A Brainy Night Out
April 24, 2014 by Jen
I mustered up the courage to try a forkful of brain on the last day of the event. Poached and then fried, it had a slightly crunchy exterior, but was meltingly soft inside – the texture of silken tofu. It slid down my throat as I swallowed it, while my own brain struggled to comprehend a tasty but deeply odd psychological experience…
This visceral reaction was key to the idea behind our Brain Banquet event in March 2014: we wanted to create a memorable, multi-layered and sensory experience of the brain. To do so, we chose the unusual venue of a disused World War Two bunker in East London, and worked to transform it into a three-dimensional map of the mind that our guests could explore with eyes, ears, and mouths.
The networked nature of the physical space gave a variety of different paths for guests to take, including a ‘Being John Malkovich’ inspired route that involved crawling through the small holes linking different rooms. With a sturdy cocktail in hand (inspired by healthy cerebrospinal fluid being ‘as clear as gin’), our visitors wandered through the space, encountering a different facets of the brain and its functions in each room.
Guests could donate their own memories in an installation referencing areas of the brain involved in memory processing; enter a beautiful neuronal forest created by artist Evy Jokhova; and consider their own brain in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom with specimens loaned from the Royal Veterinary College. Also on show was Agatha Haines’ parasite-inspired External Brain, and an auditory soundtrack created from MRI scanning data filtered through the bunker.
As guests sat down to a lively five-course dinner, a number of speakers shared scientific and historical perspectives on the brain. Psychologist Vaughan Bell treated the audience to strange but true tales of the ways in which hallucinations are a normal part of our everyday experience. Historian Felicity Callard and neuroscientist Daniel Margulies helped diners appreciate the anatomical detail of the calves’ brains sitting on their plates (the expression on diners’ faces as they ate a first mouthful of brain was something I’ll never forget), while neuroscientist Anil Seth shared his work to unlock the mystery that is human consciousness.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the project for me, though, was our collaboration with brain injury charity Headway East London. Headway members gave guests plenty of food for thought, ending the evening with moving personal accounts that made me appreciate how fragile and strong the brain and those living with brain injury can be.
The Brain Banquet was the first in a program of six Experimental events Guerilla Science are doing as part of a project supported by the Wellcome Trust.