Homemade Neuroscience: DIY Experiments for Kids

We know it’s important to keep busy with activities to avoid the dreaded summer slide. We also don’t expect your child’s summer to be a hotter version of being in the classroom—you can have fun while exploring different interests! We’re a bit biased to the brain and the way it works, so here are a few fun, educational, and easy neuroscience-themed experiments that you can do in your own home during these last few weeks of summer vacation. Have fun!

Make Your Own Brain Hemisphere Hat

This one is super easy but can teach you a lot about how the brain works. All you have to do is print out the brain hemisphere templates available for download on this website. The PDF gives a small size and a larger version for those of us with extra-large brains up there. Once you’ve printed out the templates, you can begin to color the different parts of the brain—frontal cortex, occipital lobe, temporal lobe, etc.—while also learning their respective functions thanks to illustrations on the hat. For example, in the frontal lobe, we see, “Logic 3x=6,” because the frontal lobe aids our logical thinking activities. When you finish coloring it’s as simple as following the instructions on the templates and now you have your very own brain outside the brain!

Fast Hands

Reactions help us avoid touching hot surfaces, getting hit by snowballs, or colliding with swerving car. This next experiment tests the speed of our reactions with the use of a ruler. All you need is a ruler and a friend. While one friend holds the ruler with their strong hand at the bottom of the ruler, the other friend will say “GO” at which point the partner holding the ruler will let go and allow it to slide from their grasp. As quickly as possible, try to catch it so it doesn’t fall completely through your hands. You can measure how quickly you were able to let go and re-grab the ruler based on the centimeters between the new grip and the original holding place. Repeat 5 times and take an average to see who has the quickest reaction time.

Touch Here, Touch There

This activity is another partner experiment but it tests our brains’ awareness of our bodies. You’ll need two washable markers or pens of different colors. While Partner 1 stands with their eyes closed, Partner 2 will make a single dot with the marker somewhere on Partner 2’s visible skin. Now, without opening their eyes, Partner 2 will use the other colored marker to try and touch the exact same spot their partner touched on their body. You can measure accuracy by the distance between the two points. This is one of my favorite experiments because it shows us how awesome our brains truly are. Even with our eyes closed our brains know where every spot on our body is, almost like it has a 3D map of our body stored in its hard drive ready to access whenever we need it.

Afterimages

When it comes to our brains, they serve a lot of very important functions, including allowing us to experience the world around us. Perception is how our brain helps us interpret the stimuli that we are exposed to each day and includes how we smell, touch, hear, taste, and see. This experiment lets us explore a fun quirk related to how the brain works with our eyes to perceive colors. All you need to do is find some good examples of pre-images online or make your own using different colored bright markers. Some good examples and the science behind the illusion can be found here. Once you’ve found your images, go to a well-lit room and stare at one image for 35 seconds, then move your gaze to a plain white surface such as a wall, table, or piece of printer paper. You will see the same image, except the colors will be different. See if you can figure out which after-colors coincide with the originals.

Taste Test Trick

This final experiment studies how color affects our perceived taste. You will need 10 cups, 5 different flavored clear juices, and food coloring. Have someone write down the type of juice on the bottom of each cup, or on a secret note, and pour each of the juice types into separate cups (2 cups per juice). Now, add food coloring to one of each pair to dye the juice a different color from the original color. For example, dye one of the grape juices red and one of the cherry cups green. Taste test the “wrong” colored drinks and record your guesses. Now, taste test the correctly colored drinks and record your guesses. Compare and see how color affects your ability to identify the juices.

Want more?

If you are local to NeuroPlus HQ in the North Carolina Triangle and enjoy these types of activities, register for our first ever NeuroPlus hosted mini-camp on July 31st. At this FREE event, we will learn more about the brain, do some hands-on experiments, and try out the NeuroPlus games. Join us for Fun with Neuroscience!

Chills and Thrills: Your Brain on Music

Have you ever had the chills while listening to a powerful piece of music? Recently, I went to listen to the North Carolina Symphony play The Music of Star Wars event. As I was listening to the music, I was able to visualize scenes from the movies. My body instantly got chills and I felt many emotions swell with the music. According to researchers at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, if you get chills while listening to music, your brain may have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions.

 

The experience of getting chills is called frisson (free-shawn), which is French for “aesthetic chills.” The most common occurrence of frisson is listening to emotionally moving music, but it can also occur when you watch a particular movie, look at a piece of art, or are in physical contact with another person. Music that includes sudden changes in volume or unexpected harmonies are common triggers for frisson because it goes against our expectations in a positive way. For example, if a violin soloist is playing an emotional piece that builds to a unexpected high note, the listener may feel this emotional build up and experience goosebumps.

 

Over the past five decades, there have been numerous studies on frisson and how our brains and bodies react to unexpected stimuli, particularly in music. A study conducted by Matthew Sachs, a USC Ph.D student, found that people who get chills while listening to music have structural differences in their brain. Sachs says that people who get chills while listening to music might have a higher volume of fibers connecting their auditory cortex to areas of the brain that process emotions. These fibers mean better communication between the two areas.

 

Another study conducted by Dr. Amani El-Alayli, a professor of social psychology at East Washington University sought to find if a person’s personality type played a role in if they were able to experience frisson while listening to music. The study had participants listen to 5 pieces of music, each with at least one thrilling portion to induce a frisson response. Participants also filled out a personality test, which researchers used to draw the conclusion that participants who experienced frisson also scored high in the personality trait “openness to experience.” People with this trait often reflect deeply on their emotions, seek out new experiences, and have active imaginations. As a result, researchers concluded that listeners were experiencing frisson due to a deeply emotional reaction to the music they were listening to.

 

With an estimated 55 to 86% of the population able to experience frisson, it is very likely that you have experienced it while listening to emotionally charged music or watching an emotional film. In these moments, your brain is working at an enhanced level so you are able to experience emotions more strongly. If you want to put the theory to the test, listen to our frisson-inducing playlist and see how you react!

 

Bohemian Rhapsody– Queen

Across the Stars– John Williams

I Will Always Love You– Whitney Houston

Human Nature– Michael Jackson

Fortuna– Carmina Burana

 

Have you ever experienced frisson while listening to music? Comment and let us know!

 

Goldilocks and the Three…Storytelling Methods?

How did you first experience the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Was it during storytime in preschool? A cartoon on the TV? Or was it when you read the picture book yourself? No matter how you first learned of the picky girl that needed everything “just right,” you probably weren’t thinking about how your brain was functioning while you did. Luckily, that’s exactly what researcher Dr. John Hutton from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital did when he studied a group of about 30 children and how their brains reacted to different forms of storytelling. His findings were shockingly similar to that of Goldilocks and found that picture books are “just right” for young children.

Dr. Hutton imagined three ways in which young children—those around age four—could be exposed to stories. The first way was the traditional read-aloud situation in which the child does not actually view the picture book, but hears the words read aloud to them. The second scenario was the act of hearing the story while also being able to look at the picture book itself. The last way was simply viewing an animated version of the story, replicating a cartoon. He wanted to know how the children’s brains reacted when they were exposed to these different forms of the same story.

Hutton studied the activity in certain brain regions related to audio, language, and visual ability along with the connection between these different areas as the children were exposed to each of the three methods. His findings can be described as having a “Goldilocks effect” in the sense that the audio-only method was “too cold” while the cartoon was “too hot” for the young subjects’ brains. In the audio-only instance, the language regions were active but had low connectivity, suggesting that the children were struggling to understand and visualize the story simultaneously. On the contrary, the cartoon stimulated the audio and visual areas, but had low connectivity with the language region, resulting in the worst comprehension. This meant that children were actually overstimulated in the audio-visual areas to the extent that the language region could not keep up. The sweet spot was the illustrated version with the audio voiceover. This method provided the children with a nice balance between the networks and the pictures provided just enough imagery for the children’s imagination kick in, allowing the language region to keep up.

 

Sharing is Caring

These findings reinforce the idea of sharing a book with your young child as a parent. Note that “sharing” a book with your child is much different than simply reading it out loud to them. Sharing goes beyond the words in the book and involves an interactive experience for the child in which the parent is encouraged to stop frequently to discuss characters, themes, and interesting passages. Prior to Hutton’s studies, performing this type of reading with toddlers was already seen to improve cognitive and language skills, while also increasing the young child’s vocabulary, pre-reading ability, and conceptual development. By understanding picture books as the best way to engage children, parents should pass up the cartoons and read-aloud time for a nice picture book to share.