Explaining Brain Research Through Star Wars

Recently, Frontiers for Young Minds was launched. The approach of this journal is quite unique: It explains scientific methods and research results to children and adolescents. When I first heard about this, I became very excited. Here is why:

Tim Norris | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

First of all, it is clearly in line with our research group’s goal of translating knowledge to young people interested in science. Of course, we decided to submit an article to this journal and hopefully I can inspire more researchers to do the same.

The article we published is called Emotions and the brain — or how to master ‘The Force’. Using accessible language and examples, it summarizes our work on children and adolescents with disruptive behaviour disorders. More specifically, the article focuses on how the brain processes and regulates emotions and what happens when emotion processing fails.

Edited for kids, by kids
To make our article understandable to kids it is important to use the appropriate language and the necessary background suitable for school-aged children. Almost like an actual scientific publication, submitted articles will undergo a peer-review process. Only in this case, the articles are reviewed by young students. Our article, for example, was reviewed by a class of 9–10 year old elementary school kids.

Let me tell you, scientific writing for children is lots of fun! Here are some reasons why:

(1) Once you manage to explain your work to children, you can explain it to anyone.

(2) It may be the most honest feedback you will ever get from a reviewer (for examples go here).

(3) It is likely the most fun you will ever have describing your work because you are allowed to let your nerdy excitement about your own work shine through (e.g. by explaining how emotion regulation is somehow like being a Star Wars Jedi that is trying to master ‘The Force’).

(4) Your work will actually have an impact! Teaching young children to have fun asking questions, to think without borders or to become little scientists themselves is a great investment in fostering future minds.

How to conduct research studies with kids
Explaining research and science to children through writing is one thing, as a scientist with a background in developmental neuroscience I also work directly with children. While I am interested in fundamental neuroscience questions, I also work towards ways on how the knowledge we gain can be translated to the clinic, the families or the school yard. In this sense, crossing the boarders and bridging the gap between different fields is one of the challenges I enjoy working on.

I believe that successful human research studies start by assuring that the families, adolescents or children taking part in the research understand the importance of their participation and that they should be having fun while participating. Scientists can achieve this by distributing detailed and appropriate information about the research itself. Such information may for example cover questions like: What do research studies look like? Which part do I play as a research participant? What does the scientist gain from my participation? What do I have to do?

Child-friendly research studies
By definition research is the search for knowledge, the systematic and careful study of a topic, an object or a source of information in order to test a hypothesis and develop new conclusions. In developmental neuroscience, we study what the human brain looks like (brain anatomy), how it works (brain functions) or how it changes over time (brain development). Research teams may employ non-invasive techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG) or near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to do so.

Conducting research studies with children, adolescents and their families is somehow different from other scientific fields. For one, our research subjects are alive. This may sound funny, but it is the most important point to consider.

Conducting research studies with humans, and especially young children, brings along unique challenges.

Such may include the appropriate choice and design of a study (e.g. how do we test a hypothesis in a child-friendly and age appropriate way?), ethical considerations (e.g. is it justified to conduct a research study with a child and is the method chosen the best option to study your topic?), but also predisposition of the research participant (e.g. strengths or disabilities).

Adults only
For a very long time, technical as well as practical reasons have restricted neuroimaging studies to include adult participants only. Some of these challenges are the need for the research participant to stay very still for a longer period of time, the unfamiliarity with the environment, or simply the motivation for the task at hand.

Working with younger children or patients requires researchers to be more creative in designing and conducting their studies. As such, we do not simply present them with a “boring test” that they have to solve, but rather with a “fun game” they can play. Involving children and families as active components within the research study can lead to the most benefits for all. The participants can for example become “little research scientists”. Furthermore, easy to understand information and fun explanations for the participating children and families are of utmost importance (see our Frontiers example at the start).

Small change matters
Change is achieved in little things. Fostering curiosity in children and encouraging them to think outside the box is one way to do so. All it needs from us is a tad of creativity. For children and scientists, the following be true:

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” 
Dr. Seuss (1975)
Unless you find the right language to explain it, your science ends in the lab! (Image: Nora Maria Raschle)

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