Science Gallery Dublin explores physical and mental Trauma 

20 Nov 2015

Sarah Cronin with Colm McNally's work 'Grasp' at the Truama exhibition in Science Gallery Dublin. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

A dramatic new exhibition at Science Gallery Dublin about trauma and resilience explores the science and technology of impact, memory and empathy, and Claire O’Connell was at the preview.

Whether it’s on the sports field or the battlefield, accidental or inflicted, psychological or physical, trauma is by its nature a difficult experience. So it’s hardly a surprise that Science Gallery Dublin’s new exhibition, Trauma: Built to Break, evokes some visceral feelings.

The impact of concussion

For a start, the ‘thud’ of a helmeted mannequin’s head as it crashes down in an experimental rig is enough to make you feel slightly queasy.

“One of the things we wanted to look at in Trauma from the very beginning was concussion and sport, it is such an area of controversy and research,” explained Dr Shaun O’Boyle, research coordinator at the Gallery. “And this is an area where mechanical engineering, biomedical science, physiology and computer science overlap.”

The Impact exhibit explores how a group in Virginia Tech developed a star-rating system for the ability of commercially available helmets to protect against impact in American Football, and Irish research at IT Tallaght and Trinity College Dublin that uses high-speed video and three-dimensional modelling to understand how helmet design can protect in sports such as hurling and rugby.

The exhibit also includes helmets that have saved people from more serious injury and death, and it is strategically placed close to a bike park just outside the window, explains O’Boyle. “We are trying to get people to start thinking about protective helmets in a science-based, evidence-based way,” he says.

Memories are made of this, or maybe that

Transition year student Eilis Prendergast looking at 'Memory of a Brain Malformation' by Katharine Dowson at the Truama exhibit. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Transition year student Eilis Prendergast looking at ‘Memory of a Brain Malformation’ by Katharine Dowson at the Trauma exhibit. Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Staying with the brain, the Memory Laundering exhibit encourages visitors to write down two memories – one positive, one negative – and store them in a locker as they explore the rest of the exhibition. Meanwhile, Gallery moderators access the slips of paper and alter details in them, before the person comes back to retrieve their memories.

The idea is inspired by work at MIT that uses optogenetics in mice to explore how memories are retrieved and falsified.

“Our brains edit memories all the time,” explains Jessica Stanley from Science Gallery. “So in the exhibition, the person comes back and gets their edited memory on the piece of paper. We want people to think about how memory is more complex and not as reliable as you might think it is.”

And just up the stairs, participants will be able to take part in another experiment during the exhibition: by carrying out brainteasers before and after being put under the stress of the diving reflex. Stressed Body Stressed Brain is a topic of particular interest to exhibition co-curator Prof Shane O’Mara, whose new book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work, explores the science of interrogation. “We want to see how that stress of the diving reflex affects the accuracy of memory and the likelihood of false memories,” explains O’Boyle.

Trauma and medicine

The Trauma exhibition has plenty of arresting images for the visitor – including a series of artworks based on scars and amputations, and images from surgeries in war, and O’Boyle demonstrates how X-Stat, a spongy dressing for sealing gunshot wounds, springs into action when activated by water (which, interestingly, has echoes of highly expandable Sphagnum moss being used to stem bleeding from wounds in World War I).

Immersion and empathy

And if you want to get even more immersed, you can don a virtual reality headset and earphones and get a ground-eye view of harrowing recreated scenes in Syria and Jordan. The footage, which was created in a project led by Nonny de la Peña, was developed for the World Economic Forum in 2013 to help decision-makers get another perspective on events.

Meanwhile, in Your Beautiful Self, artist Naama Schendar lip-synchs conversations recorded with several people who have survived or researched trauma. “I was curious, could I trick my brain into believing I am a different person,” she explains. “I wanted to try to expand my perception and see it from as many people’s experiences as possible.”

Nighttime viewing

Even if the Gallery’s doors have closed, the exhibit Hysteria should still be visible as a projection for passersby to see and hear. The contemporary dance film by Maurice Kelliher is based on propaganda footage from World War I that claimed hypnosis could cure shell shock, explains O’Boyle. “It’s a piece about how no matter what you do the emotional traumas will bleed out physically and sometimes you can’t really explain that unless you look at the physicality of it,” he says. “It will be playing on loop, so hopefully people walking by will stop and watch.”

Trauma: Built to Break runs from 20 November 20 to 21 February at Science Gallery Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Pearse Street, Dublin 2.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication