This lesson serves as an introduction to the entire Neuroscience and Society curriculum and should be completed before delivering any other lessons from this curriculum.
This lesson will provide a brief introduction to the brain and some activities to get students actively thinking about the topic. What kind of information (true or false!) have students previously heard about the brain? Since this curriculum focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and society, this launch lesson provides some basic understanding of brain function as well as an introduction to how society affects both the brain itself and our understanding of the brain. By starting to think about the brain, and how both genes and the environment can impact the brain, students will be prepared to start diving into specific neuroscience topics after completing this lesson.
Terms & Definitions: Launch Lesson
- Axon - Long extension of a neuron that carries its informational output to the next cell or target.
- Brain - The command center of the body, located inside the skull, and is responsible for information processing and controlling many other systems and parts of the body.
- Central Nervous System - Made up of the brain and the spinal cord, whereas the peripheral nervous system is all the nerves (axons) that extend throughout the body.
- Cerebral Cortex - The wrinkly outer layer on the surface of the brain.
- Dendrites - Extensions of a neuron where it receives information from other neurons.
- Genes - The smallest heritable unit of DNA, passed from parent to child.
- Gyri - The bumps on the surface of the brain (singular = gyrus).
- Hemisphere - One half of the brain (left or right side).
- Neuron – Special type of cell in the body that has a unique structure (containing extensions including an axon and dendrites) and which transmits signals throughout the nervous system.
- Nervous System - The system that coordinates the interaction of the body with the world around it, integrating incoming sensory information, processing and sending information, and commanding the body to respond or move. This system includes the brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves in the other tissues of the body.
- Spinal Cord - Long bundle of axons (long extensions of neurons) connecting the brain to the body.
- Sulci - The grooves or crevices on the surface of the brain (singular = sulcus).
Objective: Students will be able to access prior knowledge about the brain and begin to discuss the basics of both neuroscience (brain anatomy and function) and the ways society (or the environment) affects the brain and our understanding of it.
ENGAGE/HOOK: Brain Myths (10 min)
To introduce the Neuroscience & Society Curriculum and this introductory lesson, tell students:
This Neuroscience & Society curriculum will cover many topics about the brain, including brain anatomy, current research and methods on neuroscience, addiction, mental health and wellness, brain development, law and criminology, and future neuro-technology. In this course, we want to explore brain science and how it affects our lives and the decisions we make today. This curriculum also touches on how societal factors like drugs, socioeconomic status, relationships, and law affect the brain. To begin building our understanding of neuroscience and society, let’s investigate some brain myths and facts and what you may already know about the brain!
Guide students through the following Myth or Fact Activity to help them access any previous knowledge they are bringing to the table. (Adapted from The Brain: Our Sense of Self, The Mind’s Machine, and Neuroscience for Dummies)
- Post (or read aloud) each of the myths from the table below on the board and ask students to guess if it is a myth or a fact.
- Provide the fact from the right column once students guess if it is a myth or fact. You may want to sprinkle in some facts or just only provide myths.
- After discussing each myth, ask students to reflect and share out:
- What myths surprised you the most?
- Where do you think some of these myths come from?
Myth: We only use 10% of our brains.
Myth: People are “right brained” or “left brained.”
Fact: Everyone uses both sides of their brain, but the two halves (hemispheres) of the brain have slightly different functions that work together. For example, each side of the brain controls the muscles on the opposite side of the body; the right and left hemispheres process different elements of language but the left is largely responsible for speech production.
More on the right-brain/left-brain myth. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Myth: If someone has a bigger brain, it means they are more intelligent.
Fact: Brain size is somewhat correlated with intelligence but it is most closely correlated with body size. Albert Einstein’s brain was smaller than average! Scientists believe that intelligence has more to do with the wiring of the brain and its connections.
More on the relationship between brain size and intelligence. (Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University)
Myth: The brain only controls voluntary activity.
Fact: The brain regulates involuntary processes such as metabolism, body temperature, respiration, digestion, blood circulation, and more.
Myth: The brain is separate from the nervous system.
Fact: The brain, spinal cord, and all the nerves in your body together form the whole nervous system. The brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system, while the nerves throughout the rest of your body form the peripheral nervous system.
Myth: The brain is a uniform mass of tissue made of one kind of brain cell.
Fact: The brain is composed of billions of specialized cells, further organized into specialized functional regions.
Researchers are creating a brain atlas showing the diversity of cell types that make up the brain. (Columbia University)
Myth: Your brain’s development is entirely determined by your genes.
Fact: Different environments and experiences can change the physical structure of the brain and how it functions.
This article discusses the myth that brain structure is completely genetic and the strong evidence for environmental influence. (Medline)
EXPLORE: What have you heard? What do you wonder? (20 min)
Explain the following background information to students to frame the following activity:
Brain science pops up in many spheres of our lives. A good way to gauge students’ familiarity with different aspects of brain science – and to surface potential misconceptions they may hold – is to have them brainstorm what they may have heard and what they are curious about.
The discussion below is the first of many opportunities in this curriculum to connect to students’ personal values and experiences, so you may want to begin by setting some discussion norms with your class in this intro lesson. You can use the a set of norms below as a guide:
Norms for discussion:
- Respect others’ opinions and ideas
- No interruptions – one person talks at a time
- Listen carefully to what others have to say
- It’s ok to disagree with others
- Respect others’ experiences and backgrounds
- Take part in the discussion
- Give everyone a chance to speak
- Keep your comments on point to the conversation
After setting discussion norms, complete the following activity with your students to get their brains thinking about neuroscience and what they may already know:
- Start with open ended prompts to students about each of the curriculum units you may choose to cover: What have you heard about…? What do you wonder about…?
- Below are some autocomplete predictions from Google Search to spark additional ideas. Encourage students to build off of each other’s ideas, but note that the goal of this activity is to elicit prior knowledge and relevant connections, not to provide answers to the questions below or other questions that may arise.
Unit 1: …how the brain works?
- How do brain cells talk to each other?
- How does the brain process music?
- How does the brain tell the body what to do?
- How does the brain get smarter?
- Does the brain feel pain?
Unit 2: …how the brain grows and learns?
- How does the brain learn to read?
- Does brain training work?
- Does brain damage heal?
- Does my brain sleep?
- What does brain fog feel like?
Unit 3: …how we look at or study the brain?
- Can a brain scan show dementia?
- Is brain mapping legitimate?
- How much of the brain do scientists understand?
- Does my brain bleed from a concussion?
- Can scientists see your dreams?
Unit 4: …mental health?
- How does mental health affect physical health?
- Is depression the same as sadness?
- Is depression genetic?
- Can mental illness be cured?
- How does breathing help with stress?
Unit 5: …drugs and the brain?
- Do drugs cause brain damage?
- How do drugs affect consciousness?
- Why does addiction run in families?
- How does marijuana affect the teenage brain?
- Where does dopamine come from?
Unit 6: …how brain science is used in the justice system?
- Do criminals have different brains?
- Do lie detectors really work?
- Do lie detectors hold up in court?
- Can brain scans predict criminal behavior?
- Will brain science change criminal law?
Unit 7: …future brain technologies?
- How will the brain evolve?
- How will artificial intelligence (AI) change the world?
- Will brain transplant ever be possible?
- Will brain implants cure paralysis?
- Will brain implants make us smarter?
EXPLAIN: The Basics: What Does the Brain Do?
Each “Explain” section in this curriculum is meant to be teacher-facing and can be utilized to teach students new information in whatever format works best for you and your students.
- The brain and nervous system provide connectivity for communication and control throughout the body.
- The cerebral cortex (outer brain tissue) can be divided into sections or lobes that serve different brain functions.
- Genes are the basic blueprints for how the body is built and how cells function—including in the brain.
- Genes and environment interact to influence how an individual’s brain develops: both “nature” and “nurture” matter.
The Control Center of the Body
The brain is a complex organ that is involved in nearly every process that makes our bodies work. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves branching out through the rest of the body—some of these nerve cells are more than 3 feet long. But the brain is the central hub of activity. It’s built from about 86 billion cells called neurons, and each neuron can connect with thousands of other neurons, making trillions of connections in the brain. The functional purpose of all this connectivity is computation. For example, ideas (e.g., a cat) are links between visual images, sound information (meow), motor responses (petting), memories (your childhood cat) and other aspects of the idea of a cat, all using different but connected parts of the brain.
Although the brain may appear to be a nondescript wrinkly mass from the outside, there are many levels of organization. The bumps (gyri) and grooves (sulci) on the exterior surface are formed as the cerebral cortex, or outer brain tissue, folds into the skull. The cerebral cortex can be divided up into sections or lobes, as seen in the image below. These divisions are based on function; neurons in certain places have specific jobs.
Down at the microscopic level of the brain, we can also see that neurons come in all shapes and sizes, as shown in the image below. Neurons are shaped in such a way so as to be able to make lots of connections with other cells, which makes sense as their function is to communicate with each other. All of this activity is hard work! Although the brain makes up 5% of your body mass, it consumes 20% of its energy. This is because sending signals, helping neurons recover, and then getting ready to send the next set of signals requires a tremendous amount of energy compared to other organs. More information about neurons and brain structure and function is covered in Unit 1 on Neurons and Anatomy.
Genetics as a Foundation
As students begin to explore the connections between neuroscience and society, it’s important to remember that genes and the environment both play significant roles in influencing brain development. Genes provide the basic blueprints for brain development. They encode the instructions for building and organizing the brain's structure and its various components. Genetic factors determine the initial formation of neurons, neural connections, and neural networks. They also influence the timing and sequence of developmental events in the brain. However, genes also contribute to individual differences in brain structure and function. Certain genetic variations have been associated with increased susceptibility to neurodevelopmental disorders.
Beyond the genetic blueprints, the environment shapes our brains in many ways that will be explored throughout the curriculum units. Factors such as nutrition, social interactions, environmental resources, learning, and trauma all impact how our brains develop and change over time. A foundational understanding of genetics is helpful for understanding how genes and the environment interact across the lifespan. More information about genetics in the context of brain development is included in Unit 4, Lesson 3.
- The Control Center of the Body
- This website covers a good introduction to brain function and anatomy. (Nemours TeensHealth)
- This interactive MRI scan visualizes the interior structure of the brain in the cranial cavity. (The Franklin Institute)
- This video shares the story of Suzana Herculano-Houzel, the scientist who questioned conventional wisdom and actually counted the number of neurons in the brain. (BrainFacts.org)
- Genetics as a Foundation
- The Learn.Genetics website has a lot of great resources for teaching basic genetics. (University of Utah)
- This website is an introduction to the concept of traits, discussing the relationship between genes and environment on physical/behavioral traits, trait inheritance, and complex traits. (University of Utah)
- This website provides an explanation of inherited risk factors. (University of Utah)
- This summary of research on genetics and the brain describes how researchers are studying the relationship between genetics, other biological processes, and environment. (Dana Foundation)
ELABORATE: Nature vs. Nurture (20 min)
Explain the following background information to students to frame the following activity:
Most of us are familiar with the fact that we inherit certain traits from our parents. Physical traits are most certainly inherited, but what about traits that relate to the brain? Personality? Temperament? Anxiety?
Guide students through a nature vs nurture discussion using the steps below:
- Start by asking students these probing question:
- Have you ever heard of “nature vs. nurture?” What do you think it means?
- Do you think “nature” or “nurture” has a stronger influence on a person’s traits?
- Explain that some traits develop due to your genes, nature, and some develop due to your experiences, nurture.
- Have students share out and create a list on the board of some traits that they think are more influenced by “nature” (e.g. eye color) and traits that are more influenced by “nurture,”(e.g. what language you speak), and traits that seem to be influenced by both (e.g. height or weight).
Alternatively, have a pre-made list of traits and ask students to discuss or vote on/discuss which traits they think are genetic, which are environmental, and which are both.
For more information about the Neuroscience & Society Curriculum, please contact email@example.com.
Launch Lesson • Unit 1: Neurons and Anatomy • Unit 2: Education and Development • Unit 3: Current Methods in Neuroscience • Unit 4: Mental Health and Mental Health Conditions • Unit 5: Drugs and Addiction • Unit 6: Law and Criminology • Unit 7: Future Technologies
This project was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health Blueprint for Neuroscience Research under grant #R25DA033023 and additional funding from the Dana Foundation. Its content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIH or the Dana Foundation.