Art of the Brain, and the Scientists Who Study It

March 27, 2017

An innovative digital art installation on the ground floor of the new Jerome L. Greene Science Center on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus invites visitors to peer inside the brain and meet the neuroscientists who are working upstairs to unravel its complexities. The multiscreen floor-to-ceiling work, Brain Index, loops through large-scale models of the brain while telling the stories of individual researchers and their quests to push the boundaries of neuroscience.

“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.”

Three years in the making, the permanent exhibit is the brainchild of Kurgan, who also directs 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. Their work was commissioned by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and it brings together art and science. It is designed to spark the same sense of wonder and curiosity in the public that drives the institute’s researchers.

“This collaboration, like the Zuckerman Institute itself, aims to promote a collision of ideas—both within and between the sciences, social sciences and humanities,” said Thomas M. Jessell, co-director of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute.

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.

The Brain Index features a wall-sized screen and multiple displays that show three different visualizations of the brain, sometimes simultaneously: the brain’s outer surface, the networks of blood vessels that feed it and the tangles of connections that link different regions. Based on scientific data, the visualizations take the viewer on a road trip of sorts as the camera pans, tilts and zooms to reveal new places from unexpected angles.

Snapshots of Zuckerman Institute researchers are superimposed on these maps of the brain. Eight scientists are introduced sequentially, along with interactive displays tied to the parts of the brain they study. Playful headlines sum up their work: “Fish Food for Thought” describes neuroscientist Nathaniel Sawtell’s search for analogs between electric fish and human electric brains, and “Go with the Flow” describes biomedical engineer Elizabeth Hillman’s study of how blood flow affects brain function and development. More researcher profiles are scheduled to be added in the coming months.

The installation’s emphasis on electronic data is a continuation of Kurgan and Hansen’s first collaboration, Exit, a visualization of global migration patterns that explored why people leave home. While the Brain Index looks inward, both share a desire to inform and educate. The Brain Index also builds on Hansen’s portfolio of public installations—he helped create the Shakespeare Machine in the lobby of the Public Theater as well as Moveable Type, a large-scale piece in the entry of the New York Times Building, another iconic building designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the architectural firm that designed the Greene Science Center.

“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.”

—By Kim Martineau