See the World Through the Eyes of a Butterfly at a New Exhibit on the Senses

The American Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibition reveals how our brains make sense of the world around us

In the Seeing gallery, decorated walls lit with an alternating series of colored lights reveal just how much a world bathed in white light can differ from one illuminated by blue, green or red. (©AMNH/R. Mickens)

Every single day we’re bombarded with different sights, sounds, smells and tastes. From the pulsating baseline bumping from a pair of speakers to the lip-puckering flavor that comes when biting into a lemon, we detect our surroundings thanks to our sensory perceptions. Now a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City gives visitors the chance to put their senses to the test while also learning how truly limited some of our perceptions are when compared to those of other species. 

“Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” which opened in November, is an experiential exhibition featuring 11 “funhouse-like” galleries that reveal how and why humans perceive different sensations and the processes that our brains go through to try to decipher them. Each gallery focuses on a different sense—from sight to smell to balance—and inviting visitors to explore and challenge their sensory “super powers” in new ways. 

In the smelling gallery, visitors can put their approximately 400 types of odor-sensing cells to the test. Our human noses enable us to detect a trillion different odors, and often what we experience as a single scent is really a compilation of a variety of different chemical compounds. Visitors can participate in a smell test where they take whiffs of different single-molecule scents and guess which ones are found in chocolate. (Sounds simple, but it’s tougher to do than you think.) 

Next step into the Wavy Room to see how visual stimuli impact your balance. The cube-shaped room features black-and-white-striped floors and walls that appear to curve around you, throwing off your balance. 

In another gallery, visitors can explore a larger-than-life garden, first through their human eyes, and then, with the assistance of ultraviolet light viewers, through the eyes of a butterfly or a bee. Flowers and butterfly wings that perviously looked solid in color, suddenly reveal dazzling new colors and patterns.

In the Balance gallery, visitors discover what happens when our senses disagree: though their feet will feel a flat floor beneath them, their eyes will see walls and a floor that appear to curve and ripple. (©AMNH/R. Mickens)

The human species’ inadequacy in some areas of sensory perception is one of the major themes of the exhibition. However, curator Rob DeSalle is quick to point out that humans are constantly increasing our capabilities thanks to advancements in technology. One example he points to is the usage of brain implants for people who are blind or visually impaired.

“It’s not a new idea, but the advances in sight are pretty spectacular,” DeSalle, a curator in the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, tells “We’re going to see a lot more people, more cyborg-ish people, [wearing implements], similar to the classic Star Trek [VISOR worn by character Geordi La Forge], that allow someone with impaired vision to see.” 

“Our Senses: An Immersive Experience” will be open at the American Museum of Natural History now through January 6, 2019. 

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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