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Humans and their brains: A complicated history

Fascinating and sometimes unsettling London exhibit explores how humans have interacted with brains in the name of science, medicine, and culture. Turns out it's a highly complex relationship.

Woody Allen famously said, "My brain. It's my second favorite organ."

Even if the brain falls below second on your own favorite-organ hierarchy (personally, I really like my spleen), it's hard not to be struck by its mystery and complexity.

This brain belonged to someone famous to computer history. Click on the gallery below to see who. Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London

An exhibit running at the Wellcome Collection in London through June 17, "Brains: The mind as matter," takes a unique approach to the subject.

Rather than focusing on the hard science of neurons, lobes, and dura, the exhibit explores how humans have related to the brain over time -- how it's been studied and regarded, for example, what's been done to it in the name of scientific inquiry and medical intervention, and how perceptions of it have shaped society.

"'Brains' asks not what brains do to us, but what we have done to brains," the exhibit description reads.

The free display features more than 150 artifacts -- real preserved brains, including a mummified cerebral hemisphere from around 2010 BCE; manuscripts and illustrations that reflect shifting ideas about the brain; photos of patients suffering from neurological disorders; self-portraits by an artist succumbing to dementia; and surgical film sequences.

There's also an interactive feature that gives visitors a close-up, 360-degree view of a preserved male brain.

Some of the material, such as images of innovative neuroimaging techniques, inspires, while some unsettles (the exhibit delves into topics such as phrenology, the controversial study of cranial contours as an indicator of character). But it's all fascinating.

Click on the gallery below to see some of the exhibit highlights. And please note: No Abby Normal jokes were made in the writing of this post.