Brain Tricks: Sensation and Perception During Brain Awareness Week

Can you always believe your eyes? How about senses of sound, touch and smell?

For Brain Awareness Week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies sponsored the interactive exhibit “Brain Tricks – Sensation and Perception” at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science ( in a hands-on laboratory exhibit. Visitors entered the lab area and first explored the human brain by observing and touching not only a postmortem human brain but also sheep, dog shark, and rodent brains.

Scientists talked with visitors about brain function and which parts of the brain control various senses. At the second station, scientists showed visitors one way that the brain can trick our senses. In the McGurk effect, what we see (lipreading) overrides what we hear (the sounds “Baa,” “Daa” or “Vaa”). This is a robust illusion that works even when you know what is going on! The third station used scented balloons to illustrate a Stroop-like effect – it is easier to identify an odor (cherry, lemon) when it is presented in a balloon of a congruent color (red, yellow) than if the color does not match the odor.

We also had examples of optical illusions and some tactile illusions (e.g., the “Aristotleillusion” and the “dead hand trick”). The exhibit was staffed by more than 40 scientists and students from UNC and Duke University, including several members of the Triangle SfN Chapter.

Approximately 550 children and 200 adults visited the exhibit over 5 days! When asked their favorite activity, children answered “[the] brain, because it’s squishy and fun,” “I [heart] everything! The balloons smell so good!” and “I was quite fond of the auditory illusion.” When asked what they learned, one child answered “your brain expects the obvious.”


-Story by Donita Robinson and Joyce Besheer, UNC-CH

Funded provided by the Education Core of the UNC Alcohol Research Center (National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, P60AA011605, “Molecular and Cellular Pathogenesis in Alcoholism: Education Core”, PI: Fulton T. Crews)

Article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Triangle Transmitter

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