I-LABS Research In Action at UW's Brain Awareness Open House

To get tweens and teens interested in brain science, you gotta bring your A-game.

Or, make that plural. The I-LABS outreach team took their fleet of brain games to the University of Washington's 2015 Brain Awareness Week Open House. The annual event, held March 3 this year at the UW Hub, attracted about 650 schoolchildren to dozens of hands-on activities demonstrating how the brain works.

At the I-LABS booth, attendees had the chance to see the Institute's research findings in action. Below is a round-up of the games. If you want to see them in for yourself, the I-LABS team will be at Paws-On Science: Husky Weekend at Pacific Center (April 10-12) and at KidsQuest Children's Museum in Bellevue on May 21 and May 27.

Cognitive Flexibility and a Bilingual Boost

Lily Shafer, an I-LABS outreach assistant, led groups of students through variations of the Stroop test, which reveals our cognitive flexibility – or lack thereof. In the photo below, she's timing how long it takes a student to say the names of the colors when they're written in the same color (left column) and then, in contrast, how much longer it takes to say the color name when it's written in a different color ink (right column).

In a different version of the Stroop task, kids categorized small plastic toys based on their shape (car, boat, airplane) or color (red, yellow, green). First they had to sort by color, and then I-LABS staff switched the rule and told them to sort by shape – boats versus airplanes, for instance.

Because the game started with one rule, people have to inhibit that rule and follow the new one – that requires cognitive flexibility and it can be slow-going at first. I-LABS research has shown that bilinguals usually get a cognitive boost on this task, possibly because their brains are kept more flexible by switching between languages.

Do You Hear Sounds Like a Baby?

In another I-LABS test, the schoolchildren tried to make their brains hear sounds like a baby brain does. At birth, I-LABS research shows, babies can tell the difference between all 800-some language sounds across all the languages of the world. But over the first year of life, as babies are exposed to people speaking around them, their brain begins to focus on the 40 or so sounds of their culture's language and their ability to detect the other sounds fades.

At the I-LABS booth, kids listened to two sounds each from English, Spanish and Hindi. In English, for example, they heard "la" and "ra" for English. The Spanish and Hindi sounds are heard as "dah" by English speakers.

Like the girl in the photo below, the schoolchildren pressed buttons on the screen to listen to each sound and then told the I-LABS staff what they heard.

"Kids are surprised that they used to hear all the sounds," said Jane Hu, an I-LABS outreach specialist. "And it's interesting to see kids who speak Spanish or Hindi and who can tell those sounds apart."

If you want to test your brain's ability to detect differences in language sounds, here are English and Spanish sound clips from I-LABS experiments. In each clip, the first three sounds are the same and the last one is different – but usually only native speakers can detect the difference.

Babies: Emotionally Aware Than You'd Think

Here's an activity that stumped many attendees. It taps into what we know about how emotionally savvy babies are. Can they detect emotions like anger in others and be able to predict the consequences of that anger?

That was the topic of another activity at the I-LABS booth. Kids watched a video showing a baby "eavesdropping" on two adults having a simulated argument. One adult yelled at the other about making an irritating sound with a toy as a baby watched.

Then the children had to answer a question: if the adult who yelled is still in the room, will the baby play with a toy anyway?

I-LABS research shows that young babies can detect anger in others and then use that information to guide their own behavior. So the answer to the question is "no." (The video also shows babies happily playing with the toy once the "angered" researcher leaves the room.)

A lot of the kids at the brain awareness event did not answer correctly, though.

"Many thought that babies aren't smart enough to know what anger is," said Jenny Larson, an I-LABS outreach specialist. "They underestimated babies' abilities to be perceptive to others' emotions."

It's the 18th year that Eric Chudler, a UW neuroscientist, has organized the brain awareness event at UW. I-LABS has participated for the past decade.