How does my brain work? How am I even thinking? What on earth is going on inside my head?
These are all questions that neuroscience, an interdisciplinary science that studies the nervous system and brain activity, is intent on getting to the bottom of. In the last 20 years alone, neuroscience research has made significant breakthroughs in understanding mental disorders and the development of treatments for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.
Despite its many accomplishments and huge relevance to our lives (we all have a brain after all, even if that’s hard to believe when you’re completely lost five minutes into a lecture, just me?), neuroscience is still a field in its infancy and is therefore little understood by the wider public and is largely missing from the curriculum in schools.
“Public outreach is something that’s missing in the scientific community”
I spoke to a final year UoN Neuroscience student, Helena Weltzien, about her role in producing a feature for the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity’s magazine. The two-page spread, ‘A Day In Your Brain’ (pages 12/13) aims to increase awareness of the subject by introducing children to the different lobes of their brain as amicable characters, each with a unique role to play in brain function. Inspired in part by the Disney film Inside Out, this creative project was one Helena and her co-creator Sacha James loved having the opportunity to work on.
The Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity is a fantastic week-long event curated by Ignite!, a charity that supports young people and gives families the opportunity to learn about science together. They host a whole range of creative learning programmes, interactive workshops, and community-based projects to inspire local kids and encourage forward-thinking. The festival, which is running between the 10th and 19th of February in 2021, focuses on bringing STEM subjects to the Nottingham public.
Personally, I couldn’t agree more with Helena who said, “public outreach is something that’s missing in the scientific community.” In her view, its role is underplayed since communicating concepts in a “friendly, fun and creative way” is of vital importance to inspire the next generation and to make sure the public has at least a basic level of understanding of science.
“The world will benefit from having more and more neuroscientists”
Their piece also provided children with engaging tasks to do during the half-term break to spark some interest in the subject. Making neuroscience more accessible to children of all backgrounds and widening participation within the field are things Helena believes could produce huge benefits, since there remains a “never-ending list of things we don’t know.” As she puts it, “the world will benefit from having more and more neuroscientists.”
Unlike more traditional sciences, neuroscience remains a somewhat “elitist subject” to some, and therefore fewer young people are informed on the potential career opportunities and exciting prospects it can offer.
Helena explained, “when I was little it seemed like a really niche topic. I think it’s always better to show kids that there’s more avenues than just straight physics or straight chemistry or straight biology.” This mindset could open doors to so many young people who maybe don’t enjoy the kinds of science they study in secondary school but would still love to pursue a STEM degree or career.
For Helena, working with the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity provided a great opportunity to educate others on what neuroscience is about in a more creative way and she felt motivated to “get kids more interested in how they think and feel.”
Normalising brain disorders and mental illness would be such a game-changer
Helena suggested that an increased understanding of brain function “might help destigmatise [mental health] if people are introduced to it on a science level.” Seeing mental illness as “something that needs to be treated, not a problem with that person,” could really encourage open dialogue surrounding emotions and internal struggles. Given that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, this shift in perspectives is vital.
In my mind, this makes total sense; we learn so much about the rest of our body throughout our compulsory education, so why not teach about the brain to the same extent? Normalising brain disorders and mental illness would be such a game-changer.
Finally, a concept I found particularly fascinating from our discussion was regarding perception. Helena explained how neuroscience is the key to unlocking the way see the world and “all perception that we have is what our brain makes it to be. Maybe this situation isn’t what I think it is, it’s just the way my brain is seeing it.”
Next time someone hits a nerve we can choose to be kinder in response to it
I believe that, on a broader scale, this could lead to a much wider level of acceptance and tolerance of others, since each person ascribes different meanings to experiences and forms unique beliefs from experiences and events. If we remember that, then next time someone hits a nerve we can choose to be kinder in response to it, knowing that their feelings are valid too and everyone’s brains react to things in different ways.
For me, the main takeaways from my chat with final year Neuroscience student Helena Weltzien were that lesser-known scientific fields have vast amounts of potential; increasing awareness of their research could create a more diverse and inspiring workplace and help to move away from that old, white male archetype of scientists we’re all too accustomed to. Neuroscience could create space for more acceptance and understanding surrounding mental health and so the work done by charities such as Ignite! is well worth celebrating.
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