Brainssssss

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About a month ago the topic of SPLASH came up in one of our weekly lab meetings. Its a great (if somewhat sneaky) way for us to recruit new control subjects because the students are the perfect age for our pediatric studies. We just have to get the kids psyched enough to pester their parents to the point that they contact us. Our lab has taught classes in previous years on rummaging, etc. and gotten a few recruits out of it.

A coworker and I were brainstorming class ideas when we hit upon a sure winner- “Brainssssss: The Neuroscience of Zombies.” SPLASH took place over Halloween weekend this year after all, and we thought it would be the perfect way to walk the fine line between being fun and interesting enough to keep kids excited and being academically legitimate enough to take seriously.

The class was way fun to plan and even more fun to teach. I managed to get in touch with the neuroanatomy TA in the medical school, who hooked us up with some preserved human brains- one full brain, one hemisphere, one set of coronal slices, a segment of spinal cord, and some dura matter too. It was surprising how easily we procured them! No background check or signing of papers, just a few emails and an explanation of how to keep them moist and always use gloves before we were sent on our way with two buckets full of brains (very subtly labelled “Whole Brain”). We got them a week early, so they were a huge hit with everyone in our lab. It was interesting how many people who study the brain for a living have never seen one in the flesh (as it were). The first thing anyone seeing a brain for the first time notices is how small they are. But that mere 3 pounds of meat can learn calculus, predict the future, or even fall in love. Crazy.

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Some more emails got me in touch with a guy named Brad Voytek who does research up the peninsula at UCSF. Brad is on the advisory board of the Zombie Research Society and it would appear that we accidentally stumbled upon a phenomenon that is already gaining momentum- the field of zombie research! Check out the Zombie Research Society as well as his personal blog Oscillatory Thoughts. The ZRS is simultaneously a fun way to introduce basic neuroscience to a public audience (just as we had thought!), while also poking fun at some of the more questionable aspects of cognitive neuroscience research (eg: look doing X lights up area Y… now we understand X!). Much gratitude for all their assistance!

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The class itself went great. We had kids brainstorm characteristics of zombies (slow lumbering walk, lack of emotions, insatiable appetite for human flesh, etc.) and then delved into which brain regions would be impaired in order for us to see these specific defecits in behavior. And of course we played Thriller and showed multiple clips from Shaun of the Dead. I think the kids really liked it, and of course you can’t go wrong when you get to show them real brains.

We signed up for 4 sections of 30 students each, which apparently was way more than the average class size of 5 to 10 students. A scheduling mishap left us with only 3 sections, so we set up in an empty room during the lunch period and I went outside and rounded up another class-worth of kids to make up the difference. Additionally, we were contacted by an administrator to teach our class to some of the parents as a sample SPLASH class. The parents class kind of turned into a Q & A session of general neuroscience questions, which was actually really fun. We got some real great questions from kids too: “can zombies get high?”, “would tranquilizers work on zombies?”, and from a tentative girl at the end of class “wait… zombies are real?”

Overall it was a great success, we got out a lot of fliers, and lots of kids/parents sounded very interested in our research at Stanford. I’m hoping to get more involved with SPLASH at Stanford next semester!