LONDON — Like zombies, human beings can’t get enough of brains.
A new London exhibition explores that fascination, displaying everything from mummified Egyptian cerebral matter to slices of Albert Einstein’s brain in the story of our quest to understand what’s inside our skulls.
The show at London’s Wellcome Collection asks not what brains have done for us but what, in the name of science, we have done to brains.
“Brains have been prepared and weighed and sliced and generally (messed) about with,” Ken Arnold, the museum’s head of public programs, said Tuesday.
“This exhibition is, almost contrarily, about the brain, rather than the mind,” he said. “An exhibition about what the brain is, rather than what the brain does.”
The gray mass inside our skulls is our exceptional organ, the one that can’t be transplanted, the seat of intellect and personality. It is part of us, but it’s also the essence of us. Which is why brains fascinate — and why seeing one in a jar delivers a special shudder.
There are plenty of such shocks in “Brains: The Mind as Matter,” a show that puts the brain under a microscope — sometimes literally.
The brain has fascinated and baffled scientists for centuries, ever since medieval Christian and Islamic scholars recognized it as the repository of thought and memory. The exhibition, which opens Thursday and runs to June 17, features mummified, desiccated, galvanized and pickled brains — testament to our sometimes misguided attempts at scientific understanding.
Generations of scientists have extracted and measured brains, to see if they could find the secret of genius — or evil — in the organ’s size and texture.
The exhibition includes a range of celebrity brains, including those of 19th-century murderer William Burke and women’s suffrage pioneer Helen Gardiner. There’s also the left lobe of mathematician Charles Babbage, and two slides carrying pieces of Einstein’s brain, kept by a pathologist and studied by scientists ever since for clues to his genius.
That secret remains elusive. Scientists no longer believe, as they did in the 19th century, that character can be read in the contours of the skull, or that smarter people have bigger brains. (Einstein’s is not particularly large.)
The discovery of neurons — the cells that transmit information from the brain to the body — has led to huge advances in understanding how the brain works.
Yet the brain remains “a complex and inscrutable substance,” said the show’s curator, Marius Kwint.
And despite huge medical advances, brain surgery remains a brutal business, in some ways little changed since our ancestors bored holes in skulls with flint tools thousands of years ago. One such neatly drilled Bronze Age skull is on display in the London show.
“It’s basically down to drilling and cutting and sawing,” said Kwint.
The exhibition drives that point home, viscerally, with an assortment of skull saws, drills and other items from the brain surgeon’s toolbox, as well as a graphic 1930s instructional film on how to perform a craniotomy.
The Wellcome Collection is a cross between medical museum and art gallery, and the exhibits on display range from the clinical to the artistic.
The medical specimens are interspersed with artworks that deal with the brain, including Annie Cattrell’s silvered bronze casts of the inside of a skull and Katharine Dowson’s delicate, feathery images based on cerebral angiograms.
There are constant reminders that brains have long been collectible, for interests of science or curiosity. Kwint said the show is, in part, an exploration “of the ethics and politics and even the economy of the giving and taking of brains.”
From 19th-century scientists taking the brains of criminals to the Nazis experimenting on those they considered their racial inferiors, brains have often been taken without their owners’ consent.
Today’s scientists are once again on a quest to archive brains — this time with the permission of their donors — in the hope of unlocking the secrets of degenerative neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s.
The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, with testimonies from people who have agreed to leave their brains to science.
One, Albert Webb, says in a recording that he made the decision so “I won’t be burnt to death when I get into a coffin.”
“And I should be doing a bit of good, perhaps, to somebody.”