A corrosion cast of blood vessels in the brain. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
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Wellcome Collection: raising the cultural profile of science

The newly-redeveloped Wellcome Collection is a place for thought-provoking mental adventures.

Today’s culture-vultures with access to London are completely spoiled for choice. From Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema’s most recent genre-breaking extravaganzas to the fashionable and wildly-popular Lates at the V&A or Science Museum, there is a lot on offer. And now they can add to their list of options a visit to the redeveloped Wellcome Collection, where thought-provoking mental adventures are being dished up in an expanded programme of exhibitions and events.

Of course, the range and depth of its recreational offer has long marked London out as one of the world’s most culturally productive metropolises. Even so, there seems to be something fresh about this recent crop of content-rich, inquisitive programming. Set against a backdrop of ever-more widely available (and therefore democratised?) online knowledge and comment, this burgeoning public offer has been especially animated by negotiations around how science should be served up. Think for example of the enormous success of science and knowledge-based shows like QI and The Infinite Monkey Cage, or the remarkable growth of popular science publishing that has catapulted bits of mathematics and other technical geekery from a purely campus-based clientele into the literary mainstream.

The cultural profile of science started noticeably to grow in the last quarter of the 20th century, at a time when those tasked to popularise it began to question whether their efforts were best couched simply in terms of the public “understanding” of science. Would it not, they wondered, be more interesting, effective, and frankly less condescending, to focus instead on the “dialogue” between science and the public? This change in vocabulary and the philosophical sympathies behind it led to far more tolerance for different forms of “edu-tainment” and informal learning. Science, it was insisted with increasing confidence, is inextricably part of society and culture, not something that floats above. Projects that freely mix the often-separated realms of science and art have, maybe, now emerged as the poster-girls for this approach to science engagement.

Though motivated by different needs and concerns, artists and scientists are, these days, routinely found in coffee shops, planning collaborative projects destined for public exposure. Many demonstrate a genuine balance between radically different attitudes and areas of expertise, with the science frequently providing the source of subject matter and the art a means by which to reconsider its meaning. In more than a few cases, it seems, intriguingly, that fruitful misunderstandings have provided a powerful source of inspiration. And in some of the best, the final public outcomes manage to leave space for a dash of mystery – a source of dangerous ambiguity rarely tolerated in more straightforward science communication initiatives. The go-betweens that lubricate these sci-art projects (the negotiators and fixers) have developed ways of enabling people who won’t ever completely understand each other’s ways of working or thinking nonetheless to form productive and enjoyable partnerships.

Early examples produced in the 1990s – artists visualising parts of embryology or collaborating with clinicians and patients suffering with phantom limbs for example – mostly found limited public exposure in smaller niche science or arts venues, places nevertheless brave enough to tuck something strange or charmed in the corner of an entrance lobby. A crop of spaces purpose-designed for the new millennium has changed all that.

One of them, Wellcome Collection, was set up as a venue that self-consciously championed an ideas-led vision of public engagement. First opening its doors in June 2007, it has already had seven years to experiment with cross-disciplinary exhibitions, events, publications and digital initiatives – projects that have tackled subjects as diverse as the skin, brains and laughter; war, death and outsider art. But inspiration for the Wellcome Collection can also be found way back in the deep history of museums, amongst Renaissance cabinets of curiosity as well as the latter-day activities of the eponymous businessman and collector Henry Wellcome, who set up his own massive Edwardian wardrobe of wonders. Both provide inspirational earlier examples of how maverick searchers, stirred by an inquisitiveness that outstripped disciplinary constraints, sought to have new thoughts through things and actions. Drawing on these history lessons, Wellcome Collection has been marketed as a haven for people fuelled with an incurable curiosity: a lively public platform for shows that cut across the arts, humanities and sciences; the lay and professional versions of health; the present as well as the past.

After a £17.5m redevelopment, Wellcome Collection is re-emerging on London’s cultural stage with more spaces, more content and, crucially, even more curiosity. Stepping off the Euston Road, visitors begin their trip with the Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime exhibition. It traces the paths, often as disturbing as they are intricate, along which evidence makes its way from crime scenes to courtrooms, highlighting some of the pivotal moments in the history of legal medicine. Up a dramatic new sculptural staircase onto the first floor, visitors are teasingly invited to ‘undress your mind’ and step into the Institute of Sexology. From Alfred Kinsey’s complex questionnaires to the contemporary National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), material in this year-long exhibition sheds light on how the practice of research into sex has shaped our ever-evolving attitudes towards behaviour and identity.

Up one more flight of stairs sits Wellcome Collection’s final public space, our reconsidered version of a reading room. Part library, part gallery, this grand but cosy room is designed to nurture the habits of those who want to spend most time with us, delving as deeply as they wish, increasingly on their own terms. In previous times this space has been both a Hall of Statuary and the Library’s catalogue room. And now, holding on to both bits of its heritage, this space offers artworks and exhibits to promote acts of looking, talking and sharing, while at the same time shelves of books and accessible resources to encourage reading, touching, thinking and writing. These two entirely ubiquitous, but usually quite separate, types of cultural space (the gallery and library) have here been combined in order that our guests may indulge a multi-pronged and socially activated form of curiosity.

The type of intellectually promiscuous programming that runs throughout Wellcome Collection is in fact based on habits that are as old as the modern museum itself. A reinvigorated version of this calling, which champions its magical over more administrative attributes, is today cropping up in surprisingly diverse cultural niches: on the radio, behind the camera, in clubs, on stage, even in kitchens and bedrooms (that are then, of course, shared with anyone who has access to wifi and a screen). The workforce behind this spicy new public diet is a cluster of cultural impresarios and public researchers: new curators for the 21st century. Their predecessors thought of themselves as institution-based “keepers” (frequently their official title) who shepherded treasured collections and sometimes worked at shaping aesthetic taste.

Today’s re-booted version have jazzed-up that protective, nurturing role, applying a showier version of it to initiatives that animate semi-forgotten ideas and stuff with new meanings. Invented (or at least boosted) in the world of contemporary art, their more front-footed creative instincts are, ironically, having their greatest impact well beyond the self-referential world in which they emerged. Unleashed on topics that resonate with everyday significance, these habits of finding overlooked or obscure ingredients and making inspiring lateral associations between them can uncover touching insights in the midst of banality, illuminating extraordinary aspects of the everyday. Dirt, sleep, death, recreational drugs and mistakes: these, for example, are just some of the down-to-earth themes tackled in Wellcome Collection.

Hovering somewhere between entertaining experiences and ephemeral knowledge, these new public projects are serious in intent but loose in form. They are layered with stimulating hunches, and semi-activated ideas that can only be fully thought-through with the effort invested by the visitors and participants themselves, who ultimately turn them into a new kind of thinking out loud.

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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.