To explore how the human brain processes sensory and cognitive information, regulates our emotional life, and forms memories.
The lesson makes use of a book called Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang (Bloomsbury, 2008). This book was one of the winners of the 2009 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. (Read about the book award.).
The authors, both top neuroscientists, offer a "user's guide" to our brains. They cover a broad range of topics, offering up-to-date information directed to answering questions of the curious public. They supplement their charming narrative with frequent and quite extensive sidebars that debunk myths (e.g., that we only use 10% of our brains and that listening to Mozart makes babies smarter), focus on specific issues, and offer practical tips (e.g., how to cope with jet lag). Their friendly and informal writing effectively engages the reader in a comfortable, interesting, and informative dialog.
As the authors state in the book, neuroscientists have learned a great deal in the last 20 years about the workings of the brain. They share this current knowledge with readers throughout the six parts of the book: 1) introduction to the brain—what is happening "behind the scenes" and how the brain helps us survive; 2) tour of the senses; 3) how the brain changes from birth to old age; 4) examination of the brain's emotional systems; 5) discussion of reasoning abilities; and 6) examination of altered states of the brain.
As similar as we humans are in many ways to other species, we are unique among the earth's life forms in our ability to use language and thought. Having evolved a large and complex brain, our species has a facility to think, imagine, create, and learn from experience that far exceeds that of any other species. We have used this ability to create technologies and literary and artistic works on a vast scale, and to develop a scientific understanding of ourselves and the world. (Science for All Americans, p. 127.)
The extraordinarily long period of human development—compared to that of other species—is related to the prominent role of the brain in human evolution. Most species are very limited in their repertory of behavior and depend for survival on predictable responses determined largely by genetic programming. Mammals, and especially humans, depend far more on learned behavior. A prolonged childhood provides time and opportunities for the brain to develop into an effective instrument for intelligent living. This comes not only through play and interaction with older children and adults but also through exposure to the words and arts of people from other parts of the world and other times in history. The ability to learn persists throughout life and in some ways may improve as people build a base of ideas and come to understand how they learn best. (Science for All Americans, p. 134.)
To begin this lesson, ask students to use their Welcome to Your Brain student esheet to listen to A Guided Tour of the Brain, an interview with the authors in which they talk about how they came to write the book together and some of the myths about the brain that they wanted to debunk.
After listening to the interview, have the students go over in class the authors' Six Myths about the Brain and discuss whether they had heard of the myths and if they had agreed with them. You can also prepare them for the information in the book by having them take the quiz found on pages xiv-xviii of Welcome to Your Brain.
For fun and for more information on how the brain processes information, have students try the Interactive Stroop Effect Experiment. Another way to test their knowledge about the brain and nervous system is by having them play Neuro-Jeopardy in class.
Before the students begin reading the book, have them find out more about the brain and the nervous system by using their student esheet to go to divisions of the nervous system on the Neuroscience for Kids website. Students should use the Divisions of the Nervous System student sheet to write down the definitions of these terms: central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, somatic nervous system, and autonomic nervous system. They should then choose three of the nine brain structures described on the page and write down, in their own words, where the structures are found in the brain and their functions.
The rest of the lesson will mostly consist of out-of-class activities. Students should read the book and prepare a reading log, found on the Welcome to Your Brain student sheet, which should be collected by you and graded. After they have finished reading the book, students should write a brief essay.
Before students read the book, however, you can suggest that they first look at the SB&F Book Club Guide: Welcome to Your Brain. This guide provides information on what the book is about, the author, reasons why they should read it, and questions to think about as they read it. You can either direct students to go to the guide online or you can provide them with print-outs of the two-page guide.
The reading log for this lesson is a variation of a double-entry note log. But rather than having students select passages to highlight in their log that strike them as significant, this reading log will focus students on looking for four different types of passages that will help them to form their ideas around the main themes of the book. See How Can I Retain Information From My Sources? — Using Double-Entry Notes if you are not familiar with this note-taking strategy.
To prepare students for filling out the log, it would be a good idea to model the activity for them. A sample log can be found for the book on the Sample Reading Log teacher sheet. You can ask students to read the first chapter of the book in class ("Can You Trust Your Brain") and then go over the sample log with them, answering any questions that they have.
Then have the students continue to read the book on their own, filling out the logs for each chapter as they go along. You also may want to check students' notebook entries after the first chapter to ensure that they are taking substantive notes. If time allows, you can have brief classroom discussions following the completion of each chapter. This will be particularly helpful with younger students. You can also divide the class into small groups of students to discuss the chapters and share their observations on the reading log.
If you choose, you can culminate the lesson by collecting the reading logs and assessing them according to these guidelines:
- Student has an entry for each chapter of the book.
- For each chapter, student has included a passage from each of the three required categories.
- The passages chosen for each category fulfill the criteria for selection.
- Student reaction responses are thoughtful and substantive.
If you feel it is appropriate for your class, you also can have students write a brief essay on one of these topics:
- How do the findings of current brain research debunk myths about the brain?
- What are some of the ways that human brains differ from other animal brains?
- What are some ways that our brains perceive the world around us through our senses?
- What are some ways that you can improve the way your brain functions?
Instructions for writing the essay can be found on the third page of the student sheet. A well-researched and well-written essay should contain all of these elements:
- A clearly stated main idea that makes clear the essay's purpose.
- A complete answer to all parts of the question.
- Evidence of a full and complete understanding of the topic they have selected.
- Pertinent, accurate, and cited supporting details from the book or from other sources that are adequate to support the main concept.
- A properly cited bibliography that includes all of the references used to write their essay.
Spotlight on the Brain is a collection of audio podcasts from Science Update that offers students the opportunity to hear the latest and most fascinating brain research.
Students can find out more about the book and authors Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang by visiting their Welcome to Your Brain site. Included on the website are video and audio interviews with the authors, their blog, the latest news in neuroscience, and even a rap about synaptic transmission.
An excellent resource for learning more about the brain and nervous system can be found on the Neuroscience for Kids website.