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The human brain is a control center: It monitors everything our body does, every minute of every day. Chances are, your child's science teacher has introduced the human brain in passing. So, your child may not know that his brain, which sends messages to other parts of his body through nerves, or bundles of neurons, controls his movements and also makes his thoughts and emotions possible.
You may know a bit about neuroscience – the study of the nervous system – through books like Oliver Sacks’ recent Musicophilia, which compiles stories about unusual neurological disorders, some of which make people see certain colors when they hear a particular kind of music, or associate a specific scent with a musical octave. Another book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, shows that taste and smell are more powerful than sight: Memories from childhood, for example, are more vividly recalled through our tongue or nose.
Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Well, experts in this cutting-edge field are learning more about the brain’s mysterious nature, and its connections to perception, memory, and the development of our language. NeuroKids, created by youngsters Bo Erik and Shennendoah Hollsten, and the University of Washington’s Neuroscience for Kids both maintain colorful and illustrated resources on the brain. If your child loves science and is a gross-out guru, he'll enjoy picking apart the cerebrum, cerebellum, and other parts of a wrinkly, pinkish-gray plastic model of the brain.
But neuroscience trickles into disciplines other than science, like music, art, cooking, and literature. So if your child isn’t an aspiring scientist, an overview of the field is still helpful to understand how we learn new skills and remember information, move our bodies, or dream and imagine new ideas. The brain controls everything. And who knows? Your child may one day be a neuroscientist.
To understand, then, how the field relates to various interests or professions, consider these activities with your child:
If your child enjoys writing, telling childhood stories, or recounting places she’s been or people she’s known, she probably senses the power of words and the emotions and memories they evoke. The cerebral cortex, the outer layers of our cerebrum where most of our thinking takes place, is made up of different lobes. The temporal lobe – the hippocampus in particular – is associated with memory.
Exercise: Gather at least 25 objects in your house and spread them out on a table. Allow 30 seconds to study the items, and then cover them. Write down as many objects as you can remember. After, create a poem incorporating the words on the list. Compare your stanzas to see how a person’s unique memory creates a distinct poem.
Fascinated by Freud? If dreams and the unconscious intrigue your child – or he prefers movies or books of fantasy and the supernatural – he may be interested in his brain’s activity during sleep. Your child spends about 8 hours a day, or 122 days a year, in deep sleep! It may seem like a lot of time doing nothing. His brain, however, is very active while he snoozes, making sure his body is replenished with energy for the next day. Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage in which his eyes quickly move back and forth.
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