Top Questions about Our Senses Answered

News posts

People sit on stools in a darkened room watching a presenter and a presentation screen.

Our Senses live presenter Barbara Knappmeyer leads an interactive discussion about the senses.

C. Chesek/© AMNH


How are we able to sense things when we sleep? What happens when we lose one of our senses? If you’ve ever asked these questions, you’re not alone.

Barbara Knappmeyer, one of the live presenters who hosts interactive sessions in the Museum’s special exhibition Our Senses, says these are some of the most common questions she hears from visitors. Knappmeyer, who has a background in neuroscience research, recently shared a few of the other most frequently asked questions—and her answers.

What is consciousness?

That’s a question I get asked a lot! It’s one of the most exciting, most difficult, and still un-answered questions in neuroscience. But in the last 15 years, people have started to study consciousness using brain-imaging techniques like functional MRI (fMRI), in combination with clever experiments.

 

Two children touch interactive sculptures of animal heads.

Interactive models of a coyote, human, and dolphin in Our Senses show how the neural pathways associated with the senses of different species can vary.

R. Mickens/© AMNH


Are animals creative?

Language is something humans have evolved to use, and a lot of animals can also vocalize and communicate—but not quite to the extent that we do. For example, dolphins and whales seem to be very intelligent from everything we know. They communicate with each other, but it hasn’t been proven if they imagine things or tell stories to each other.

 

Bees cluster on a large hive attached to a tree.

Some animals are capable of building complex structures. Honey bee colonies make hives to lay their eggs and store food.

Courtesy of devra/Flickr


Visitors ask me a lot about animals who can use tools and build things. Bees can build hives, and they communicate with each other through the bee dance, but their brains are very different than ours. In the presentation, we show a picture of a fly and ask visitors: if the fly’s brain is different than ours, is it conscious? This really gets people to think. The answer is, we don’t really know. The fly could be conscious in some way that we can’t imagine.

How does our use of technology shape our brains?

The idea of plasticity—that we’re not born with a brain that’s fully developed, but that it’s plastic in the sense that it can be changed by our experiences—is oftentimes new to our visitors. Whatever our experiences are, they feed into the development of the brain. So, every time you do something, you make a neural connection, and you strengthen connections if you do things over and over again.

 

An adult and two children use an interactive table in a darkened room.

Visitors to Our Senses are invited to arrange puzzle-like pieces atop a sensor to create pictures of everyday objects. Similar to the way a human brain learns to recognize familiar images over time, the computer uses an artificial neural network to record and recognize shapes.

C. Chesek/© AMNH


For example, when you first learn to read you decipher every letter separately. But as you practice over and over, finally the letters form meaningful words. You have permanently changed your brain to be able to recognize words.

What is your favorite part of the exhibition?

My favorite part of the exhibition is the wall that shows a hollow mask of Albert Einstein’s face. When you first look at it, it appears normal, and when you move around in front of it, it appears to turn slightly towards you. But it never appears to be hollow—which it is!

 

A display in a darkened room contains a wall of sculpted hollow faces.

One exhibit in Our Senses featuring a wall of hollow faces demonstrates how our brain “corrects” sensory information that doesn’t make any sense.

 

D. Finnin/© AMNH


I love this display, because it’s a very powerful example of how our brain actively shapes what we perceive.  What we see, hear, smell, taste is never an exact copy of the stimulus that activates our sensory organs. It’s always shaped and processed by our brains and nervous system.

 

Bring your own questions to ask a live presenter when you visit Our Senses.