Plastic People

A new exhibit at the Science Museum containing real human specimens teaches viewers the anatomy of happiness.

There are 8 billion people on the planet, and every one of them wants to be happy. No surprise, given that happiness is a basic human need.

Everyone’s definition of happiness may be different, but the impact of happiness on the human mind and body is universal. Look no further than the Science Museum’s new exhibition “Body Worlds: Anatomy of Happiness” to explore how anatomy is involved in happiness and how positive or negative emotions can affect health.

That exploration is all the more fascinating because the exhibition is comprised of human specimens called plastinates. Yes, Virginia, this exhibition contains real human specimens, including whole-body plastinates, individual organs, biological systems and transparent body slices. The plastinated specimens are dissected and without skin, making it easy to see the bones, muscles, tendons, nerves, blood vessels and organs. Gross as it may sound, the specimens are dry, odorless and virtually everlasting.

Invented by scientist and anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977, plastination is a unique method of halting decomposition to preserve anatomical specimens for scientific and medical education by replacing bodily fluids and fat with plastics through vacuum-forced impregnation. After the bodies are placed into lifelike poses, they’re hardened with gas, heat or light. The body’s cells remain in their original state, down to the microscopic structures, so the preserved specimen appears identical to how it was inside the body. Guests can rest assured that all the body donors choose to participate in the program, desiring to contribute to the medical enlightenment of the masses.

An image from “Body Worlds” and the institute for plastination. Photo credit: David Trood

Happiness, like every emotional experience, is the result of electrochemical reactions in the brain brought on by stimuli. Check out a brain stem, brain slice, or a dissected brain in the exhibition and you’ll learn a lot. As humans evolved, the uppermost and largest part of the brain began expanding despite restricted skull space. The brain’s surface became convoluted and furrowed, eventually hiding two-thirds of its surface. But spread it out flat and your cerebral cortex would be approximately 16 square feet. That’s a lot of brain.

How old do you look?

A large screen tells visitors, “You are on camera,” with a reminder that when you smile or laugh, it triggers a part of the brain that actually makes you happy. Stand in front of the screen smiling to have your face read. When the screen tells a 10-year-old that she’s 17, plus or minus five years, she claps excitedly, thrilled to look older. Her mother, on the other hand, is less pleased when her face reads 47, plus or minus two years, because she’s only 32 years old. Stand and smile at your own risk of a bruised ego.

Because laughter is the best medicine, a video shows a class doing laughter yoga, with the instructor entreating the class to let go. They go through a series of exercises, doing silent laughter, argument laughter and self-laughter before laying down on the floor for unbridled free laughter. When a participant has a tough time mustering the requisite yucks, the instructor suggests they fake it until they make it, that is, achieve real laughter.

Three red swings hang from the ceiling and guests are invited to swing moderately as a way to relax and find balance in themselves. A young woman gets on tentatively, but as she pumps her legs higher, begins laughing. Her husband weighs too much to get on the swings, so he watches, questioning what’s so funny. “It just makes me happy to swing like this,” she tells him, grinning widely. The proof is in how everyone dismounting the swings is smiling.

Gunther Von Hagens and Angeline Whalley. Credit: Institute for Plastination

The full body specimens are like anatomy textbook illustrations come to life. “Organ Man” has a wide-open torso for a better view of internal organs. “The Archer” shows tension in virtually every muscle in the body, with the extremities partly expanded to reveal the anatomy of the joints. “The Skateboarder” demonstrates the precise coordination between the nervous and muscular systems, a complex process given that the images in front of a skater change constantly while also being bombarded by stimuli.

“The Guitar Player” shows all the muscles just below the skin. Our sense of hearing is closely linked to the limbic system that processes our feelings, meaning that music can release happiness hormones and lift our mood. On the flip side, it can also cause negative emotions if the song relates to a bad memory.

Visitors can dance in front of a funhouse-style mirror, watching their bodies ripple and attenuate like an air-filled tube man in front of a used car lot. And there’s plenty of reason to dance, since it produces a positive effect on our cardiovascular system and increases serotonin levels in our bodies. By using our brains in coordination with our bodies, dancing helps keep the brain functional by rewiring itself and keeping brain pathways open and less susceptible to memory loss.

A powerful emotional phenomenon, happiness, which is a combination of how satisfied we are with our life and how good we feel on a day-to-day basis, influences our movements, perceptions, sensations, and mood. Included in the exhibition are words from the 14th Dalai Lama, who said, “Happiness is the highest form of health.”

Spending time with the exhibition “Body Worlds: Anatomy of Happiness” reminds us that about 40% of our happiness is determined by our thoughts, actions and behaviors.

Choose wisely and happiness can be yours.

“Body Worlds: Anatomy of Happiness” runs through Labor Day at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad Street,


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