“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Please take your seats, and welcome to The Giant Walkthrough Brain. Introducing your tour guide…Jay Ingram!”
Three years after Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, neurophysiologist Joseph E. Bogen, MD, published A Modest Proposal, or The Planning, construction and use of a giant brain for the edification and entertainment of us all to the Bulletin of the Los Angeles Neurological Society. This “giant walk-through brain” was intended to be a museum of gargantuan proportion, standing some 150 metres in height. Bogen’s proposal was never taken seriously, and his vision faded into obscurity. Fortunately, in 2014, science communicator and host of Daily Planet, Jay Ingram, adopted Bogen’s concept of a brain museum and approached the LINDSAY Virtual Human lab at the University of Calgary with a proposal of his own: to construct and implement a giant walk-through brain show that would truly bring Bogen’s vision to life. Part musical performance and part science communication, The Giant Walkthrough Brain covers the essentials of brain function, from major structures to the electrochemical reactions that allow neural impulses to travel through the brain, and explores major figures in the history of neurophysiology. Whether it be Phineas Gage, who survived impalement from a tamping rod during an accident and his pronounced personality change, to how Alois Alzheimer came to diagnose Auguste Deter with what is known as Alzheimer’s disease, the whole of Ingram and The Free Radical’s presentation in The Giant Walkthrough Brain created an incredibly accessible, and successful performance that provides the public with a memorable and catchy introduction to the complexities of the human mind. Ingram and the Free Radical’s performance was accompanied by a virtual Giant Brain, implemented by the LINDSAY Virtual Human lab, which provided a highly viseral and immersive visual experience that brought Ingram’s performance to life. After opening to a sold-out crowd at the Banff Arts Centre during its début opening, The Giant Walkthrough Brain would go on to give critically-acclaimed performances at the Telus SPARK Science Centre in Calgary during Beakerhead 2014, two sold-out showings at the Timms Centre Edmonton during April 2015 and finally, two more sold-out performances at the Kelowna Community Theatre in January 2016.
Spanning an hour, The Giant Walkthrough Brain took audiences on a vivid journey through the brain’s major regions and presented pivotal figures in brain research. However, unlike a traditional lecture with its slideshows and dry presentation of the material, Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals bring each aspect of the brain to life by making use of the Unity project’s visuals in conjunction with a highly accessible, humourous and instructive talk. Each segment is broken up with a creative and clever song: from upbeat pieces that discuss dopamine and free will, to more sombre songs that explore Alzheimer’s Disease and Henry Gustav Molaison’s memory disorder. The wide spectrum of information gave audiences a glimpse of how complex the brain truly is. When it functions well, it functions exceptionally well and is counted as one of the most sophisticated constructs known to humanity. When any part of the brain malfunctions, the results are devastating and tragic. While neuroscience is something that is not always at the forefront of everyday thought, it is important to be aware of the highly complex machine that exists in all of us. In between the exceptional feats and sobering fragility of the brain, Ingram also discusses trivia about the brain, from how we perceive optical illusions to concepts of free will. A great deal of material is covered in an hour, bringing neurological research much closer to audiences in an accessible, informative and fun manner. This speaks to Ingram’s talents as a speaker, and also the creativity of those involved in the project’s development: while I am an alumni of the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme and have a some background in biology and medicine, The Giant Walkthrough Brain presented aspects of the brain in a different, novel perspective that led me to make new discoveries about the organ that makes us distinctly human. I learnt more about the brain by participating in the project than I did during the whole of my undergraduate degree. My involvement with the project also marked the first time that Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals had utilised a 3D, interactive visualisation in their performances before: a smooth implementation here contributed to the show’s successes.
While concepts surrounding a virtual brain museum predate my involvement with the project, The Giant Walkthrough Brain as I knew it began in the April of 2014. The LINDSAY Virtual Human lab was looking for an environment that was capable of supporting a virtual brain museum, and the in-house game engine, despite its extensibility, did not have the performance needed to render a model of the brain with satisfactory visual fidelity. In a curious turn of fate, the Unity game engine had been made free just a month earlier: having been employed in games such as Kerbal Space Program and Wolfire’s Receiver, the engine was a contender capable of handling the visual requirements The Giant Walkthrough Brain would need. The question remained: was Unity suited for creating an on-rails, scripted experience that could be timed with Ingram’s presentation and the Free Radical’s musical performance while at once providing traditional mechanisms for an image and video slideshow? The extent of Unity’s capabilities had not been tested at the time, and after successfully putting a similar brain model onto an iPad for coursework, I was tasked with determining whether or not Unity would fit the bill. After the first week of May had passed, I had ascertained that the component-based structure of a Unity project was flexible enough for the requirements outlined by The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and moreover, the use of C# scripting would allow for reuse and easy configuration of components that would allow any on-rails presentation to be easily reconfigured to synchronise with the performance. After my report to the team, The Giant Walkthrough Brain began development at full speed: I was made the lead developer in the project, becoming involved with implementation of the entire pathing and movement system, coordinated transitions between the brain museum, neurons and synaptic gap scenes, built the slide-show viewer that would allow images and videos to be displayed on the screen, and completed the minimap solution that translated the user’s location in world space to a 2D map on screen space to provide real-time feedback for viewers as to where in the brain the show was at any given time. Two full months of development later, and after rigorous testing of the Giant Walkthrough Brain Unity project itself, the software and the show were ready at last for a public performance at the Banff Centre.
Commentary and Personal Reflection
- I only wish that my readers would have had the chance to view The Giant Walkthrough Brain for themselves: part science lecture and part musical performance, with a vivid and detailed visual component, the performance is a fantastic overview of different areas and functions of the brain, explaining each aspect in a highly engaging manner. As a reminiscence about the project, this post can also be seen as a “behind-the-scenes” of sorts, providing a bit more of a visual account as to what the The Giant Walkthrough Brain I’ve previously mentioned really is.
- Jay Ingram treats the The Giant Walkthrough Brain as a tour on a bus, except instead of visiting the mountains or coasts in a motor coach, one is travelling through a vast virtual brain museum. The model itself is around 230 MB in size, and when I started the Unity project to test the engine’s viability, my first exercise was to determine what sort of frame rates could be achieved on a lower-end MacBook Pro.
- I ended up averaging around 30 FPS on a 2012 MacBook Pro, which demonstrated that despite the model’s size, the game engine was suited for the task. One of the main challenges I faced throughout the project was that the brain model itself was constantly evolving: the platforms, walkways and exhibits inside are all custom made, and importing a new version of the model always took anywhere from a half-hour to an hour.
- The component-based architecture in Unity was very similar to the architecture I used in our in-house game engine for my undergraduate thesis, and after I worked out how to set up the interactive pieces of The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s Unity project, I began to experiment with a splines as the means of pre-defining paths for the guided brain tour. Placing the knots (points that govern where the spline must pass through) was the trickiest part, but within a week, I had a rudimentary walkthrough of the brain based on Ingram’s script, and after showing this to the team, they were convinced that we had our toolset, methods and developers to really bring the project to life.
- The presentation opens with a talk on the frontal lobe, an area of the brain that controls for cognitive functions such as problem solving, reason and emotion. I’ve never been too fond of mid-twentieth century approaches towards neuroscience, where it was found that lobotomies could be used to impact one’s temperament. The process is fairly macabre, involving sticking an ice-pick like implement into one’s nose and then swirling the instrument around to dislodge brain tissue.
- Phineas Gage is a well-known figure in neuroscience: a railway worker who was caught in an accident and ended up with a rebar through his brain, he survived the accident and was noted to be no longer his old self. Prior to the accident, Gage was friendly, professional and punctual. After the accident, he was less approachable, swearing more frequently. Textbooks often cite Gage as an example of what the frontal lobe’s function is, but neglect to mention that he eventually accepted a job as a stagecoach driver in Chile, where it is hypothesised that the rigid schedule and mental demands of negotiating mountain roads allowed some of his neurons to re-develop.
- The “Retina Ride” was one of the trickiest parts of the spline to insert: I had to precisely place the path between two knots so that they entered a small passage in the eye and then navigate the optic nerve into the occipital lobe. There’s a small crimp in the path owing to how the splines were calculated in the first iteration that I subsequently fixed, and my challenge was controlling the journey so that the thirty seconds it took was not wildly out of control. One emergent property that resulted was that the camera would slow down at tight turns before speeding up on straighter trajectories.
- In most images of the brain visualisation, a pair of orthogonal brain projections are visible. These mini-maps were for the viewers’ benefit, indicating where in the brain model the show was. I was initially worried that the minimap should be in 3D, which would have required that I take a smaller projection of the full model, scale it down and give it a transparent mesh, and then use a smart camera to track the user’s active location, but the requirements were fortunately more simple: with two projections, I ended up obtaining the camera’s (x, y, z) coordinates in world space and then computed the equivalents on screen space.
- Even from this distance, the size differences from the Ebbinghaus illusion can be plainly seen. This is the slideshow system I worked on: capable of supporting both video and images, the implementation of this feature allowed Ingram to discuss certain aspects in more detail using traditional media. I was able to put this viewer together quite easily, but at the time, Unity’s free version did not support video, so my supervisor promptly picked up the Pro license, allowing me to finish building the slideshow viewer. The original version used assets hard-coded into the compiled project, while later, I wrote a more dynamic system that allowed users to drag and drop .jpg, .png, .mov and .mp4 files into a directory, and the program them picked these files up and displayed them in order of file name.
- One cool feature afforded by Unity Pro was that I had access to emissive materials that could be used to create a glowing effect on the corpus callosum, a band of nerve that divides the left and right brain in two. I experimented with a wide range of lighting effects and textures: while one configuration had a diffuse light around the corpus callosum, it also negatively affected lighting elsewhere in the model. The simpler, LED-like approach proved acceptable, and I ended up keeping things this way for all subsequent builds.
- My participating in The Giant Walkthrough Brain made me feel as though I were a part of a Discovery Channel special. During my third year’s second, three days of the week saw my classes ending at eleven, so I always ended up heading home for lunch. While waiting for my food to cook, I would often flip the television on and watch Discovery programmes, then eat my lunch and proceed towards reviewing whatever I had covered in lecture that day.
- Later that year, I squared off against the MCAT, and turned to Discovery Channel’s programmes to relax during lunch, in between breaks from MCAT review and my physics class. While I’ve not mentioned it, watching shows like MythBusters Survivorman and Mighty Ships helped me relax to the same extent as K-On! The Movie. Discovery Channel ended up being an incredible inspiration. By the time of The Giant Walkthrough Brain, I had watched all of the Survivorman episodes.
- The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s world space consisted of three main levels: I handled the implementation of features at the brain museum level, and also coordinated with the other developers on the lower levels to ensure that their work functioned as expected. Here, we are looking at a network of neurons placed within the scene. The original plan was to fly through this space, but this introduced new complexities to the presentation, so in the end, I ended up placing a stationary camera here that allowed one to look around the space and watch the impulses travel. Each neuron was painstakingly placed by hand, since the algorithmic approach to generate them had not been implemented yet.
- Delving in even closer to the molecular level, this was The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s depiction of a synapse, where electrical impulses through the neuron created an action potential that released neurotransmitters (the glowing yellow and green spheres). When an artificial compound is introduced (the pink spheres), a neuron will keep firing. While the show only spent a total of five minutes in the neurons and synaptic cleft, it took upwards of two months to set these views up properly. One of the biggest challenges was importing these scenes: until I had designed the procedure, importing from the other developers’ projects into mine always caused objects to be misplaced. This problem persisted for a month until I worked out how to properly export supporting projects and then import them into the main application.
- The mouse inside the green sphere represents the pleasure centre of the brain. This particular segment of The Giant Walkthrough Brain stands as one of my favourites: Ingram discusses an experiment involving mice hooked up to electrodes that would stimulate their pleasure centres when a switch was hit. These mice ended up forgoing food, sleep and even copulation to hit the switch, simulating a drug addiction, and while we may laugh at the mice for their simplicity, the reality is that addiction is a non-trivial problem.
- The chemical at the core discussion surrounding the reward system is dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in directing a behaviour towards pleasurable experiences and away from undesirable experiences. Recent studies have suggested that rather than directly triggering pleasure, it is more of a salient motivational agent in medical terms – while medical definitions are a bit more stringent, for everyday purposes, dopamine can be thought of as one of the central agents in pleasure.
- Discussion of the pleasure centre of the brain segues into my most favourite song in The Giant Walkthrough Brain: “Press The Lever”. This highly upbeat song speaks of the pleasure centre and its function, as well as how addiction is purely a consequence of brain chemistry, and brings to life the experiments that were conducted in 1954 by Olds and Milner. More recent studies have reproduced the results of the old experiments.
- The animation in the background is actually sourced from a predecessor to The Giant Walkthrough Brain, which was a pure scientific communications lecture with a traditional slideshow and no musical accompaniment or 3D brain walkthrough. The latter was made possible by advances to game engine technology, and in particular, Unity’s well-timed decision to make the engine freely-usable. While a 3D visualisation would have been possible with the LINDSAY Lab’s in-house engine, the resulting show would have had a lower frame rate and lacked features such as the minimap and built-in slideshow display.
- Because of the unique setup of The Giant Walkthough Brain and its ability to engage the audience, the project saw tremendous success wherever it was presented. Each and every showing was to a sold out audience, and in Kelowna, interest was so great that Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals were asked to put on a second, encore presentation. Even two years after its debut in Banff, the 3D brain visualisation was still-considered cutting-edge, attesting to the sophistication and elegance of the design that went into the original application: for 2016, I made minor adjustments to the Unity project for Kelowna to improve its flexibility, but the codebase and Unity build had remained untouched since the summer of 2014.
- If memory serves, this is The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s hippocampus, a structure responsible for short and long term, as well as spatial memory. Defects in the hippocampus impair memory, and one of history’s most well-known figures was only known as “HM” until his death. Because HM suffered from seizures, period science suggested brain surgery. During the operation, a piece of his hippocampus was removed to control the seizures. While the operation was successful, HM developed anterograde amnesia: he could not create new memories and was unable to recall something like what he had for breakfast, even though his older memories appeared to remain intact.
- HM’s name was posthumously revealed as Henry Molaison, and his brain was taken to California to be sliced for analysis and imaging. After imaging, the full set of images was made available in 2014. Alzheimer’s disease was also covered: the accompanying song and talk was sobering, subdued in mood. As one of the more prevalent neuro-degenerative diseases, its causes and mechanisms are still not well understood, and there are no treatments for it.
- Discussions turned towards free will in The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and the Free Will song is another one of my favourites. While determinism and free will have been the topic of philosophical discussion, a study done by Benjamen Libet in the 1980s asked participants to decide when they would stop a clock. During the process, their brain activity would be measured, and it was found that brain activity began even before the individual consciously knew they were about to stop the clock.
- The Libet experiment remains controversial in its validity, and the matter of free will is still unclear from a scientific perspective. One curious outcome of free will is that individuals who are more likely to be unfaithful if they did not believe in free will. The gap between determinism and free will from a philosophical perspective is not in the scope of this reflection, so I won’t pursue the topic further or delve into which side I personally believe in.
- In this post, I’ve only shown a few areas of the virtual brain model: its cavernous interior was modified to feel more like a museum, featuring walkways, benches and exhibits. The finished virtual brain that I worked on actually has numerous features and functions that were present but never used in The Giant Walkthrough Brain itself. The most prominent one was that the skybox could be changed, so that when the show started, it would be daytime, and at the show’s end, the sun would set. This was intended to give a sense of the passage of time but ultimately was deemed unnecessary to the show, so it was never used.
- I’ve alluded to this previously, but during the Banff Centre performance, a lighting storm had actually knocked out power to the area. All of the audio-visual equipment powered equipment was knocked out, and Ingram began improvising. The transition was so smooth I did not notice the power was out until a technician had stepped onto the stage and informed him the power was lost. It was restored, and as the 3D virtual brain was run on a laptop with its own internal power supply, once the power returned, it was a matter of continuing the show.
- The Giant Walkthrough Brain notes that most of our knowledge of the brain comes from situations where the brain is not operating normally, and towards the end, mentions that after Albert Einstein’s death, his brain was studied. While some researchers claimed that certain attributes of Einstein’s brain made him uniquely capable of developing the Theory of Relativity and other contributions, it turns out that his brain was actually quite unremarkable from a structural perspective.
- As the performance ended, Jay Ingram concluded with a series of myths about the brain, including how the notion that “ten percent of the brain is actively used at a given time” is totally and utterly false; no other organ in the body has a high oxygen and energy requirement as the brain, and it stands to reason that our brains are always operating at full capacity. This brings The Giant Walkthrough Brain to a conclusion, and at the end of the show, all of the contributors, myself included, walked onto the stage. I’ve chosen not to include that moment in this discussion.
- With the first successful performance in the books, The Giant Walkthrough Brain officially opened at Beakerhead 2014 at the Telus SPARK Centre. On the evening of the first presentation, I was invited out to dinner with the entire team and we ended up going for pizza in a community near the performance venue. In a curious turn of fate five years later, I returned to the same community to celebrate a successful Otafest with some of the volunteers. The weather was beautiful and allowed for activities long associated with summer, such as grilling hamburgers and hot-dogs, playing with a Frisbee and going on a scavenger hunt (that I lost interest in).
- I spent the past weekend watching Spiderman: Far From Home and with a delicious crab-topped salmon bake in the books, we’re now passing through the halfway point of the summer months: in a few days, we roll into August, my favourite month of the year. The summer this year’s been quite enjoyable: while a ways cooler and rainier, we have had some nice days and with them, the attendant opportunity to enjoy the sunshine. For August, I have a few posts lined up, including a special talk for Your Lie in April and Ano Natsu de Matteru. This summer season’s also been reasonably solid for anime, and a preview of the upcoming season shows a handful shows that look interesting, as well.
- The first run of The Giant Walkthrough Brain ended with an electric violin performance from Jay Ingram and a promise to do the “Giant Walkthrough Gut”. While this project became a bit of a running joke in each performance, the giant walkthrough gut materialised in my time. In the years following, Jay Ingram published several new books, including The Science of Why (and three sequels) and The End of Memory. A sequel is very unlikely, although with the sophistication of game engine tools and the groundwork laid down, I can see future students taking these older projects and building on them to create more complex, powerful and exciting projects.
July 30, 2014 was opening night. I had sat through no fewer than three dress rehearsals, and had spent the day working from an iMac from the LINDSAY lab to make continuous adjustments to the Unity project’s configurations. I was admittedly nervous: even though the project had been tested extensively to ensure it was functional, Murphy’s Law states that anything unexpected could happen. After sharing dinner with the LINDSAY team, my supervisor and Jay Ingram’s team, we headed over to the performance venue as the skies began darkening. The show began smoothly enough, but when we reached the part on dopamine, the power suddenly went out: a thunderstorm had hit the area. Within ten minutes, the power was restored, and I breathed easier. The remainder of the performance continued smoothly, wrapping up with an electric violin performance from Ingram himself. No matter how many times I had seen the performance in rehearsals, Ingram and the Free Radicals were refreshing, engaging and immersive each and every time. Ingram’s masterful storytelling captured the audiences’ attention fully, being simultaneously entertaining, amusing and instructing. In the background, the Unity virtual brain ran seamlessly. After walking across the stage as a part of the development team, we left Banff and returned to Calgary under darkened skies. I spent the next day off, sleeping in, and after a debriefing with the team, it was decided that the remainder of August was to be spent tuning up the Unity project: because the initial build had been assembled in two months to meet the July 30 deadline, some best practises had not been observed, and it was important to refactor the project. A week ahead of the Beakerhead performance, the work was done. The Giant Walkthrough Brain Unity project had become extensible, easy to configure and sleeker than ever, just in time to be put on the planetarium screens at Telus SPARK. While there have been no more presentations of The Giant Walkthrough Brain since Kelowna, the project left a large legacy in its wake: for one of my colleagues, The Giant Walkthrough Brain would become the centrepiece in their Master’s Thesis, and the discoveries I had accrued as a result of the project led me to decide on the topic of my own Master’s Thesis. While The Giant Walkthrough Brain is no Apollo 11, and comes a mere five years later where the Apollo 11 moon landings have reached fifty, the project for me remains highly significant for having helped me come to terms with who I am, rediscover what it means to have a goal to reach towards and ultimately, for reminding me that even if unrequited love happens, I can still find my own happiness in lending my skills and knowledge towards the happiness of others. While not reaching anywhere near the same number of people or involving the same level of resources it took to bring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon, The Giant Walkthrough Brain ultimately came to represent what the journey towards self-discovery look like – for me, this was one small step for me, and one giant leap for the future.