Our Senses: An Immersive Experience

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is one of the world’s leading providers of natural history exhibitions and content. Driven by current research and the active participation of AMNH scientists, its temporary special exhibitions address topics of public interest and concern, and engage and inform audiences of all ages and with varying levels of prior knowledge.

In November 2017, AMNH unveiled its latest special exhibition, the highly experiential Our Senses: An Immersive Experience. Building on the great success of the 2010 special exhibition, Brain: The Inside Story, the new Senses exhibition capitalizes on major advances in the field of cognitive neuroscience to explore the relationship between our senses and perception. With engaging design features that include 11 highly interactive “experience rooms,” rich digital animations, and scientific models, Senses reveals how the brain constructs its own reality, the outside factors that influence perception, and the potential of cutting-edge sensory technology. In addition, live presenters in the exhibition gallery invite visitors to discover why humans have senses and what’s unique about human perception—including why human beings are the only species that creates imaginary sensory experiences and shares them with others through language. In celebration of this thrilling exhibition, OLogy, the Museum’s award-winning science website for kids, launched a special feature about optical illusions and what they reveal about the human brain and our species’ evolutionary past.

Secret sounds: Humans evolved to detect only certain frequencies, while some animals, including mice and rats, communicate at ranges we can’t perceive without the aid of technology. Visitors turn a dial to hear a variety of animal sounds normally outside the range of our detection, revealing soundbite calls from a fin whale, forest elephant, house mouse, and an Indiana bat.

The innovative Senses experience rooms take visitors on an exploratory journey testing
the complex relationships between sensing and perceiving. To explore the complexities of sight, visitors can explore a garden through the eyes of a bee or a butterfly, or look through an infrared viewer to hunt like a snake and find prey by the heat they generate. In another gallery, visitors can explore hearing by turning a dial to bring a variety of animal sounds normally outside the human range of hearing into soundbite our ears can perceive. An audio collage also challenges visitors to test their skill at tracking
individual sounds, such as a certain creature in a natural setting or an individual instrument within an orchestra.

Orange coneflower – Rudbeckia fulgida: Visitors to the exhibition are able to explore how different species experience the world, in this case, seeing the same flower in very different ways.

In one gallery, visitors will discover what happens when our senses disagree: though their feet will feel a flat floor beneath them, their eyes will see walls and a floor that appear to curve and ripple. Visitors can look through a pair of goggles that upend the information the brain receives from the eyes—when hands move up, the brain sees them moving down—making it harder to handle objects and put them in their proper place. As they travel through the exhibition, visitors will encounter more explorations of our senses—which may number up to 33 in total.

Senses is curated by Dr. Rob DeSalle, a curator in AMNH’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, who conducts research in the Ambrose Monell Foundation-supported Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. Two public programs offered in conjunction with the exhibition will feature scientists and educators from the Monell Chemical Senses Center who will lead visitor engagement activities that promote a deeper understanding of the biology of olfaction and gustation. During Neuroscience Night: Our Sensational Brain on March 15th, 2018, visitors will participate in challenges and experiments to explore the biology behind these senses. On March 17th–18th, 2018, Monell Center will lead informal conversations on the wonders of the human brain and its sensory input processing as part of Brain Awareness Weekend.

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