Earlier this term, Mike Griffin shared details of the London Brain Project in his blog, which has some excellent ideas for teaching biological and cognitive approaches. But how about getting your students to actually have first-hand experience of having their brains studied?
The Hive Mind Project, headed up by Rita Carter, a science writer, lecturer and broadcaster specialising in the human brain, aims to find out what is happening in the brains of a group of people who are focused on, and sharing, an experience. Last week, I leapt at the chance to be one of the sixty volunteers having my brain activity studied whilst watching a major dramatic event, the latest production from Theatre de Complicite, The Encounter at the Barbican.
The project uses newly developed technology to study the brain – lightweight EEG (electroencephalography) headsets that measure the activity of the electrical brain cells (neurons) in the outer layer of the brain via electrodes that rest just beneath the forehead, measuring activity in the frontal and temporal lodes. This data is then sent wirelessly to a computer. The pattern of this activity is constantly changing and should be indicative of the person’s state of mind – attentive, relaxed, alert, or ruminative. The first part of the study, the bit I took part in, involves taking a stream of data from a group watching the play together. In particular the project aims to look at synchrony in time. As everyone within the group was (or will be) reacting to the same “stimulus” (the play), it seems very likely that there will be some synchrony. But Rita wants to find out whether people in groups “tune into” each other as well as reacting individually to the stimulus.
For the second part of the experiment, Rita aims to recruit the same number of volunteers to monitor their brains as they watch the upcoming film of The Encounter alone. This should show the difference between watching something in a live audience and in isolation. There will then need to be other comparisons to tease out the difference between seeing a live performance and film so it’s going to be a while before the results will be published. As Rita says, “We are not expecting to get nice, clean-cut results because the data will be more rich and ‘messy’ than if it had been acquired in a lab. But the world is messy too, and that’s really what we want to know about.”
More details about the project can be found here. They are also recruiting for volunteers if you or your students fancy some first-hand experience of new technology for studying the brain.
You can watch the live stream of Complicite’s show on their YouTube channel now until Tuesday 8 March.
Alison Schrecker is the Commissioning Editor for Psychology in Oxford University Press’ Educational Division.