Dr. Brainlove: The other magic school bus

A guest feature by Sarah Hillenbrand


Recently, Netflix caused a stir by announcing its plans to reboot the Magic School Bus series with computer generated animation. My generation thrilled to the adventures of Miss Frizzle and her class, and at no point was this more exciting than when they got to shrink down and zoom around inside the human body.


So you can imagine my excitement when I learned about Dr. Brainlove, a “mutant vehicle” being created for this year’s Burning Man festival. Dr. Brainlove is a different kind of magic school bus. She is a giant climbable mesh brain mounted to a de-lidded school bus, and like Miss Frizzle, she comes to teach you science, but also to party.


At 27 feet long and 15 feet high and rocking a monstrous sound system, Dr. Brainlove is outfitted with fiber optic and LED disco lights. These respond to light and sound sensed by onboard cameras and microphones in the same way a real human brain responds to light and sound. At her center lies a headset that allows you to control this giant brain with your own brain. The headset uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain waves linked to brain states like meditation, frustration, and excitement, and these in turn change the appearance of Dr. Brainlove’s light display.


A vehicle for neuroscience education


Dr. Brainlove is (ahem) the brainchild of a group of scientists, engineers, and artists, including a handful of Berkeley scientists, mainly neuroscientists. The creators of Dr. Brainlove hope to bring her to science outreach events all around the Bay Area. Museums like the Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences, as well as festivals like the Bay Area Science Festival and the Maker Faire may soon get a visit from Dr. Brainlove.

Wendy de Heer, a PhD student in psychology, uses an angle grinder on Dr. Brainlove’s base. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

Wendy de Heer, a PhD student in psychology, uses an angle grinder on Dr. Brainlove’s base. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

Asako Miyakawa, a PhD student in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at Berkeley, acts as “the hub neuron,” coordinating logistics, time, and money. “I would have loved to climb a giant brain jungle gym when I was a child,” she says. “I am happy that I am able to provide that opportunity to children and adults today.”


Miyakawa, along with Natalia Bilenko, Jascha Sohl-Dickstein, Wendy de Heer, and Scott French, all present or former Berkeley PhD students, have been picking up Sawzalls and angle grinders on the weekends to make Dr. Brainlove a reality. “I got to use my Cal goggles for the first time since they handed them out at orientation,” says Bilenko, who has little use for safety goggles in her functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research.


She and de Heer provide the models of human brain activity in response to sights and sounds, respectively. “I used data from the brains of people listening to sounds,” says de Heer. “When Dr. Brainlove hears music, you can see her auditory cortex light up with it.”


Bilenko will oversee models that take inputs from cameras inside the eyeballs, which are actually 16-inch diameter lamppost globes.The visual information is run through one of these models to mimic the pathway from the retina, along the optic nerve, all the way to Dr. Brainlove’s visual cortex, causing it to light up.


Eagle-eyed neuroscientists may detect tonotopy and retinotopy, or mappings of pitch and visual space, in the patterns the LEDs form. The team also plans to use scans of brain arteries to recreate such veinous landmarks as the Circle of Willis, encased in Plexiglass and emitting a red glow from the floor of the bus. As years go by, the visual and auditory models may be upgraded to perform such tasks as speech, face, and object recognition.


Playa bound


But first, Dr. Brainlove will make her debut on “the playa,” as the desert is called, at Burning Man. Burning Man is a festival of “radical self expression” which attracts 70,000 to the dusty, scorching-hot Black Rock Desert in Nevada every August. The Phage, a group of attendees focused on bringing science to the playa. In years past, thanks to the Phage, attendees learned medical sutures on a fetal pig, peered at a “Micro Zoo” through a microscope, and experienced one joule. The Phage camp, located on the main drag of the city, also hosts nightly science talks from 8-10 pm throughout the festival.


The gigantic mesh brain is based on a scan of Bilenko’s brain, transformed from a 300,000-node mesh down to 691 metal bars by the Arizona-based Digital Permaculture. Members of the Phage, guided by structural engineer Nicholas Christie and lighting guru Sean Stevens, recently removed the top from their donated school bus, preparing it to carry the brain. They then began assembling the bars at NIMBY, a popular DIY workspace in Oakland.


Nicholas Christie addresses the team at NIMBY. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

Nicholas Christie addresses the team at NIMBY. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

But as summer passes, Burning Man grows closer and closer. Time is precious for the Dr. Brainlove team. “The issues are…well, they’re not issues, they’re opportunities,” began Christie at a recent team meeting, “Well, what we thought was the outside turns out to be the inside. So it’s…even more awesome?” The brain was 3 feet larger in every direction than they’d anticipated. Undaunted, the group drew on the forklift wizardry of the folks at NIMBY until the brain could no longer be lifted. It was time to rent a crane.


The lid of the bus is lifted. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

The lid of the bus is lifted. (Image courtesy of the Phage)

    Christie has worked on such projects as the High Roller observation wheel at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but never before had he worked with a coalition of the willing quite this varied in their skill sets. “It’s been really great to have everyone contribute, to have a whole community be part of the process–not just learning skills, but the social aspect as well,” he says. The challenges of engineering a one-of-a-kind, roving, glowing brain more or less on the fly are certainly unique, but the enthusiasm is infectious.


Halfway through one meeting, Stevens appears via Skype from a workspace on Treasure Island. A wall of rainbow-colored LED lights dances in elaborate patterns behind him. “Are you in a spaceship?” one Phageling asks. “I thought it would make a nice backdrop,” Stevens says, nonchalantly. He briefs the group on his strategies for dealing with unforeseen obstacles: Start with a worst-case design to give yourself a buffer, and if even that falls short, “Optimize for humor,” he says. That way, even if the end result isn’t what you planned, you can still make people laugh out of sheer amazement.

Halfway to $26,000

You can help bring Dr. Brainlove to educate the masses, both on the playa and off, by contributing here. As thanks for your contribution, you can receive one of several perks. “My favorite is the Neural Trigger,” says Miyakawa. “It’s a gorgeous, 3D-printed steel filigree model of Dr. Brainlove containing a button that activates her lighting system.”


The group reached nearly 50% of their fundraising goal the very first day of their IndieGoGo campaign. Now, with just two weeks left before their fundraising deadline (and less than two months before Burning Man), a crane needs to be rented. Five hundred meters of fiber optic cable need securing–and in such a way that neither inebriated Burners nor sugar-high children can destroy it. EEG equipment needs to be purchased, as does canvas to shade Dr. Brainlove’s riders, “like a yarmulke,” says Sohl-Dickstein.


Don’t leave Dr. Brainlove hatless in the cold desert nights. The members of the Phage are grateful for any amount you can spare. Please help them bring this magic school bus, and the gospel of neuroscience, to those most susceptible to wonder–Burners and children alike.