Skip to main content

Exhibition

Brain(s)

The human brain is the most complex object that we know and it is also the fabric of dreams and of conscious experience. It enables us to explore and change our surroundings, remember the past while we invent diverse futures, and understand the universe in unprecedented detail. “Brain(s)” explores not only how humans have studied and represented the brain, but also follows the analysis of the set of activities that it carries out, such as abstract thinking, language, consciousness, imagination or dreams. How does it create reality? What are the nature and origins of conscious experience? Could a machine imitate human creativity? Do non-human animals have consciousness? Can an ant or a plant be compared to a brain? Are we, as humans, a society of brains similar to a collective intelligence?

The mind/brain duality that was established by modern Western science, influenced by the Christian division between body and soul, has been superseded by the discoveries of neuroscience, and today we know that the two things are inseparable. To the point that currently scientists and philosophers affirm that the human mind, with all of its capacities, is the result of biological evolution and responds to the same adaptive criteria as other aspects of life. What do we know, therefore, of what really makes us human? What happens in our mind/brain when we are capable of talking, creating, and feeling emotion?

These and many other questions are at the inception of a project that the CCCB, the Fundació Telefónica and the Wellcome Collection started up together with an extensive network of researchers, creators, and thinkers. Through artistic projects, laboratory experiments, mediation workshops and public debates, “Brain(s)” questions our understanding of conscious experience and explores what can happen when this experience is interrupted or undermined.

For centuries, philosophers, poets, and artists have been studying and questioning the structure, function, and evolution of the brain. It has been relatively recently that neuroscience has also joined the debate. Now, a hundred years on from Ramón y Cajal discovering that the neuron is the basic unit of brain architecture, the pace of discovery has gradually accelerated. In recent decades, major advances have much improved our image of what Charles Sherrington dubbed “the enchanted loom.” And, despite the fact that scientists have defined the most detailed map of grey matter that has ever existed, we still do not know how it works. We do not have a theory of consciousness. We are a long way from creating an intelligent machine.

The exhibition “Brain(s)” makes inroads into these questions and many others through the observation of the rich landscape of cognition and its historical development, from natural systems to those created by humankind. Based on different focuses and disciplines, the exhibition project links the views of contemporary artists with original drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, first editions by René Descartes, inventions and machinery by visionary scientists such as Leonardo Torres Quevedo or José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado, comics and films, as well as projects by leading scientific research centres.

The exhibition route commences at a section that analyses the origins; how the fossil register and cave art reveal the appearance of the symbolic mind. With a review of the classic proposal based on anatomical descriptions, we approach old questions associated with the relevance of brain size, and with how a distorted and ideological view of this aspect led to the growth of phrenology and eugenics. Using different technological analogies we situate ourselves in the modern network of minds, in which brains are converted into real systems and the reductionist view of the world becomes obsolete.

A second section analyses the brain and consciousness as processes for which memory is a fundamental element. To a large extent, we are our memory, which has very little in common with the memory used in machines. When our memory fails, our world can crumble. Our self starts to suffer problems. Beyond some thresholds, loss of memory means loss of consciousness. New technologies, such as virtual reality, offer unexpected ways of finding answers.

In the last space of the exhibition, we question the unique status of our brain. The cognitive biosphere is not limited to our brains. We are starting to realise that answering the big questions could imply having to seek cognitive agents that challenge our intuition: simple cells that resolve complex mathematical problems, or living robots that have behaviours without brains.

 

“Brain(s)” is an exhibition developed based on two originally independent exhibitions programmed at the Wellcome Collection in London: 'Brains: The Mind as Matter' (2012) and 'States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness' (2016). 

A co-production by: CCCB, Fundación Telefónica (Madrid) and Wellcome Collection (London)

Curators: Emily Sargent and Ricard Solé