries. With this new addition, Larry Dubinski, the Franklin Institute's incoming president and CEO, said that the institute will broaden their reach. So far, it is working. Behrens and Jupko came with Behrens' parents in an RV that they drove from New Jersey.
"We couldn't live without the brain!" Behrens shrieked.
Jupko pondered his remark.
"The brain is..." Jupko said, before pausing and letting the wheels crank in her brain, "...awesome."