I always find it amazing that the organ responsible for all human knowledge little understands itself. There is so much about the brain that we don't yet know, although that we use only 10% of it is a complete myth. Our brains are complex, well-coded machines, with different parts of the brain responsible for different things. Imagine your brain is like a school: there are many members of staff, each with their own designated classroom or office. The work they do is all different, but they have the shared goal of helping you to learn and do what you need to do. Often, they work together to achieve their goals.
In this lesson, students explore the different regions of the brain through a series of hands-on activities. The activities demonstrate how each region works, whilst putting that region to the test! For example, to learn about the cerebellum, responsible for balance and coordination, students will test their reaction times, thereby exercising their cerebellum!
After each activity, students collect a part of the brain and by the end of the workshop they will have all of the pieces to assemble their very own brain map puzzle.
This club was originally developed and delivered by Science Oxford as a Saturday Science Club for children aged 5-9 and accompanying adults. In our clubs, families take part in a range of hands-on science activities that are centred around a chosen theme. The club lasts for 90 minutes and is a stand-alone workshop. The booklet supplied as part of this project is intended to support students throughout the workshop and to help them recreate activities at home, should they chose to. Should you wish, you can adapt this workshop. You might want to:
- Run each activity separately, across a unit of study.
- Use the workshop as a springboard into other areas of study, such as the human body in a broader sense.
- Adapt the workshop for older students as a fun, practical introduction to how the brain works as part of a psychology class.
- Encourage further independent study into areas of the brain.
- Set students the challenge of designing their own activities to test out different parts of the brain, once they are familiar with their functions.
- Combine the science teaching with art. I pre-cut these brains ahead of the club but students could always design and make their own!
To support students' literacy and understanding of scientific terminology, any specialist vocabulary will be underlined the first time I use it. You might wish to support students to create a glossary of key terms and use the scientific vocabulary wherever possible.
The structure of the brain can be a hard concept to tackle but using analogies to illustrate points can be helpful. When we're talking about mapping the brain, it can be helpful to compare the brain to the earth in the following ways.
- The brain has two hemispheres, much like the earth. The earth has a northern and southern hemisphere whereas the brain has a left and right hemisphere. When you look at the brain from the top down, it looks like it has been cut in half.
- The earth has lots of different land masses that are separated from each other and do things a little differently. That's not to say people in different parts of the world can't communicate with each other, though! Whilst one part of the brain can't pick up a phone and drop someone a text (although, you could argue, it kind of does...) it can send messages across nerves to communicate with other parts of the brain and body.
- Imagine you are in a plane at night, just coming in to land. What would you see? The ground would all be lit up! The lights show that stuff is going on: the airport is showing the plane where to land, people have lights on at home and cars have headlights on so drivers can see where they're going. If you were to look at someone's brain in a scan, different parts of the brain 'light up' depending on what you're doing. Trying to solve a tricky maths puzzle? Specific areas of your brain would light up. Telling a lie? Another part of your brain would light up! This is probably about as close as we can get to reading minds...
- When cartographers make maps, they have to carefully survey the land and record all of its nooks and crannies. Mapping the brain is as precise an endeavour and is achieved by taking detailed pictures of the brain (scans) and examining real human brains (normally from deceased people who have chosen to leave their bodies to science).
- Imagine looking at a map of the coast. If you were to compare the coastline as it is today with how it has looked in the past thousands of years, you will notice changes due to things like coastal erosion, new buildings going up and deforestation. In a nutshell, a map gives a snapshot of what the earth looks like at a given point in time. Brain scans are the same in that pictures can change. Whilst human brains have, on average, looked pretty much the same throughout history (although scanning is a relatively new invention, so this is just an educated guess!) there are things that can contribute to scans of one person's brain looking different over time. First of all, if someone were to sustain an injury (you could research poor old Phineas Gage here...), you would be able to see physical trauma on their scan. Illnesses such as tumours can be seen on scans too, and taking a series of scans over time will show how much the tumour grows (or hopefully shrinks in response to treatment!). Our brains also undergo physical changes when we learn things or experience trauma. Finally, our brains change as we age and there will be differences between the brain scans of a tiny baby and an older person.
One of my favourite things about this club is that resourcing it was very quick and requires little specialist equipment. The only exception to this is the brain map puzzle itself, which I made using my Cricut machine and Cricut Design Space software.
If you have a Cricut, click here to access the project in Design Space.
If you do not have a Cricut, you can use the attached image as a template.
Each person needs a booklet, pen and a brain map (the pieces will be earned throughout the workshop)
The other supplies you will need for each activity are as follows...
- Post it notes
- Brain scans (if you don't have real physical versions, you can use my ones, which I have attached)
The Frontal Lobe
- PowerPoint slide
The Parietal Lobe
- Spray bottles of water
The Temporal and Occipital Lobes
- Braille charts
- Braille books (optional)
- Stick on gems
- General stationery (pens, pencils, etc)
The Limbic System
- Individually wrapped sweets/candy
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.
Step 1: A First Peek Under Your Skull...
In our clubs, families tend to arrive individually, so our introduction tends to be a task that they can explore together whilst we wait for others to arrive.
It has been scientifically proven that humour reduces stress and improves learning. While we wait for others to arrive, have a go at telling jokes with others on your table. This will help to break the ice so we can get to know each other, and will hopefully make us more likely to retain the stuff we learn in this session. You can also share your favourite jokes with others using post it notes to jot them down!
Q: Our brains are protected by our skulls. How can we look at our brains without having to drill into our heads (ouch!)?
A: Science is amazing! There are plenty of non-invasive ways of looking inside the body. This means we have ways of looking at what is inside us without having to cut each other open. I don't know about you, but I would prefer not to have my head drilled into!
Have a look at the brain scans on your table! There are lots of types of scans, including x-rays which you may have seen before. Scanning brains—or neuroimaging—is a really exciting thing that doctors can do to see inside your skull without actually having to open it up! These images are real, and are of my brain! They were taken on an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, which uses big, noisy magnets to take pictures. To the trained eye, there’s a lot you can see in these images, including tiny blood vessels. There are so many pictures taken as the scanner takes photos of the brain in thin slices. I had these scans carried out as a teenager as I have always had trouble with my ears and the doctors needed to take a look at the blood vessels to them to see if there was anything that needed fixing (luckily, there wasn’t!) I was hoping that these scans would show that my brain is special, but according to the doctors, it is quite unremarkable! Nobody likes going to the doctor, but scans are nothing to worry about. When you have an MRI scan, you need to lie very still. I had lots of padding around my head to make sure I didn't move as this could make the pictures blurry. You'll be given some ear-defenders to wear to protect your ears from the noise of the machine. Depending on why you're having your scan, you may be allowed to listen to music whilst you're in there! One thing you must not do when you are having your scan is wear anything containing metal. This is because you'll be laying inside a giant magnet! You may be given a hospital gown to wear or you could wear your PJs.
I'm not the most photogenic of people and some of these scans are less than flattering! That said, I have a 'healthy' and 'neurotypical' (nothing especially abnormal about it) brain and the pictures here wouldn't be too different to those of any other human. There are some funny things to look at though- these scans show just how big and round our eyes really are! Our eyes sit within our skulls and are partly covered by skin which means they look smaller and more almond-shaped.
Important teaching point: Today we're going to be talking about the different lobes of the brain. It is important to remember that the brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right. In many ways, the lobes mirror each other. I like to model this by touching the part of my head that corresponds to where the lobes are. For example, when talking about the temporal lobes, I will touch my temples on both sides of my head to show that the lobes are found in both hemispheres.
- Explore the history of neuroscience by studying the life (and painful death!) of King Henry II of France. King Henry died following a jousting accident. Before then, scientists believed that you couldn't injure your brain without first breaking your skull... and no one wanted to be the one to hammer into the head of a monarch! Do a little research to learn what happened and how our understanding of the brain improved as a result.
- Science/ psychology students in higher grades might be interested to learn about different methods of scanning and their relative advantages and disadvantages. You could explore the differences between MRI, CT, PET and EEG scans.
Step 2: The Brain Stem- Congrats, You Made It Here Alive!
Today we will be exploring the complexities of the human brain. It’s a fascinating organ and, ironically, there is so much it doesn’t understand about itself! We will be going on a journey around your grey matter, exploring different parts of the brain and their functions in turn. You will earn a different part of the brain upon completion of tasks, and will have a super cool brain map puzzle to take away with you at the end.
We’ll start by awarding everyone a puzzle piece just for making it here alive! Thebrainstemcontrols processes that are essential to life such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. These are all involuntary processes, which means they happen without us intending for them to happen.
Q: Why might it be useful for our brains to carry out functions without us realising?
A: Our brains are constantly busy! They have to be alert to our surroundings in order to keep us safe and help us make the right decisions. It is thought that we have somewhere around 12,000- 60,000 thoughts per day! Breathing and keeping our heart beating would be a full time job if our brains had to do it consciously, and this would mean we couldn’t get anything else done! In this way, it makes sense that one part of the brain is given these jobs to focus on, so other parts of the brain can do other things.
The main things to learn today:
-Exercise your brains like you’d exercise your muscles. The more you give your brain a workout, the more you learn and the stronger the neural connections will be.
- The brain is in charge, but it can be trained. We aren’t at the mercy of our brains, but we need to make sure we learn good habits so our brains serve us well.
- There is no such thing as a ‘bad brain’. Everyone’s brains will be different, and what one person finds easy, another will find a challenge. There are lots of ways to exercise your brains and the tasks we’ll do today are just some examples. If you don’t find the tasks easy, it’s not because you’re unintelligent, it’s just because you’re probably being asked to think in a different way to normal. Imagine trying to lift a set of heavy weights, having never lifted before. It would be too much too soon! The brain is the same, if you can’t do something the first time you try, it’s because the connections in your brain that you’re trying to activate need to be strengthened. The more you exercise those connections, the more intense a workout they can handle and the stronger they will be.
- Teaching about the brain can really help students to understand the ideas behind a 'growth mindset'. Demonstrating the science behind neuroplasticity will help students to see that being a good learner generates real changes in the brain and isn't just a state of mind or attitude.
Step 3: The Frontal Lobe- Decision Making, Forward Planning and Self Control
The frontal lobes-- at the font of our brains, just behind our forehead—is responsible for forward thinking, planning and decision making.
Lots of skills are used when you make decisions: you assess how risky or dangerous a decision might be, you factor in how long tasks take, whether you need help to achieve something, etc. The frontal lobe is where a lot of these processes happen. Sometimes, tasks can be quite simple and our brains know how to solve them. For example, think about getting dressed in the morning. The chances are, you don’t spend hours every morning thinking about whether to put your underwear on before or after your trousers! When we learn to do a behaviour, and are in such a habit of doing it, it may feel like we do it without thinking. The brain can get confused if it is trying to take in too many different types of information at once. Let’s see if we can send our brains into a funk!
Task: read through the words (in black) on the board and record how long it takes for you to read them aloud. Then, you’ll see the same words but written in different colours. The task this time is to say the name of the colour you see, not the word. Record your time for this round. What do you notice about your scores? This might also be a fun task to get your grown up to do! (Particularly if the child is not yet reading).
Q: What sorts of things did we notice about our scores?
A: It’s likely that when you were reading words in black and white, you managed to do so in a much shorter time. saying the names of colours when they don’t match the words written down was probably the most challenging.
Q: Why is it so much harder to say the colours we see?
A: One of the things you work really hard on when you’re young (and also into adult life!) is becoming a good reader. Reading has lots of different parts to it, which is why some people can find it really tricky. you have to understand the shapes of letters, the sounds they make, and how to make yourself say these sounds aloud. identifying colours is another thing we learn to do when we’re very young. in this task, you were trying to get your brain to do two things at once: read a word and identify a colour. Then, your brain needed to process your ideas so you could say the right word, all in the fastest time possible! There’s a lot of evidence to support just how hard multitasking is; very often, when people multitask, they do neither job particularly well!
Q: But what about the people who struggle to see colours?
A: Some people have something called ‘colour blindness’ which might make them struggle to do a task like this. colour blindness normally means that a person sees colours differently to other people. For example, red and green might be difficult to tell apart. colour blindness is quite common, and it is thought that it is a genetic condition, passed down from mothers (even if the mum doesn’t have colour blindness, she could still pass a gene to her children). More men than women are thought to have colour blindness. the reasons for colour blindness lie more in the eyes than in the brain, so someone with colour blindness may find this test really hard, but that’s not to say their frontal lobes aren’t working properly! a person can learn to live with colour blindness, but there are some things they might find tricky, such as telling if fruit is ripe or knowing which chocolate they’ve chosen from a tin of quality streets!
You have successfully won the frontal lobe chunk of your puzzle!
- To learn more about the frontal lobe and what happens when it is damaged, conduct some research into Phineas Gage. Gage was a railway worker who lived around 150 years ago. One day, whilst working, Gage was injured by an iron rod which was forced, at speed, through his eye and into his brain. Miraculously, Gage survived the accident but sustained significant damage to his frontal lobe. After the accident, those who knew Gage remarked just how different a man he seemed to have become...
Step 4: The Parietal Lobe- Can You Feel It?
The parietal lobes—right at the top of our head—process information from our senses, including taste, temperature and touch. If this part of someone’s brain gets damaged, they won’t be able to feel pain!
Q: Great! A life without pain! That must be lovely. Why might being unable to feel pain be dangerous?
A: Pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. If ever you’ve had an ear infection, you will be familiar with how sore and throbbing they can be! Whilst the pain is quite miserable, it tells us that there’s some sort of infection we need to deal with. If the infection is caused by bacteria, we might need antibiotics to kill it before the infection spreads. Listening to what your body is telling you is important. For example, if you have a headache, you may need to drink more water. If your back hurts, you might not be standing up straight.
In this task, we are going to learn about how we are able to feel touch, in an activity that relies on that very sense! The brain and nervous system (nerves) send messages around using neurones. Neurones are special cells which pass messages between them. When you feel pain, it is because sensory neurones are telling your brain that something hurts! These messages can travel up to 268mph! This is even faster than the speed of a plane taking off.
Task: We need two equal-sized teams of children to stand in a line with their arms by their sides, palms facing outwards. Children, you are going to represent nerves! Nerves don’t touch, so make sure you have a bit of a gap between you (the scientific name for this is a synapse). Nerves send their messages using chemicals (called neurotransmitters). Different types of nerves have different types of neurotransmitters. Each person will have a bottle full of water. The water represents these chemicals and when I say ‘GO!’ the first person in each line will spray the hand of the next person. Everyone will face forward so they can’t see who is spraying them, but they’ll be able to aim at the person they are spraying! Once you feel the water on your hand, you will spray the hand of the next person, until we’ve reached the end of the line. If you’re at the end of the line, sit down as soon as you feel water hit your hand. The first team to send the chemical message to the end will be our winners!
Q: What is the point in facing forward in this task?
A: We want to make sure we’re using our sense of touch, not our vision. The senses are really good at working together and filling in any missing information so that the world makes sense to us. If we see someone spraying our hand, our brains will expect our hands to feel colder and wetter as a result. By looking away, we’re making sure the information we get is coming from our sense of touch.
Q: Sensory neurones send a message to your brain by passing a chemical message across nerves. But what happens when the message reaches your brain?
A: In this task, you had to spray the hand of the next person when you felt the water hit your own hand. You did this quickly, but not at 268mph! The message will reach your brain before you’re even aware of it, and then something else happens. Your brain had to tell your hand to spray the water on the next person. Another kind of nerve—motor neurones—made this possible as they are in charge of movement.
Q: What would happen if, instead of the water you were expecting, the person before you in the line poked your hand with something sharp?
A: Firstly, it would hurt! But you probably wouldn’t realise just how much it hurt until something else had happened. When we experience unexpected pain, For example touching a hot oven, we will quickly move ourselves away from what has hurt us. this is called a reflex action and it exists to keep us safe. If we touched a hot hob and kept our hand whilst we thought about how hot and painful it was, we would sustain quite a bit of damage! Reflex actions do things a bit differently and skip out sending the message to the brain in order to save time! Speed=Safety!
Q: Who knows where they will find the longest nerve in their body?
a: The longest nerve in the human body is called the ‘sciatic nerve’ and it runs from the bottom of your spine all the way down your leg. if you pinch this nerve, it can be very painful!
You have successfully won the parietal lobe chunk of your puzzle!
- Our brains are very clever when it comes to interpreting sensory information. For this task, work with another person. Have your partner sit with his or her back to you. Using your finger, gently trace the outline of a word or picture on their back. Can they guess what you have drawn? Take it in turns and see who can guess what their partner has drawn!
- For students in higher grades, do some research into action potentials and Pacinian corpuscles. Have a go at using advanced scientific terminology to explain how the body processes pain.
Step 5: The Temporal and Occipital Lobe- Like Eyes in the Back of Your Head
The temporal lobes—situated at the sides of your head, by your temples, are responsible for processing auditory information. That’s fancy speak for sounds and language! They are responsible for helping you to remember sounds, which is important when you speak a language and also explains why you find yourself singing along to a song you haven’t heard in ages, even though you can’t remember the name of the song!
The occipital lobes—situated at the back of your head—are responsible for processing visual information from your eyes. Saying you have ‘eyes in the back of your head’ is quite accurate in this sense! Even though we don’t see out of the back of our head, this is where our brain makes sense of what we’re seeing.
Reading makes use of both of these parts of the brain. It’s a skill we learn- no one is born knowing how to read! As we grow up and practise more and more, we learn the alphabet and how squiggles on a page mean letters. We know what sounds to make with our mouths when we see these letters and which words they make when the letters are strung together. We also learn what these words mean and choose our words carefully so that others understand us. Sometimes we even learn new languages, some of which have different alphabets. Our brains work hard to store our knowledge of one language separately to our knowledge of others. Otherwise, someone who speaks both English and French would make up their sentences with words from both languages- that would be so hard to understand!
Q: What would happen if you were to overhear some really juicy gossip?
A: You’d probably keep listening and remember what was said! Then, you’d probably tell all of your friends what you’d heard. You’d remember what was said firstly because you understood the language and this meant you knew that what you were hearing was really juicy. Because you speak the same language, you’re able to recall the words and form speech to repeat what was said.
Q: What would happen if you were to over hear the same juicy gossip but in a language you don’t understand?
A: First of all, you probably wouldn’t know whether the people were saying something exciting, or simply talking through what they had for breakfast! You might remember that you heard a conversation in a foreign language, but you wouldn’t remember the exact sounds made and so wouldn’t be able to repeat the conversation.
They say that learning a new language is easier when you’re young, and lots of things are needed to successfully become fluent. You need to understand the language’s alphabet, what sounds the letters make, and how sentences are put together. Then, you’ll need to learn the words for individual things, and need to figure out which words are best chosen to get your point across (for example, you might be annoyed, angry, or fuming—the same emotion but at different levels!). You also need to be able to use the language, and have someone there to help you and correct you if you make mistakes. That’s how we learn our own languages in the first place; we start by copying the words we hear and start off by having very basic conversations with family members, who help us out by pointing out new words.
Task: Our brains are complex machines, and as we know, everyone’s brain is different. Sometimes, for various reasons, people find reading the ‘traditional’ way difficult or impossible. Even so, the brain is tough and will do its best to find a way of guiding its owner through life, including understanding written communication.
We’re going to have a go at learning a new language, which involves using different parts of the brain, including the temporal and occipital lobes. Can you guess the language? Here’s a few hints: This language is one that is ‘seen’ through touch. People reading this language use their parietal lobe to feel the words, and their occipital lobe helps them to ‘see’ what is written, even though they aren’t using their eyes. The temporal lobes are important in understanding the meaning of what has been written; putting together how what you can feel corresponds to letters, which in turn spell out words. Without the temporal lobe, words (whether to be seen with the eyes or with the hands) are just shapes on a page. The temporal lobe helps us to understand what these words mean.
The language? Braille!
Braille is a series of raised bumps on a page. Different patterns of bumps represent different letters, and letters are strung together to create words. People can read using Braille if they are blind. The hands do the job of the eyes, but the brain still reads in a similar way to the brain of a person who reads using their eyes!
Using the Braille alphabet on your table to help you, create either a card or a sign for your bedroom door using the English alphabet and Braille. There are pens and sticky gems to help you with your creations.
You have successfully won the temporal and occipital lobe chunks of your puzzle!
- To help you understand just how much your temporal lobe does for you, have a go at lip-reading. Lip-reading is an important skill that is really helpful to people who have difficulty hearing. It is a skill you can learn, but you might be surprised at how much you can do without even realising it!
To put your lip-reading abilities to the test, turn on the TV and put it on mute. Can you still work out what people are saying?
Here are a few things to test:
1. Whose lips are easier to read- a person on the news or your favourite cartoon character?
2. What sorts of things do people do when speaking that make lip-reading easier?
3. How easy is reading the lips of your favourite singer when they are singing a song you know well?
- Why not borrow some books in Braille from your local library and have a go at reading with your hands? You can also do this with some items such as medicine packets which have important information printed in Braille.
The Braille templates I have used are from www.royalblind.org
Step 6: The Cerebellum- Keeping Things Steady
The cerebellum is right at the nape of your neck, between your cerebrum and brain stem. It is responsible for balance and coordination.
When we are young our balance is generally good and reaction times are quick, but as we age, this drops off in quite a big way. For this task, children will be competing against adults. We would expect children to score better than their grown-ups, but will this be the case?
1. Reaction time test.
Hold the end of a ruler just above your partner’s fingers. When you drop the ruler, your partner needs to catch it as quickly as possible. You are aiming for a score (in cms) that is as low as possible as this shows the ruler didn’t fall far before you caught it.
2. Balance test.
Time your partner as they stand on one leg, otherwise unsupported. Children normally have better balance than adults, with those who manage to stand 20 seconds or longer, often showing better overall health than those who cannot manage 20 seconds.
Q: What sorts of activities can people do if they’d like to improve their balance or coordination?
A: Many sports lend themselves to the development of balance and coordination and participating in sports is a great way to live an active and healthy lifestyle. things like drawing and painting, and learning a musical instrument help to develop fine motor skills (smaller, more precise movements).
You have successfully won the cerebellum chunk of your puzzle!
Step 7: The Limbic System- Keeping a Lid on It
Deep within your brain is a structure with many tiny parts. The system is called the limbic system, and this is the area in charge of emotions and behaviour. It is responsible for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response that kicks in when we are under threat.
Q: What sorts of smells bring back memories?
A: Does the smell of cut grass remind you of summer? Does cinnamon remind you of Christmas? If you’re finding specific smells reminding you of things that have happened to you in the past, it’s probably because the part of the brain that processes smells is closely linked to the area that is in charge of memories.
Task: This challenge will be a test of your emotions when in a risky situation. It’s a high-stakes game with everything to play for! But all that can be gained, can also be lost. Will you cope under pressure?
Every child will start with 5 sweets, and will win and lose more throughout the game. At the end of the game, the player with the most sweets will be the winner, but this game is about luck and chance over skill. The real test will be in how you manage yourselves throughout the game—or rather—how your limbic system manages you! Will you be fair and play by the rules, or will losing get to you?
When you roll the dice, the number you land on will determine your next move.
1, 2- take a sweet from the player to your left
3, 4- keep your sweets
5, 6- give a sweet to the player on your left
Q: So if the limbic system is in charge of our fight-flight response, why don’t I lash out or run away every time I get told off?
A: This is the coolest thing about our brains! Even though different areas of the brain do different things, the more we learn about how to behave, the better we are at matching our behaviour to whatever situation we find ourselves in. This might be why you see toddlers having meltdowns in the street- now you’re a bit older, you wouldn’t do that as you have learnt that you behave a certain way in a public place, and that throwing a tantrum won’t get you your own way! As we get older, we also learn more about our emotions and importantly, we learn how to speak which allows us to explain how we're feeling to others. If you imagine your limbic system as something that is liable to explode when you feel under threat, your cerebrum is like the lid that keeps everything contained.
- This task could be a good springboard into other areas of study, such as learning about child development, mindfulness and how adrenaline works on the body.
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