Museums and the mind

As advances in neuroscience reveal biological pathways underlying emotion, attention, and memory, how can science centers harness this new research to create effective museum experiences? In an October 19 session at the ASTC Annual Conference, Jayatri Das, senior exhibit and program developer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, led a panel of experts in neuroscience, education, and museums in a discussion of practical ways that museums can integrate new insights about the brain with educational pedagogy to enhance free-choice learning.

Presenters in the session, entitled “Museums and the Mind: Applying Cognitive Neuroscience to Free-Choice Learning,” included Roger Barrett, exhibit designer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul; John Falk, professor of science education at Oregon State University in Corvallis; Matthew Wenger, graduate associate at Flandrau: The University of Arizona Science Center in Tucson; and Jennifer Mangels, associate professor of psychology at Baruch College, City University of New York.

The presenters considered how museums can use recent neuroscience research to maximize their educational impact. Barrett discussed examples of ways that exhibition design, including choice of color and materials, can affect visitors’ moods and emotions. Falk presented research showing that when visitors to the exhibition Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear experienced an optimal amount of emotional arousalnot too much or too littletheir learning was maximized. Wenger suggested creating flexible exhibitions that can be adapted to serve the needs of different people. Drawing upon neuroscience research, Mangels stated people learn best when they experience an unexpected outcome that provides a great deal of novelty and complexity, but can be viewed as a challenge rather than as a threat. “Meeting challenges is actually rewarding in and of itself,” she said. “Things should not be too hard or too easy.”