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Brain Games: Teaching Tools Get Second Life

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Students in the After School Program piece together the “build-a-brain” puzzle. Photo: ©AMNH/D. Finnin.

Visit the current exhibition Brain: The Inside Story and you are likely to find people gathered around a desk where visitors are challenged to copy a shape seen only in a mirror. Or they might be queued up to try their skill at describing a list designed to trick the tongue into making a mistake. Or watching a video that poses a familiar choice from childhood: listen to your mom or eat a forbidden snack.

These and other compelling interactive exhibits illuminate various aspects of human brain function as nothing else can. And now, through the generosity of The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, a number of them will endure beyond the exhibition when it closes on August 14, replicated and installed as a new attraction in the Sackler Educational Laboratory: the Sackler Brain Bench.

Not literally a “bench”—the term was chosen because scientists in genetics labs work at benches—the Brain Bench, in the Sackler Educational Laboratory within the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, is a selection of artifacts and interactive features from the exhibition at the core of adult courses, student classes, and family workshops to help children and adults gain new understanding of the human brain.

“It was an exciting opportunity to modify these for educational purposes,” says Samara Rubinstein, manager of the Sackler Educational Laboratory and the coordinator of five part-time science educators who staff the Brain Bench. Included in the offerings, which are recommended for visitors ages 8 and up, are the popular “build-a-brain” puzzle, which piece by piece conveys the evolutionary path from the reptilian brain to the neocortex unique to humans; artist Devorah Sperber’s clever installation on the mechanics of sight in which a famous painting is rendered—and disguised by—colorful spools of thread; a pyramid stacking station that looks like child’s play but requires sophisticated planning; and a variety of computer games designed to sharpen basic brain functions like focus and memory.

Here too are the interactive exhibits noted above, including one in which participants are asked to name the color of ink in which each word in a series is printed. But there is a twist that sends conflicting messages to the brain: the words themselves are names of colors and more often than not, a person is inclined to read the color that’s named rather than call out the color they see. “Kids who can’t read yet do great,” says Rubinstein. “They do better than their parents.”

Another interactive exhibit presents the user with the deceptively easy task of tracing the outline of a star from its mirror image. A visitor to the Brain Bench recently struggled with the tracing stylus as red lights flashed furiously, denoting slips outside the lines. “This is just how your mind works,” reassured Rubinstein. Some people are better at it, but it has nothing to do with intelligence.”

Whew. Good to know. But don’t take our word for it. Go in and see for yourself.

Brain Bench is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon–5 pm.

This story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Members’ magazine.