My Virtual Dream

I went to BRAINfest this weekend. It wasn’t as big of a crowd as I had hoped, but what was there was fantastic.

The biggest draw was definitely My Virtual Dream. The exhibit is essentially psychedelic light show, complete with wonderful music and surreal Monty Python-esque animation – at least when I saw it. It was definitely enjoyable, but I can’t give you any more details than that. The reasons I can’t share any more are 1) because it has to be experienced, and 2) because you won’t see the same show I did. Every single performance is improvised by 10 volunteers who probably know next to nothing about lighting, music, or art, let alone neuroscience. But they manage to put on a good show anyway thanks to the Virtual Brain developed in the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest.

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Sculpture of the Virtual Brain

The virtual brain is an ambitious international project spearheaded by Dr. Randy McIntosh, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Rotman Research Institute. It’s very unique as a brain model because it models both the structure and function of the living human brain, allowing it to approximate various individual brains according to user-defined parameters The virtual brain got started from a scan of a single monkey’s brain, but it has been growing over the years by taking functional neural scans of humans – including normal, typically functioning people and those with cognitive/neurological impairments, such as dementia and stroke patients. This means that they can model how the human brain would work when it’s structure or function is altered in some way, which has tremendous clinical applications. With this they can model how a surgical procedure or medication can impact a patient without actually doing it.

But its applications are not limited to clinical work, and I expect to see a lot of research being done with this new toy.

But back to the show. When My Virtual Dream begins, all 10 volunteers (called “dreamers“) are given these headbands and asked to relax. These headbands record their collective brainwaves, which are then fed into the Virtual Brain computer program, which stitches together a “dream” from the various multimedia files that make up its “memories.” This includes an awesome video and a completely original piece of music, all done on the spot. The v-brain doesn’t play the music itself (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re working on that). Instead it is performed by three live performers: a keyboardist, an electric cellist, and a vocalist. All three performed beautifully. It was hard to believe that they hadn’t practiced the piece beforehand. When I went the music had a somewhat haunting tone (which I liked), but maybe when you go they’ll have the singer do ABBA’s Greatest Hits. Anything goes here.

If I had to pick one flaw, there was no animation of electric sheep at any point during the dream. Not sure how they didn’t think of that, but they had better fix this for their next show.

My Virtual Dream is travelling, and will be starting their tour in Amsterdam this May, followed by Washington D.C., and San Francisco, CA. I couldn’t find their tour schedule, but if you have a chance, go see it. You won’t be disappointed.