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Updated: 6 days ago


Do you remember what you were doing on your 18th birthday?


Mine was a Friday and after college my boyfriend drove us, along with a couple of friends, to Reading town Centre. It was a chilly January evening as we walked to the Purple Turtle, a characterful (if a touch grimy) cocktail bar a little way off the high street. There, proudly wearing my ‘18 today’ badge, I enjoyed my new-found ability to buy alcohol legally by working my way through their extensive cocktail menu. My memories of this evening (well, the early parts of it at least!) are fairly clear. I even remember queuing for the toilet, where a group of girls asked me if it was really my birthday.


But if you picked another Friday from that year, and asked me what I did, I wouldn’t have a clue. On a superficial level, it seems obvious that momentous occasions are stored differently, so can be recalled much more easily than other, more humdrum days.

But how is this difference coded in our brains?


What is actually going on in my neurons and synapses when I recall that evening that brings the sticky floors and graffiti-covered walls to mind so readily?


One reason it stands out so much is probably because it was a very emotional day. The happiness I felt when my friends presented me with the most beautiful pair of shoes I had ever seen, which they had clubbed together to buy me. The nervous excitement of using my ID for the first time. The anticipation of my party to come that weekend. All these would have been impacting my brain, and changing the way the memories were stored.


Emotion and memories are inextricably intertwined.

The amygdala (part of the brain’s limbic system, which processes emotions) is found right next to the hippocampus (which is vital for learning), and for good reason. We have evolved to remember things that might be useful for our survival, so our brain is more likely to store information about something that causes a large emotional response, whether that is positive or negative.


When emotions are running high, our bodies release a whole host of chemicals, including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. It seems to be adrenaline that is responsible for the memory boost, as this chemical increases activity levels in the amygdala and hippocampus.


Studies have found that blocking adrenaline receptors can reduce the emotional enhancement of memories and that increasing the amount of adrenaline released (with a drug or by asking volunteers to stick their hand in iced water) increases it. This is why we remember emotional events, whether negative like the death of a loved one or positive such as a wedding, more vividly than a normal day. And this is one of the reasons I remember my 18th birthday so well- it was a happy and exciting occasion, so my brain chemicals ensured I stored it for the future.


We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from the chapter on learning and memory in Braintastic! Founder Ginny's new book, OVERLOADED: How Every Aspect of your Life is Affected by your Brain Chemicals. Each chapter of the book explores the neuroscience of a different area of life, from hunger to decision making, sleep to love. If you’d like to find out more about the book, just head to: https://www.ginnysmithscience.com/overloaded


And don’t forget, we have a free lesson plan all about learning and memory in the brain, aimed at KS3 & 4 on our freebies page. We also offer a show on the topic, so do get in touch if you are interested in having one of the Braintastic! Team come to your school (in person or virtually) to help your students get the best out of their brains. Our shows are designed to give students a fun, memorable experience, hopefully priming their brains to remember our content better!

I’m often asked what it was that inspired me to pursue a career in STEM. And there are lots of answers to that question, but probably the two most important were my parents’ constant encouragement of my curiosity, and the wonderful science teacher I had at primary school.


Some of my fondest memories from that age were of the end-of-term challenges she would set the whole top-half of the school. Working in our houses, years 3-6 would come together to build a car and ramp combo that would travel the furthest, or a device that could safely deliver our egg to the ground, unscathed, from the school roof. As well as learning lots about physics, engineering and the design process, these challenges taught me so much about working in a team, prioritisation and (particularly the year I was head of my house, so in charge of the team) managing other people.

With that in mind, we have created our own end of term challenge, that embodies these ideas, which we would love for you to use with your class. We are challenging your students to build a neuron, out of anything you can find in your classroom. Just watch this video to find out more:


To make it even easier for you, we have put together a lesson plan, presentation and worksheet you can use to run this activity with your class. We know what a tough year this has been for teachers and pupils, so we are making all the resources you will need available for free- just hit the buttons below to download them.

Build a neuron Lesson plan
.pdf
Download PDF • 398KB
Neuron presentation
.pptx
Download PPTX • 3.80MB
Build a neuron worksheet
.pdf
Download PDF • 366KB

We would love to see what your class comes up with, so please do share your machines on social media, and tag us @BraintasticSci. And do get in touch if you are beginning to plan enrichment activities for next school year- we are now taking bookings for both in-person and online shows & workshops.

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Happy March! With schools going back across the UK, and the vaccine rollout continuing, I hope you feel, as we do, that the end of this strange and stressful chapter is in sight. We aren’t there yet, and have to continue being careful, but this is, I hope, the beginning of the end. But while the last year has been tough, it has also provided an unprecedented opportunity for scientists to look at how our behaviour changes when our routines are completely upended.

A young girl pretends to give her doll an injection
Photo by Polesie Toys from Pexels

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr Suzanne Egan, lecturer in the department of psychology at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick . She is fascinated by play, and saw a chance to investigate how children’s play changed during lockdown. She conducted a survey with 500 parents in Ireland, during their strict lockdown, and found that, like her own children, 1/3 of those in the study brought the pandemic into their play somehow. This ranged from playing ‘Covid tag’, to building a doll’s hospital, or wiping down the ‘groceries’ when playing shop. While this may sound alarming, Egan believes play gives children a chance to process what is going on in their lives, in a safe environment. It has long been used as a form of therapy with young children, so this could be their way of dealing with the changes to their lives.


She also found the types of play children engaged in changed- there was more outdoor play, more reading, and (unsurprisingly) more screen time. The majority of children in the study, she found, spent 2 hours or less a day on school work. But, she stressed this wasn’t necessarily a problem. For one thing, a lot of learning happens through play in the early years, so the extra time playing might have benefits. And, although children may normally spend around 6 hours in school, much of that time isn’t concentrated study. Working at home, with 1 on 1 guidance from a parent, is very different to being in school. In fact, many families said their children enjoyed the extra freedom, and felt closer to parents and siblings. For others, though, it was the social aspect of school they missed- interacting with their peers, and their teachers.


It will be interesting to see how children, parents and teachers adapt to being back in school after such a huge upheaval of their lives, and whether there will be knock on impacts. Egan is hopeful, believing the flexibility of children’s brains means most of them will handle the change fairly easily. It is those children who are already more vulnerable, she thinks, that may have problems, and support will need to be provided on a case-by-case basis.

Teachers may have a bit of an uphill battle ahead, ensuring that no-one gets left behind, and that everyone has covered the important topics in the curriculum, whatever their situation during home schooling. But it’s important to remember that learning is about more than just the curriculum. Hopefully, the extra skills kids have learnt throughout the pandemic while helping with housework, gardening, or using their imaginations to play alone will stand them in good stead for the future.

A group of school girls have their eyes closed, on hand raised and the other in front of them- they are doing an experiment
Photo credit: James Allens Girls School

If you are looking to keep the play going now students are back in school, why not book one of our shows? They are perfect if you are looking for something a bit different, and to get kids thinking about how their brains work.


(PDF) Project: Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions on Young Children's Play, Learning & Development (researchgate.net)


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