Who Am I?

Don’t worry folks: I’m not having an identity crisis. I’ve just come back from the Science Museum!

I think nearly everyone I know has been to the Science Museum. Most likely, like me, you were taken by your parents when you were hyperactive and young, and they set you loose on the dozens of interactive activities dotted around the building. Hopefully, whilst you were jabbing at buttons, some science crept into your head, and you got the learning bug. I most certainly did.

Science is about curiosity. How does it work? Why is it like that? What happens if…?

I’ve always been interested in people – maybe it’s because, growing up as a bit of a geek and a loner, I could observe their strangeness from the outside. People do some bizarre things. So what is it that makes people what they are? Well the “Who Am I?” exhibit endeavours to explore that.

The six basic human emotions: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, happiness and sadness. Which is which?

In line with the Science Museum’s tradition, there are plenty of interactive activities on offer. But don’t despair, adults – I enjoyed these too! Even if the “emotion provoking” activity freaked me out a bit – but then that was the aim!

Fat mouse!

This permanent exhibit touches on aspects of human nature from emotion, memory, gender, feeding behaviours, and even the origin of our species. What is it that sets us apart from all other animals? What exactly IS consciousness anyway? Tricky questions, and as with a lot of museum exhibits, they are not satisfactorily answered. I suppose it is up to the visitor to decide to pursue curious topics in greater detail…

A reconstruction of what our European ancestors may have looked like, based on Romanian bone fragments, 35,000 years old. I found this face strangely mesmerising.

For me, the above photo is one of the most interesting: it is a reconstruction of the brain of one of the most famous memory patients in the world. The patient is question was known as HM (now that he has sadly passed away, his real name, Henry Molaison, can be revealed). HM suffered from severe epilepsy, resulting in many seizures every single day. In 1953, he was referred for treatment, and the source of his epilepsy was narrowed down to his right and left medial temporal lobes (MTLs, shown in green in the photo above). He agreed to have surgery to have parts of these removed (on both sides) in the hope that it would help to control the severity of his debilitating seizures.

The surgery was a mixed blessing: it did bring his epilepsy under control, but it also left him with severe anterograde amnesia. His working memory and procedural memory were still ok: he was still intelligent, charismatic and often witty (just listen to some of the interview recordings of him chatting to psychologists & neuroscientists) but he was unable to form new long term memories. Despite working with neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin for 30 years, every time they met for an interview was, for all intents and purposes, the first time HM had ever met her.

HM was determined to help scientists as best as he could to understand his amnesia so that it might help others. When he died in 2008, he left his brain to science, to be examined for further investigation. A hugely interesting and kind hearted, selfless man, despite his cruel fate.

An early model of MRI cap. Looks like an awesome sci-fi costume.

A Micro TMS cap (deactivates neurons temporarily, making you sleeeeeep) and an EEG cap (electroencephalograph)


Anyway, the long and short of it is: “Who Am I?” is thought provoking, fun, and curious. Some things you will already know about, but may have never seen before. Some things will be entirely new. Hopefully, you will want to know ever more. Congratulations to the Science Museum for having such a wonderful exhibit devoted to us humans, and particularly the strong focus on mind and consciousness: a psychological and neuroscientific focus within the museum has, until now, been sorely underrespresented.

The Science Museum is in South Kensington, and is open every day of the week (10-6). Entry is free to most of the museum, including “Who Am I?”. Go on. Be curious.


One thought on “Who Am I?

  1. Pingback: 100! « Unravelled

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