Wednesday, 27 June 2012

ACTIVITY: Mr. Egghead and the Concussing Tupperware

       Your brain keeps you alive. It's the home of your personality, your memories, and your mind. Brain injuries are, to use a massive understatement, not good. Lucky for your brain, evolution has provided some pretty nifty techniques for keeping your brain healthy. The skull is one example (it's so much more than a Halloween prop!) The poison-vomiting reflex I talked about in the carsickness post is another - even if the brain does sometimes use this one when it isn't strictly necessary (such as during carsickness). Today I'm going to talk you through a fun and messy activity which is designed to teach you about another way that the brain is protected from injury. This is one of my favorite brain activities to do with kids, mostly because it involves smashing things. So without further ado...

Mr. Egghead and the Concussing Tupperware


2 tupperware containers. They should be the same size, or as close in size as you can get them.
2 eggs, uncooked
paper towels (for clean-up)

**This activity can get messy! Okay, I've never actually made a mess when doing it in a classroom, but you never know when the lid might pop off the tupperware. So make sure your parents are around, and okay with a little mess.**



Put an egg in one of the tupperware containers and seal it TIGHT.

Shake the container as hard as you can! What happens to the egg? Why did this happen?

       Most likely, your egg broke. Now, imagine the egg is your brain, and the tupperware is your skull. What do you think would happen if you hit your head? (Keep in mind what happened to the egg.) If you said something along the lines of "you would hurt your brain," you're right. This activity is a demonstration of a concussion, which is a head injury that happens when your brain hits your skull. (NOTE: Your brain does not turn into a gooey mess when it hits your skull. In real life, it gets bruised, just like your skin sometimes gets bruised. But because your brain is both fragile and important, even a bruise can cause major problems. Concussions can be quite debilitating, which is why doctors want to change the name to "mild traumatic brain injury". Keep that in mind as the activity continues.)
       You might have noticed how easy it was to break that egg. With most people the egg cracks within the first shake or two. Let's keep going with the activity:


Fill the second tupperware with water. Put the second egg in, and seal the container TIGHT. Before you do anything, make a guess about what will happen to the egg. Will it break?

Note that this tupperware has water in it.
Now shake the container as hard as you can! What happened to the egg? Did you guess right?

I'm guessing that your egg didn't break. Maybe it has a crack in it, if you're really strong. Why didn't the egg break? If you said, "because of the water," you're right on. What do you think this means for the brain?


The first egg (the one without water) broke way too easily. In a real person, that would be like giving yourself a head injury every time you shake your head. That doesn't happen! This is because your brain is surrounded by a cushioning layer of fluid, called the cerebrospinal fluid (or CSF). CSF prevents your brain from hitting your skull. Think about the water in the second tupperware. The water cushions the egg from the tupperware, in the exact same way that the CSF cushions your brain from your skull.
The CSF (blue) is between the brain and the skull. From
But sometimes people do get concussions, even with CSF. Let's look at this with our eggs and tupperware:


Pick up your second container, the one with the unbroken egg and the water. (If you managed to break this egg in step 2, I'm impressed. You can prep another egg/water/tupperware if you want to keep going with the activity.) Now, really bash that second container. Make that egg break! Hit it against a table if you have to. Again and again and again! Really wallop it good. Make sure the lid on the tupperware stays sealed, otherwise the activity won't work!! For your parents' sake, try not to make a mess. But bash that thing until the egg breaks. How hard was it to get the egg to break?

       I find it very tough to get the egg to break, but I can manage it by hitting the tupperware against the table. Most of you will, by this time, have broken that egg. Look at the egg. Does it look different from the first egg you broke? My first egg was completely destroyed. My second egg was still broken, but much less badly. Think about the real world. What do you think this is trying to demonstrate?
       Sometimes, someone will get hit in the head so hard that not even the CSF can protect the brain. The brain hits the skull, and the result is a concussion. Even so, the concussion is less severe than if there was no CSF. If you don't believe me, compare the two eggs. But the brain is still injured. If the hit is hard enough, the injury can be very serious, possibly even life-threatening.
       This happened to my dad a few years ago. He was biking on the mountain near the house where I grew up. The next thing he remembers, he was surrounded by people and being loaded into an ambulance. We think a car forced him off the road. My dad had a concussion - when the accident happened, his brain hit his skull. The trauma of that hit is why he can't remember what happened. It was like Step 3 in the activity.
       My dad is fully recovered now. But at the time of the accident, he had, on top of the concussion, several broken ribs, a busted shoulder, and a punctured lung. When we went to see him in the hospital, the doctor showed us his helmet. It was destroyed. It was covered in cracks and one side was completely dented in. Imagine what would have happened if he hadn't been wearing that helmet. The dent would have been in his skull. My guess is, he wouldn't currently be hanging out in California, enjoying his retirement. He probably wouldn't even be alive.
       So the moral of the story is this: Your CSF is fantastic at protecting your brain from minor injuries, but it isn't always enough. Think about the egg from Experiment 3 of the activity. Please don't let this happen to you. Your brain is the most important thing you have, and I really don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that. When you're biking, or playing football, or skating, or doing any activity where you might fall and hit your head, ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET.


If you feel like smashing up some more eggs, try this. Do the whole activity again, only this time, use different sized tupperware.

What happens when the tupperware and the egg are close in size? What happens when the tupperware is much bigger than the egg? Given what you just saw, what do you think the relative sizes of the brain and the skull are? Is the skull much bigger than the brain? Or only slightly bigger? Why? Send me your answers in the comments or through e-mail at

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Let there be light! And sneezing!

            I have a sister. Like many people with siblings, I spent my childhood trying to annoy her as much as possible. She did the same to me, and believe me, she could be very annoying. Still is, actually (Hi N! Love you!).
            One of my sister's more annoying things was her stupid chocolate sneezes. Every time she ate chocolate, she'd sneeze. But just the one time. Next bite, no sneeze. But if she ate chocolate again the next day, she'd sneeze again. Once. Everyone thought she was so cute. Look at the little cutie sneeze. Awwww. I thought she was a fraud! What a joke! She sneezes, only for chocolate, and not even every time?? OBVIOUSLY she's faking for attention. And not very well. If she's going to lie, she should at least do it properly. Sneeze every time, you stupid faker.
            So imagine my shock when I was all grown up, started studying the brain, and realized she wasn't faking!

            You win this round sister...
            Actually there’re a lot of random things which cause sneezing. People have reported sneezing after eating mints or grapefruit, or after plucking their eyebrows. It seems to be brought on by strong, sudden physical sensations, like a bold taste, or being poked near the eyeball. The most famous trigger is light. Almost one in every four people sneezes in bright light! For this reason, the phenomenon is called the photic sneeze reflex. (The word “photic” comes from “photon”, which means “light”.)
            So why do some people sneeze in bright light? Or after eating chocolate?
            Imagine your brain as a dense network of wires. The wires connect all the different bits of your brain that need to talk to each other. For example, there’s wires between the part of the brain that smells things and the part of your brain that makes you feel hungry, so that when you smell something tasty, you feel hungry. But if the wires aren’t connected quite right, weird things can happen. In light-induced sneezing, scientists think the connection between the visual section of the brain and the part that controls chewing and swallowing is stronger than it should be. When someone sees a sudden, bright light, this connection “overloads”, and that causes a tickling sensation that leads to sneezing. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that a similar thing is happening when my sister eats chocolate, only it involves the taste centers of the brain instead of the visual centers. It’s not dangerous, just interesting.
            There’s some evidence that the photic sneeze reflex is hereditary, which means that parents pass it on to their children. For this reason, it has been nicknamed the ACHOO reflex, for “Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Opthalmic Outburst”. Hehehe. This is what scientists do when they’re bored in the labs – come up with ridiculous acronyms for silly things. I don’t know if chocolate sneezing is hereditary, but my sister is the only person in my whole family who does it. My guess is “no”, but that's based on the extremely un-scientific sample size of one. I’d need to talk to other chocolate sneezers to be sure.
            After that first bout of sneezing, the person can go up to 24 hours without sneezing again. You can flip the lights off and on as much as you want, it won’t make them sneeze. My sister could eat ten chocolate bars in ten hours, but she would only sneeze after the first bite.
            So you see? She never was faking. But she was still pretty annoying.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Stop the car! I'm gonna hurl!

            I spent the last month visiting family in England. I love England. Yummy food, beautiful scenery, good people. England’s great.
            Well, almost great. It does have one problem: Curvy, windy, endless, spinny, twisty country roads.
            English country roads: Evil disguised as asphalt.
            Excuse me while I puke.
            It was while I was sitting in the backseat of the car, trying to keep my insides on my inside, that I started to wonder what is actually happening, brain-wise, during carsickness. When I was a kid, my parents told me that carsickness happened “because your eyes say you’re moving but your muscles say you’re not, so your brain gets confused.” But is this really the reason? And what, exactly, does “your brain gets confused” mean, and why does a confused brain mean a puking stomach?
            TO THE INTERWEBS!
            Once I was out of the car, minus one nauseous stomach and plus one internet-connected computer, I started to look up the answers to my questions. This is what I found out:
            My brain was confused...sort of.
            So, apparently, were my parents.
            Here’s what happening: You’re eyes think you’re NOT MOVING. This is because the eyes see (mostly) the inside of the car, which is stationary. But your vestibular system says you ARE MOVING.
            You might be thinking, “What’s the vestibular system?” It’s a small organ inside your ear that senses balance. It’s basically a tiny tank of gelatinous fluid that sloshes around as you move. Take a cup of water and start tilting it (but not so much that it spills). See how the water angles? When the fluid in your vestibular system angles like that, your brain knows your head or body is tilted. That’s how you sense balance.
            The vestibular system is also responsible for dizziness. Here’s a fun and simple activity: start spinning. Spin around and around as fast and you can. Now stop! You should be nice and dizzy. This is because your vestibular system is like a very slow internet connection that takes forever to update. After you stop spinning, the fluid in your ears keeps spinning, which tells your brain that you’re spinning, which leads to dizziness. The same thing happens in a moving car. The fluid in your vestibular system sloshes all over the place as the car whips around curves and bends, telling your brain that you’re moving, even though your eyes say you’re not moving.
            So what’s the brain to do with this contradictory information?
            There’s one more thing you need to know: The brain is a hypochondriac. Its first priority, always, is to keep you alive, and sometimes it gets a little overprotective. So when your eyes say one thing and your sense of balance says another, your overprotective brain comes to what it thinks it the most obvious conclusion:
            You’re being poisoned!
            Yeah, that’s right. Poisoned. Under normal circumstances, your senses should never be telling the brain completely opposite things (i.e. moving/not moving). When they do, it’s so wrong, so out of the ordinary and weird, that your brain assumes one of them is hallucinating. You’ve swallowed a poison. It’s making you hallucinate. It’s also trying to kill you.
            And what’s the best way to get rid of poison (without going to a hospital)? Yeah. You got it. Puke. Insert disgusting sound effects here.
            Fun times, huh?
            So how do you avoid getting carsick? To answer that question, keep in mind that the reason you’re sick is that your eyes say you’re not moving but your vestibular system says you are. You can’t do anything about the moving car or the windy roads, but you can do something about what you’re seeing. The solution to the problem is to see as much moving stuff as possible.
            Sit in the front if you can. More windows.
            Don’t read! (I know, this is a hard one to follow for long car journeys, but take it from a lifelong carsickness sufferer, it’s worth it.)
            There’re also anti-nausea medication you can take, but you should always talk to your parents before trying this.
            These steps don’t always work, particularly on English country roads, but they’re worth a try! Good luck, and I wish you vomit-free journeys.