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Open seven days a week, 10.00-18.00. Entry to the Museum is free.

Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology

Inside the exhibition

This exhibition traces five significant moments in the history of the nerves and mind, from 1780 to the present. Each is explored through scientific and technical advances and the controversies that they generated. These are not only stories about scientists and doctors, but also about their patients and the general public.

Where is the mind? Is it in the brain, or does it extend throughout the body and into the world beyond? Our understanding of the way our nerves relate to our thoughts, behaviour and mental health has changed dramatically over the last 250 years.

Exhibition highlights

Sherrington’s cat model

Sharrington's cat
Sherrington’s cat model, c. 1920–30. Object No: 1999-917 © Science Museum

Neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington was fascinated by the way cats keep their balance even while negotiating obstacles at speed. His research showed that much of this coordinated behaviour was controlled by simple nerve circuits in the spine.

Sherrington used this model in lectures to illustrate how the cat’s eyes, whiskers, neck, legs and tail continued to work together even when the ‘highest’ portion of its brain, the cerebral cortex, had been removed.

40 versions of the same PET scan colour-coded in different ways by a scanner's computers

40 versions of colour-coded PET scans
40 versions of colour-coded PET scans, 1996, created by PET scientist Brian Murphy of the University of Buffallo

Colourful brain scans have become a familiar sight in discussions about psychology and brain function over the last 30 years. Earlier scanners had shown the brain’s structure, but PET (positron emission tomography) scanners could reveal ‘hot spots’ of nerve-cell activity within it.

These images are 40 versions of the same PET scan colour-coded in different ways by a scanner's computers. They were created by PET scientist Brian Murphy of the University of Buffalo in 1996 in order to show how 'hot spots' of activity could be make to appear and disappear.

Hipp Chronoscope

Hipp chronoscope
Hipp chronoscope for measuring the speed of thought in early psychological laboratories, Switzerland, 1888. Object no.1889-38/1 © Science Museum

The Hipp chronoscope was an expensive, extremely precise stop-clock made by a Swiss watchmaker turned telegraph engineer. It allowed scientists to measure events such as reaction time, attention and perception on the timescale of nerve impulses. The larger dial showed seconds, the smaller dial hundredths of seconds.

This object was donated to the Science Museum by the Hipp company in 1889.

The first deep-brain EEG recording of brain waves ever made

eeg read-out
Recording of depth brain waves, 1958. Object no. 2001-193 © Science Museum

The Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol was founded in 1938 to promote ‘investigation into the causes of mental defects and abnormalities’.

Its most prominent scientist, William Grey Walter, devoted his career to recording and interpreting complex brain-wave patterns using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG).

Typically this involved attaching wires to the patient’s scalp to measure simultaneously the electrical activity of many thousands of nerve cells inside the brain.

This is the first recording of brain waves made using electrodes inserted deep inside the brain, rather than on the scalp. The patient, known only as R C, had been diagnosed with a type of epilepsy. On the basis of this EEG the left temporal lobe of his brain was surgically removed. This resulted, in the opinion of the doctor, in ‘an excellent long-lasting result’.

This object is being displayed at the Science Museum for the first time.

Cavallo-style electrical generator

Adams electrical machine
Cavallo-style electrical generator, made by George Adams, London, 1780–84. Object no. 1889-29 © Science Museum

George Adams was an acclaimed scientific instrument maker in late-18th-century London and Tiberius Cavallo was the leading European authority on medical electricity.

Tiberius designed this compact electrical generator and its accessories, including the ‘medical bottle’ that regulated the shocks it administered. Turning the glass cylinder built up a static electric charge in the metal collector on the side of the machine.

A Derbyshire GP owned this generator and used it to treat patients in the early 19th century.

‘Nervone’ nerve nutrient

Nervone nerve pills, boxes and bottle
Nervone nerve nutrient, 1924–49. Object no. 1988-317/165 © Science Museum

This ‘nerve nutrient’ was launched in the 1920s as an alternative to harmful nerve tonics and was still being sold in the 1960s.

Nerve tonics were available to the public over the counter or prescribed by doctors for a range of conditions such as fatigue, anxiety, headache and depression. Many contained powerful sedatives called like bromides or chloral, and trace amounts of the deadly poison strychnine.

Around 1960, a whole crop of new drugs emerged promising to treat anxiety and depression without side effects. The best known was Valium. Research on neurotransmitters and these drugs led to a still-influential interpretation of mental illness as a chemical imbalance of the nervous system.  What used to be called ‘nervousness’ was increasingly redefined as ‘anxiety’, while ‘nervous exhaustion’ became known as depression.

This object is being displayed at the Science Museum for the first time

EEG sensor net used for studying sleep

EEG cap
EEG sensor net used for studying sleep, c. 2010. Object no. E2010.114.1 © Science Museum

Although nearly 90 years old, electroencephalography (EEG) remains an essential element of the psychology laboratory. It is frequently used in conjunction with brain scanning.

EEG allows scientists to study the very fast and very slow elements of brain activity, essential for researching phenomena such as perception, language, attention and sleep.

Sensor nets like this, and the sophisticated computers that accompany them, have made EEG much easier to use. They simplified and standardised the process of attaching electrodes to the scalp, allowing EEG traces from different people to be more easily compared.

They also ensured people under research no longer need to spend hours combing electrode glue out of their hair.