Activity Story: Neuroscience & Young Society - McGovern Institute Tours

This was such an overwhelmingly rich set of activities, from the preparations at MIT and in public school classrooms, to the four full days of field trips, to the follow on activities, that it is difficult to summarize. Journalist Jean Cummings has written an extensive report covering the activity in detail that is currently being considered as the basis for a formal publication (available upon request). Additionally, the McGovern Institute has published a short overview of this activity. Below, project writer-in-residence sums up the activity as succinctly as she can.

Building the next generation of neuroscientists is crucial for both the profession and the world—and yet, introducing young people to neuroscience has long been an afterthought within the community. If neuroscientists do manage to get in front of a young audience—for instance, by way of a talk at a local high school—they rarely know how to engage their listeners. This lack of effort given to building the bench represents a lost opportunity to inspire talented researchers, particularly those who may not grow up with much exposure to scientists or academia, says Jill Crittenden, Scientific Advisor at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “Diversity in neuroscience is poor and that limits what we, as neuroscientists, can discover,” says Crittenden, who establishes new research programs and communicates scientific discoveries to the public in her role at MIT. “Diseases common in one population are not always common in another, for instance.” 

After the MIT Museum won a Dana Foundation planning grant, Crittenden eagerly availed of an offer from museum manager Ben Wiehe to introduce young people to neuroscience by way of the museum and its team. “Being connected to the museum is really helpful because they’re experts in public engagement,” says Crittenden. Together, they developed a school-day-long series of experiences for 96 sixth graders from a Cambridge Public School; they also provided the students’ teachers with material to prepare them for their trip. And so, at the end of January, four groups of children arrived at MIT to participate in a variety of activities: 

  1. A tour of MIT’s functional magnetic resonance imaging facility at the McGovern Institute; 
  2. Guided visits to wet and dry labs; 
  3. Free exploration of the Artificial Intelligence Gallery at the MIT Museum; 
  4. A slideshow introduction to how our eyes can deceive us, i.e. about failures in visual perception and how consequential they can be; 
  5. A team challenge activity, during which students assembled into groups to design their own brain-computer interface (BCI) projects, after discussing BCI’s and possible ethical issues. 

1. A tour of MIT's functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging  facility

The students had a chance to watch as either their teacher or their teacher’s aide slid into the

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine—which the McGovern people have nicknamed Hippocampus—and had their brain activity monitored. The students asked about the weight of the machine (17 tons); about the copper-lined room that kept external radio-frequencies from interfering with the MRI’s measurements; and about which parts of the brain would “light up” and why. On Thursday, one child named Jack said, “When MRI’s get more advanced some day, maybe they’ll help the CIA interrogate people.” Although the associate director of the MRI, Atsushi Takahashi, gently told him that that would not be possible any time, Jack seemed very excited about the different possible applications of brain measurement tools. 

2a. Wet Lab: Animal and Human Brains

Students viewed a dissected human brain and had the opportunity to both look at and handle the brains of sheep, mice, and rat. A number of them asked whose brain they were looking at, but the researcher, Henry, who oversaw the brain station explained that scientists carefully guard the identities of the humans whose brains they dissect, out of respect for the individuals who have chosen to donate their remains to science. When a student asked why they could touch the animal brains, but not the human brains, Henry furthered explain that it is a limit or restraint agreed upon by the scientific community, again out of respect for the singular position of humans among other species; scientists don’t experiment on humans any more, Henry pointed out, but they used to, and prohibiting the handling of dissected human brains is one part of enforcing scientific respect for humans.

2b. Dry Lab: Brain-Machine Interface Claw 

The dry lab introduced the students to prosthetic technology by way of a Brain-Machine Interface claw that moves, or is powered by, the electrical impulses created when users flex their forearms. One of the scientists who was with the kids, to explain the technology and help them try it out, was Christopher Shallal, a Ph.D. student in Health Sciences and Technology at MIT. A double amputee since birth due to tibial defects, Shallal’s research focuses on biomechanics, prostheses, and improving the human-machine interface. He and the students had some interesting conversations about next-generation prosthetics and who should have them. “The kids said, ‘We should give them to people who need them for medical reasons,’” Shallal reports. “We said, ‘Okay, but would it be right if someone really wealthy got one before anyone else did, because the wealthy person could pay for it? Or if some bad guy gets access to a powerful arm that can break down doors? Or what if an athlete gets hold of a prosthetic and uses it to cheat? If we are making these things, all of those are possibilities.’” The students grappled with these questions with energy and interest. (To read more about Shallal and the ethical concerns he has been thinking about since the McGovern Tours, read the conversation with him, here >LINK<. 

3. Free exploration of the Artificial Intelligence Gallery at the MIT Museum

The museum’s Artificial Intelligence gallery, part of the “MInd the Gap” exhibit, encourages users to consider that artificial intelligence, paradoxically, provides us with new perspectives on human intelligence. The students visited different exhibits to see demonstrations of smart robots, brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, and some deep fakes that challenged their perceptual abilities.  

4. Slideshow introduction to failures in visual perception and the consequences

During the day’s fourth segment, students were treated to a lively talk about how our eyes can deceive us, courtesy of Michael Cohen, a research scientist at the McGovern Institute and in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. Using a series of visual images, he demonstrated to the audience how easy it can be to miss things that are right in front of us, and to continue to be blind to them even after getting visual and verbal hints about what we’re failing to perceive. Cohen, who is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience at Amherst College, and a protegee of Daniel Dennett, the renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist, studies the limits of perception, memory, and cognition. At the end of his discussion, one student piped up to ask him, “But what’s actually your job?” Cohen replied, “Studying this.” The student was impressed. 

This segment also inspired a question from a student that has stuck with Crittenden. As she explains, “After Michael’s presentation about how we cannot attend to multiple things at once—similar to the well-known study of the gorilla in the basketball game video—one student asked whether you could train your brain to attend to multiple things at once. Michael said, ‘No.’ The student said, ‘So it’s not true that your brain is like a muscle and will improve with training?’”—an idea that has been popularized by a bestseller about willpower. Crittenden continues: “That made me wonder, what exactly in our body limits our ability to multi-task relative to our ability to so greatly improve at sequential tasks, like playing the piano.”

5. Team Challenge Activity: Design Your Own Brain-Computer Interface 

For the day’s finale, the students broke off into groups of three or four to design their own brain-computer interface (BCI) projects, after discussing BCI’s and possible ethical issues. At the start of this session, Stephanie J. Bird—a laboratory-trained neuroscientist and co-editor of Science and Engineering Ethics—refreshed their memories about what their teachers taught them by giving them a brief review of the important ethical issues in the field. She reminded them, for instance, that BCI’s can be non-invasive (e.g. wearable, removable) compared to invasive (e.g. implanted, and the more invasive the device, the more issues it raises regarding both technological safety and physical safety (e.g., Will surgery be necessary? Will the device deteriorate within the body and cause problems?). Bird—a former Special Assistant to the Provost and Vice President for Research at MIT, who worked in that capacity on the development of educational programs that address ethical issues in science and engineering, as well as ethical issues in research practice and science more generally—also pointed out that BCI’s raise questions about privacy, and who has control of the device (the individual user, the machine or program, a third party). 

The students were encouraged to think about potential benefits as compared to possible risks, and to factor in the likely cost of the BCI’s they dreamed up, and to consider that costs entail not only financial outlay but social, emotional, and societal tolls or trade-offs. In addition, Bird pointed out there will always be “unknown unknowns” with any new significant invention or development—which is to say rare, unforeseen, possibly long-term impacts; in the case of BCI’s those might be some impairment of, or change to, brain function, social relationships, or societal functioning. 

During the BCI sessions, two of six groups outlined systems that would help treat and diagnose mental illness. That suggests that today’s young people are both preoccupied with mental illness—and yet also hopeful that neuroscientific developments may help improve health and quality of life in the near future for them, their families, their friends, and their communities. 

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