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In 2018 Fondazione Prada undertook a multidisciplinary project for the study of scientific themes in depth. These reflections engendered Human Brains, a program of exhibitions, debates and publishing activities that will take place from November 2020 to November 2022. The project is the result of a complex research conducted in collaboration with a scientific board chaired by Giancarlo Comi and composed of researchers, physicians, psychologists, linguists, philosophers, popularizers and curators, such as Jubin Abutalebi, Massimo Cacciari, Viviana Kasam, Udo Kittelmann, Andrea Moro, and Daniela Perani.

As stated by Miuccia Prada, President of Fondazione Prada, “I have been thinking about this project for years, and finally we are ready to commit to this intent, thanks the support of a group of philosophers, scientists and researchers that form the Scientific board of Human Brains. During the 25 year-long activity of Fondazione Prada, I have always wished to work on relevant cultural ideas. This specific project devoted to neuroscience is maybe our most important so far: for a visual art institution such as the Fondazione Prada, dealing with science is a true challenge, as it will have to give voice and shape to the ideas of the researchers. This dialogue that starts now to embody the project Human Brains underlines the importance of cooperation, in order to give value and disseminate meaningful studies and practices for our present.”

The Human Brains initiative is centered on the brain, a unique organ for the complexity of its functions, which are fundamental to characterize human beings. The scope of the investigation will survey different fields: from neurobiology to philosophy, from psychology to neurochemistry, from linguistics to artificial intelligence and robots. The brain will be analyzed from an anatomical-functional point of view, while also focusing on the brain aging processes and on neurodegenerative diseases.

The path of understanding the mechanisms that allow our brain to produce thought and feel emotions, to create admirable works, has roots far back in time, but has had an incredible acceleration in the last fifty years thanks to science.

As stated by Giancarlo Comi, President of Scientific board of Human Brains, “the path of understanding the mechanisms that allow our brain to produce thought and feel emotions, to create admirable works, has roots far back in time, but has had an incredible acceleration in the last fifty years thanks to science. Human Brains, wants to start from these roots and project into the future using the scientific method, with an approach at the same time rigorous but open, aware that not all questions can be answered.”

An open project in constant evolution, Human Brains aims to experiment new collaboration and dialogue methods among scientists and scholars thus testing innovative communication formats addressed to a heterogeneous and international public. In this convergence of distant perspectives and scientific and cultural approaches, the human brain will be declined in the plural—as expressed by the title—to underline its intrinsic complexity and the irreducible singularity of each individual. 

The fundamental historical and conceptual milestones that contributed to the identification of the brain as a place of thought will be analyzed throughout the project, as well as the key theme of the relationship between mind and brain. Furthermore, the nervous basis of sensations, emotions, memory and superior functions such as conscience, language, creativity and abstract thinking will be at the center of the investigation. A few more complex themes—such as subconscious and freedom of decision—will be delved into by shedding light on the science’s crucial role in dealing with these themes as well as its limitations. The project will deal extensively with technological developments in neuroimaging and with techniques of functional exploration of the brain. Neurobiology and neurophysiology studies will be equally delved into, with their interconnection, the messages they exchange and their super-specializations.

The first part of Human Brains will be featured from 9 to 13 November 2020 during the online conference “Culture and Consciousness” on an interactive platform linked to Fondazione Prada’s website. The event will be structured in five daily discussions focused on the study of conscience in neurosciences. Each panel will include a debate between two scholars coordinated by one or more moderators.

As pointed out by Massimo Cacciari, member of the Scientific board of Human Brains, “the definition of consciousness in neurobiological terms is quite simple: a set of nerve processes that allow an individual to perceive the internal and external world. However, how a set of processes that involve the brain as a whole can become Jasper's self-conscious self, aware of its unity and being in antithesis with the external world and with others, remains one of the central questions of human being. Such a complex issue can only be addressed from different points of view and this is what we will do with the 'Culture and Consciousness' conference”.

The first two discussions will see neuroscientist Mavi Sanchez-Vives and neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, moderated by neurologist Giancarlo Comi, and neurobiologist Eve Marder with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, moderated by neurologist and neuroscientist Daniela Perani. They will explore the biological fundaments of conscience, from the neurofunctional mechanisms to neurochemical and molecular basis, and they will carry on indepth analysis of connectivity as a cerebral substrate of conscience state and the revolutionary techniques that allow investigating the brain in vivo.

Two discussions between neurolinguist Andrea Moro and cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene will be moderated by cognitive neurologist Jubin Abutalebi, while the anthropologist Ian Tattersall and neuroscientist Idan Segev will be moderated by neuroscientist Katrin Amunts. They will examine the concept of consciousness in relation to anthropology, the key role of language and its connection to the emotional and affective sphere to then reflect on the future evolution of research and on the attempts to create thinking machines.

Philosopher Michele Di Francesco and psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi will hold the final discussion, moderated by scientific journalist Vivian Kasam; it will be a crucial moment to confront different perspectives and approaches to the complex question of conscience. Moreover, Giancarlo Comi and Massimo Cacciari will reflect on the contributions of all the previous discussions.

The second chapter of Human Brains, scheduled for Autumn 2021 at Fondazione Prada’s venue in Milan, consists of an international conference accompanied by an exhibition project. The intent of this conference is to compare some of the most prestigious neuroscience international institutions on the progress of research and on the future developments in terms of normal and pathological aging of our brain. In fact, despite the great developments in medicine, neurodegenerative diseases cannot benefit from therapies to influence their evolution significantly. A strategical and coordinated combination of stakeholders and the contribution of technological and methodological innovation is fundamental to support possible positive developments in this field.

Several international institutions will contribute to the project: Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Ann Romney Center for Neurological Diseases, Boston, US; Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Sorbonne University, Neurology department and ICM, Paris, France; IRCCS Ospedale San Raffaele, Milan, Italy; Juntendo University Hospital, Department of Neurology, Tokyo, Japan; Karolinska University Hospital, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Stockholm, Sweden; German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) within the Helmholtz Association, Bonn, Germany; Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Munich, Germany; Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital, MC Gill Research and teaching Institute, Canada; Ruijin Hospital affiliated to Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, Department of Neurology and Institute of Neurology, China; UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, US; University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery Faculty of Brain Sciences, Institute of Neurology, Department of Brain Repair and Rehabilitation, UK; Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv, Israel; and Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, US.

On the occasion of the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, Fondazione Prada’s venetian venue will host an exhibition entirely dedicated to brain studies that will mark the third phase of Human Brains project. The immersive exhibition, curated by Udo Kittelmann in dialogue with the scientific board, will represent an attempt to translate into an exhibition form the history of the studies on human thinking and the current scientific research up until future challenges, linked to the developments of molecular medicine and the analysis of microscopical mechanisms that make up our brain activity.

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