East Burke exhibit explores the brain

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(Host) Thirty years ago Harvard researcher J. Allan Hobson created an exhibit based on the latest research on dreams and the brain. The exhibit featured a sleep chamber with live subjects wired to machines that displayed their brain activity.

Hobson’s Dreamstage exhibit was so popular that it was taken on tour to science museums around the country.

Now Hobson has a built a new Dreamstage Sleep and Science Museum in a renovated barn on his East Burke farm.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) J. Allan Hobson says the modern era of brain science began in the 1950s, when technology gave researchers new tools to delve into the brain’s secrets.

Hobson, for many years a Harvard Psychiatry professor, was among those who surmised that studying the brain in its two states: waking and sleeping would shed new light on how it works.

(Hobson) "There are a hundred billion cells in every head and they’re firing all the time and in sleep they only decrease their activity by twenty percent. That’s amazing!"

(Zind) Key to examining the sleeping brain is the study of dreams. Researchers discovered that one of the key differences between sleep and waking is that memory is turned off when the brain is asleep. That’s why we can’t remember most of what we dream. Another difference: although sight is disabled because our eyes are closed during sleep, the visual part of the brain remains active.

Hobson has written numerous books outlining his theories on sleep, dreams and the brain. He argues that that Sigmund Freud was wrong in believing that all dreams are expressions of the subconscious with a meaning that can be interpreted.

In 1977 Hobson opened an exhibit called Dreamstage: A Multimedia Portrait of the Sleeping Brain to help illustrate what scientists had learned. The exhibit ran for six weeks at Harvard, and then toured the country.

Now Hobson has recreated much of the Dreamstage exhibit in a handsomely renovated dairy barn on a farm he owns in East Burke. There is an audiovisual element to the display and fanciful artwork depicting how the brain functions. An extensive library has been installed in a rebuilt silo.

The centerpiece of the original exhibit was a chamber with a sleeping person hooked to machines that read his brain activity and recorded the rapid eye movement characteristic of an active, dreaming phase of sleep.

The new exhibit feature mannequins rather than real people.

There is one part of the original presentation that visitors to the new Dreamstage are sure to linger over. Inside a Plexiglas case, resting in a jar of fluid is a human brain.

(Hobson) "That’s been all over the country, that brain."

(Zind) Hobson recalls his surprise when children visiting the Dreamstage exhibit thirty years ago, asked him about the brain.

(Hobson) "They thought that the sleeper had put his brain in the box. That shows you what science education has to tackle. What an idea!"

(Zind) Hobson says the new exhibit is all about education. He hopes it will give Vermont students an opportunity to learn more about the brain.

He’s been working with two Northeast Kingdom teachers to develop classroom materials in conjunction with the exhibit and hopes other classes will schedule visits to his barn.

Hobson says the workings of the brain are complex and there’s a lot scientists still don’t know, but the message of his exhibit is a simple one. Take care of your own brain.

(Hobson) "They call the smart kid in the class "the brain," but they all have brains, and they all have quite wonderful brains and they don’t know that. So I’m going to try and tell them that."

(Zind) Hobson plans to retire from teaching this year. He says he’ll devote more time to his dream museum. He also wants to develop an online exhibit with teaching materials that can be used by schools around the state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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