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.
Exercise: To monitor the REM stage, quietly observe a family member as they sleep to see if the person’s eyes shift back and forth. There are only four or five periods of REM over the course of a night’s sleep, so you may miss it.
Another activity is to keep a dream journal. Leave a notepad and pen next to your bed before you sleep, and when you wake up, record visuals, sounds, and feelings from, as well as questions about, your dreams. Train yourself to gather fragments from dreams with your eyes shut after you wake up. We lose details from our subconscious the moment we open them.
If your child has seen Ratatouille, there’s a good chance the flavorful film got him interested, or at least hungry for, gourmet food. Budding chefs – and kids who simply appreciate delicious dishes – may be interested in learning how the brain relies on sensory receptors, like the tongue, to collect information about chemicals in food and drinks.
Exercise: Test your taste buds. In paper cups, create different “flavors” of water: Dissolve salt in cup A, mix sugar in cup B, squeeze lemon or add vinegar into cup C, and pour tonic water into cup D. Use a dropper or thick toothpick to graze different areas of the tongue – front, sides, middle, and back – with each liquid. (Rinse between each test with unflavored water). Are parts of the tongue more sensitive to salty, sweet, sour, or bitter tastes?
“Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience,” writes Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. Over time, a person grows to prefer a particular style, such as rock, jazz, reggae, R&B, electronic, or classical, and finds certain rhythms, tempos, pitches, and melodies familiar and comforting.
Music – and most creative pursuits – has been associated with the brain’s right hemisphere, which deals with aesthetics, feeling, and intuition. “Each time we hear a musical pattern, we try to contextualize the sounds, and eventually, we create memory links between a set of notes and a particular place, time, or set of events,” writes Levitin. Often, listening to music is subjective and emotional.
Exercise: First, gauge your hearing acuity. You can try this several ways. Situate yourself in a park or busy (but safe) street intersection, put on a blindfold, try to detect various sounds, and compare your results. An indoor alternative is playing a recording of sound effects and identifying noises. (That CD used for last Halloween's haunted house is fitting!)
Next, proceed to more complex sounds. Choose several CDs of different genres: Classical, jazz, and rock are good bets because each is composed of different instruments, from string and wood to brass and percussion. Take note of the instruments you recognize and enjoy in each song, and which ones you dislike. What do you like about a particular sound, but not another?
Neuroscience is a fast-growing field, and scientists continue to discover new, unprecedented ideas about the brain. The possibilities for learning about this science are endless, so get that noodle working!