Brain Diaries – the chapters of our lives

Extraordinary changes in your brain unlock every stage of your life. 

This is the top-level message we set out to communicate in the Brain Diaries exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). I developed the interpretation strategy and then wrote the exhibition text, working with the wonderful museum team.
Whole exhibition

The brief was to tell a story about the development of the healthy human brain from pre-birth to old age. OUMNH has an incredible collection of brain specimens and expertise to draw upon, and the museum is surrounded by University departments whose staff generously made time to answer questions in the research process.

After a number of in-depth interviews and visits, I had material from conversations with key neuroscientists and psychologists tackling the team’s questions, including: what is really going on, day by day, in the brain? How does something so complex grow? Do we really use only ten per cent of the brain’s capacity? Can we grow new brain cells later in life? And at what age is sleep the most important?

Mammal brains

As often happens during exhibition development, we moved through a number of ideas but settled on the notion that our brains’ physical changes, including cell migration and growth, making connections, pruning, and shrinkage, usher in the phases of our lives.

With this step-by-step approach, we could tell visitors what was happening in their own brains at different ages, via chapters in a diary. We could also reveal surprises – including the fact that brain maturity, far from happening at the end of adolescence, is a state we only reach at about the age of 25.

Diary, chapter one

It’s three weeks since you were conceived, and your brain has just started to form. A quarter of a million neurons are growing in your head with every passing minute. Under the guidance of your genes, you are now forming the brain cells that you will think with all your life, along with cells in your ears and eyes.

Diary, chapter three

You are now in your teenage years. How do you feel? Your brain is at peak performance. Its capacity to think now matches an adult’s, and its ability to learn will never be greater. During this vital period, your prefrontal cortex is undergoing a pruning process in which active connections are strengthened while others are lost.

Diary, chapter five

At the ripe old age you’ve now reached, your brain has been hard at work for decades. Ever since you were forty, your brain has been shrinking by 5 percent per decade. Levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine that sends signals around the brain have also been dropping, a normal part of ageing. But there continues to be remarkable power in your brain. Neurons are still building new connections and circuits, maintaining your ability to adapt and learn.

A beautiful display of preserved mammal brains began the exhibition, exploring how the human brain evolved. The panels feature imagery from projects around the world, illustrating colourfully the layers in the neocortex, the complex connections between neurons, and the 180 specialised functional areas scientists now believe we have (via the Human Connectome Project, the red areas below relate to hearing, green to touch and blue to vision. Image: Matthew F Glasser and David C Van Essen).

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The diary chapters also contain objects, interactivity, video and stories to illustrate each life stage – from a word detective game used by Oxford scientists to study children’s language development, to touchable 3D-printed brains belonging to Holly Bridge, one of the neuroscientists who had advised the project, her children, and her brother.

Printed brains

With design by Giraffe Corner and an ambitious approach from the entire team at OUMNH, the exhibition showcases cutting-edge science alongside gems from the museum’s collections. It was a privilege to contribute.

You can see an online version of the exhibition, and read about some of the scientists behind the project.