Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Brain Banquet at Dalston Bunker by Guerilla Science

We were visually mapping our Facebook networks in class on Tuesday, and one of the limitations the lot of us discussed related to connections between people we know that may not be apparent on online spaces. Funnily enough, it was through one such unrecorded link that D found out I was going for Guerilla Science's pop-Up Brain Banquet at a surviving WW2 Bunker out in Dalston. G, who'd spotted my post asking if anyone was keen to join me, made a passing remark to him about it during their weekly training session. D in turn told M, and in typical Asian parent fashion, both of them messaged me individually just to say "Are you really eating calf brain? Don't get Mad Cow Disease!" 

(It's these little things they do to show me that they care that always gives me the warm fuzzies.)

The only people who were somewhat game for an exciting evening of science and brain eating with me were either geographically impaired or weren't willing to cough up the ticket fee, so I wound up venturing into the wilds of Dalston on my own. I wasn't sure I had the right alleyway at first, but my destination indeed turned out to be the dodgy looking one. The warm greeting that awaited seemed entirely at odds with the entrance to the bunker itself, which looked rather unfortunately like a portal to hell, or at the very least some kind of zombie infested video game thanks to all that eerie green light. As thoughts of rot ran through my head, I began wondering if I was going to contract Mad Cow Disease after all. Most of my worries soon disappeared after my stop at the Cloakroom/Bar, thanks to the rather hefty gin cocktail I was given. I think there might have been some absinthe in mine. Adorably, the ice cubes in the cocktail had been made using brain-shaped moulds. 

Stiff drink in hand, I was sent off to explore the concrete bunker. "You can take the corridors, or you can take the entrances like the one over there" the bartender told me, gesturing to a knee-high opening in the wall. Like everyone else who came before me and everyone else who came after, stately strolling through the winding corridors was passed up in favour of squeezing through the holes in the walls. The gin didn't contain a shrinking solution, alas, so all passes through the multiple low doorways involved rather ungainly shimmying, and on one memorable occasion, an attempt to do the limbo. I heard multiple theories for why these entrances were so low over the course of the evening, ranging from a rather confident "For structural integrity in case a bomb hit of course!" to a more hesitant "Not sure really, but they feel a little like dog flaps you know?"

Each of the rooms in the bunker contained a different exhibition, all to do with exploring the utterly fascinating thing that is our brain. The first room contained an installation entitled Neuronal Forest by the artist Evy Jokhova. Dendrites and axons are extensions that transmit electrical and chemical messages to and from neuronal cells, and the piece played on their beautiful and sometimes weirdly arboreal shape. A stream of colours was projected to represent neuronal synapses, and I spent a while getting hypnotized by the patterns. It was here that I bumped into the evening's roaming illusionist Robert Teszka, who very obligingly discussed his thesis on awareness and misdirection in magic with me, using tricks to illustrate his points. 

In the next room was a selection of preserved mammalian brains the Royal Veterinary College had loaned Guerilla Science for the evening. Some time was spent studying each cross-section to guess which animal was on display. Can you see the pony? One table had an entire pig's head cut up width-wise, and I hadn't known what I was looking at until I went round the side and saw the snout. You could really see how the bunker had changed since WW2 in this room in particular - there was a handrail where a stairway used to be, and a proper-sized doorway had been entirely sealed off with concrete. 

The clearest picture I've ever seen of a brain was an utterly stunning image of an epileptic brain (Only click through if you're not squeamish!) at the Wellcome Museum's exhibition of the winners of the Wellcome Image Awards from 2012. The Wellcome Trust was one of the partners of the event, and very coincidentally images of epileptic brains were shown in one of the next rooms. This time though, the focus was on memory and the case of Henry Molaison, whose medial temporal lobes and most of his hippocampi were surgically removed in a bid to cure his epilepsy. 

His post-surgery Anterograde Amnesia was a fascinating case study for many scientists. The Memory Clinic contained a model brain that we could take apart and a trunk with sheets of paper for us to write down specific memories to be put into the Memory Maze next door. A goldfish in a glass bowl was there to signify Molaison's inability to commit new events to explicit memory (Though it must be said that goldfish can actually remember things). In the spirit of scientific inquiry, after a careful round of observation of the lack of movement around the fishes' gills, I asked the important question "Is this goldfish still alive?"

(No conclusive answer could be given because of the lack of sufficient parameters for testing. It might have been hibernating.)

I placed a test tube containing my earliest memory into the appropriate section of the Memory Collection room, in the icy-blue neo-cortex region, then went round reading what everyone else had written. The green light demarcated the hippocampus, while the pink in the corner was for the amygdala. Most of my childhood science books focused on the digestive system, but I did read Horrible Science's Bulging Brains one afternoon, and the names rang a bell. 

The last exhibit was External Brain by Agatha Haines, inspired by cephalopods whose brains aren't all collected in the the same space. What if we had an external brain or an alternate centre of reasoning? I got into a discussion with the volunteer explaining the piece on daemons out of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials universe, and we both agreed we'd be birds of some sort. She favoured barn owls, but I've always been partial to quetzals myself. I was thinking about this piece while on the bus the next day, which led to a short spell of panic as I reflected on being a brain floating about in a sack of meat and gosh, isn't it really odd that I can wiggle my toes! That line of thought got shut down before I managed to weird myself out completely.  

Dinner was organized by Blanch and Shock, a team of artist-cooks who do creative food projects. They also cater for weddings apparently, which was how some of the people at my table found out about the event. The five-course meal for the evening was specially designed to raise questions about the brain and all our senses. I snagged a seat at the very front of the centre table, all the better to hear the evening's talks. Now that MH is gone, I don't have someone to tell me all about the science they're doing on a regular basis anymore, and I quite miss it. For all that I'm a social scientist (Ha!) it's just not the same. 

The dining room itself was fairly dark and awash with even more of the eerie green light, which necessitated the use of flash photography. The first dish consisted of nourishing ingredients that are often considered "brain food" and allegedly help with memory and concentration. It was the first time I'd heard of butter being considered brain food, but it was pretty amazing butter topped with crunchy buckwheat, so I didn't really mind. Beyond the butter, there was a chunk of seeded bread, a dollop of minced beetroot and a rich herring emulsion.

The brain banquet had a vegan option as well, where the fish was substituted with a creamy nut butter. As we finished mopping up what remained on our plates, Vaughan Bell, a neuropsychologist from King's, went up to kick off the evening's series of talks with a discussion about hallucinations, ranging from the minor (Feeling your phone vibrate when it hasn't, or hearing someone calling your name in a crowd when no one has) to the seriously impairing. 

An introduction to the mass (false!) Zepplin sightings across England prior to the First World War was accompanied by the arrival of the next course, of goat cheese, celeriac, fennel, turnip, leek and ox-eye daisy. Nothing could look blander under bright white light, but the dish itself was lit by overhead lamps in shades of blue and pink as we were invited to think about how we use visual cues to judge palatability. Strangely, the vegetables tasted a little sweeter under the blue light, but all the same, it was still dark enough that half the time I wasn't sure what I was skewering. 

The next course was designed in conjunction with Headway East London, which supports people affected by brain injury. Some survivors lose their sense of smell but end up with a heightened sense of texture, so this dish of ham broth, egg yolk cooked to 63 degrees, fresh peas, spring onions and potato played on vastly different mouth feels. I tried pinching my nose and eating the runny yolk with some peas, and the result was fairly interesting. Also, I know it doesn't look like much, but that ham broth was so good. 

The second talk of the event was a crash course on biology and consciousness by Anil Seth, who leads the Sackler Centre of Consciousness Science. Concurrently, we were served our main course for the evening - calf's brain, with broccoli and green elderberries. Scattered over the dish were marigold flowers. Apparently in a number of cultures marigolds symbolize death, which is what we were meant to think about while eating the brain, apart from also reflecting on the fact that we were eating brains. Consciousness remains an under-studied area of neuroscience, and as the speaker discussed its biological basis, he hit us with this gem:

"You might have eaten that part of the brain already!"

Brains have a mushy texture and inherently little taste, essentially taking on the flavours of what it's been seasoned in. Our slivers of calf brain had been deep fried in butter, so that was exactly what it tasted like. The first bite immediately brought to mind that lovely pat of cultured butter from the first course, and after that it wasn't too difficult finishing everything. In the dark, it was also easier to ignore the shape of the brain on our plates. 

I was able to compartmentalize away years of socialization about the taboos of eating brain, but the ladies seated around me weren't quite so lucky. The meal was BYOB, and I had a bottle of Chablis with me after reading that it went well with brain, so I topped up their glasses to take some of the pain away. The vegan option was pot-roasted cauliflower, which lacked the immediacy of an actual brain in stimulating reflection, but at least had much less of a squick factor. 

The work being done on consciousness is awfully exciting, and they've been able to show differences between states of consciousness and dreaming. More work could give better indications on whether coma patients are still conscious or not, which has a fair number of implications. The people I sat with were an inquisitive bunch, and after each talk we asked a whole load of questions, ranging from cognitive resonance to hallucinogenic drugs and the potential biological bases of racism. It was good fun. 

Dessert was a baked melilot cheesecake with a tonka bean crumble base, decorated with cherry plum blossom and scented mayweed. It was an excellent cake, which was meant to evoke pastoral memories through the infusion of aromas from meadows and grasslands. As we tucked in, we listened to a talk by a volunteer from Headway East London on the work that they do, as well as a personal testimony from Josh, a computer programmer who survived a brain injury. He made an excellent point about confabulation and how rehearsing memory can change what we actually remember. 

It was a great evening. The food was good, the science was amazing, and at the end of the really educational event, I left with a parting gift of a gin jello-shot that had been made in the same tray as the ice cubes. This left it looking rather oddly blobby, so I've drawn in some guiding lines for you to imagine the shape of the brain:

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