Second week of March is always a special time of year for brain buffs. That is when educators from around the world join in for neuroscience outreach in schools and local communities!
Money’s always scarce, but your organization doesn’t have to tap into its own funds. If you write up and submit a proposal within the next couple of weeks (through October 31), you may get up to $1,250 to fund your Brain Awareness Week (BAW) activities for next March. This year, the IBRO/Dana Foundation Grants Program was expanded by 60%, so your chances of winning are bigger than ever!
But where to begin? You don’t need to break your head over activity ideas. We have a lot of wildly popular, effective and customizable hands-on experiments that have already made many an appearance during previous BAWs. Or, if you prefer something new, you can always scour our blog for inspiration from our fellows and interns! All of our experiments were designed to be conducted in makeshift labs, classrooms or public spaces. Being attractive and appealing whether you’re reaching out to middle-schoolers, college students or the general public, they all stand for democratization of neuroscience.
But what if you can’t make the second week of March? No worries. You’re not in any way required to stick with the exact BAW dates (March 11-17, 2024), nor will it affect your chances of getting awarded. Do it whenever you want, as long as you use the official Brain Awareness Week branding.
5 Brain Awareness Week BYB Classics
The foremost reason why these experiments strike a chord with so many people is that they break down very complex and sophisticated concepts in a way that looks and feels lo-fi enough not to intimidate anyone. Being featured on TED doesn’t do them a disservice either!
Another reason why we chose them is that they don’t take a lot of time or equipment.
What does it take to achieve control over another person’s arm so that it moves because you wanted it to move? In its essence, this is an experiment in advanced neuroprosthetics that’s cooked up for audiences as young as 5th grade!
“How bad does it hurt?” It’s not for nothing that doctors usually struggle to ascertain our level of pain. It depends not only on how bad we report it to be, but also on the amount of pain we think we feel.
But are there reasons behind it that would begin to decipher our (in)ability to cope with or even verbalize the dreaded sensation? According to a recent collaborative study led by Dr. Elia Valentini from the University of Essex, there’s more to this phenomenon than a mere lack of tools that would accurately quantify exactly how much pain there is in an “ouch.”
What Does Our Brain Do While We Hurt?
So far, science held a more or less persisting view that a surefire way to quantify our levels of pain – much like any other physical sensation or state – was to measure our brain’s electrical activity. When you’re sitting and idly scrolling on your phone, your brain waves will likely hover around 12 Hz. Start dozing off and these alpha waves will slide back in intensity to theta (4-8 Hz) or even delta (1-4 Hz) if you were to fall asleep.
But if a very angry tweet kicks you out of your zen, your brain waves are likely to surge into the beta sphere, anywhere from 22 to 38 Hz. Finally, if you hop into the kitchen and stub your toe on the way, your brain activity will shoot through the roof and exhibit a very high level of oscillations, up to 80 Hz.
Or so the theory went!
The study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology paints a more nuanced picture. Different brains, it suggests, show remarkably varied responses to the same type and amount of pain. This leads the researchers to believe that each of us have our own and unique “pain fingerprint.” To gauge what our brain does against what it says it does, the researchers took two groups of willing subjects and put them through two datasets. The first group of willing participants was zapped with a laser and touched within a 2-week span, whereas the other only only got the laser stimulus. All the while, the participants’ response was measured on two fronts. Their EEG was recorded with a focus on the rapid gamma brain waves. Three seconds after the stimulus was applied, the participants were asked to verbally rate their feeling of pain from no pain (0) to maximum pain they were willing to tolerate (10).
The most intriguing finding? We may experience and describe a stimulus as painful in a certain way and to a certain extent, but the gamma waves will not necessarily play along. In other words, the waves that have been associated with pain for so long will actually vary significantly between individuals. But where they do show in an individual, they will be remarkably stable, consistent and reproducible.
Over a dozen busy bees, 5 research projects, 4 hot weeks of July, countless data, iterations and coffee cups, one book of experiments to soak it all up and present to the wider audience — and the Backyard Brains 2023 US-Serbian Summer Research Fellowship rounds off. The result will hit the shelves this fall, with the new, Serbian edition of our book “How Your Brain Works” containing brand new experiments that our team started working on.
But if you expect to see a bunch of cockroaches, worms, moths and bees and other invertebrates buzzing around Belgrade’s Center for Promotion of Science lab makerspace where we spent the month, you’re in for a surprise. This time, we ventured into two completely different, even opposite realms, hoping to eventually tie them together. One is the realm of single-celled creatures who don’t seem to be hindered or bothered by their lack of brain. The other lies behind our all-powerful brain and borders on philosophy of awareness. What is consciousness and attention? How do we think what reality is — and how do we share it with others? Finally, is there a way for these two realms to inform and complement each other?
This year’s cohort was small but diverse, composed of three undergrads who flew in from the University of Michigan and four Serbian undergrads from the Universities of Belgrade and Novi Sad. One of the greatest values was the wide variety of backgrounds that came together: from neuroscience to electrical engineering, psychology, molecular biology and computer science.