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Originally published Monday, March 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Jerry Large

The brain: Think about it

Feeling sleepy? It's all in your brain. That hunk of gray and white matter is us, but we're just starting to understand it. You may hear more...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Feeling sleepy? It's all in your brain.

That hunk of gray and white matter is us, but we're just starting to understand it. You may hear more about it over the next few days because this is International Brain Awareness Week.It's also the start of daylight-saving time, which will make many of us more aware of our own brains because they won't be working so well.

Your brain is a lot more than the calculator you used to use in math class. It's the gateway between you and the world outside your head.

I played with some illusions that illustrate that last week during the University of Washington's annual brain-awareness open house.

I looked at dark and light squares printed on a sheet of paper in a chess board pattern. A student asked which of two marked squares was lighter, A or B. It seemed obvious that A was darker.

Turns out they are the same shade of gray, but A was surrounded by light squares and B by dark squares.

Anyone familiar with a chess board would see that familiar pattern, and not what's really on the paper. Even when you know the trick, your brain shows you what it's been programed to see.

During the open house, tables with hands-on experiments were lined up around a ballroom in the Student Union Building.

Bryan White was on his knees gesturing wildly, explaining an illusion to some elementary-school kids at the table where I was mislabeling squares.

White is a sixth-year graduate student in neurobiology and behavior and a leader of the student contingent that, with faculty and staff, put on the brain-awareness open house for 700 K-12 students.

"A lot of what we do here is dealing with how our brain interprets the world around us," White said.

White's father, grandfather and an uncle were doctors. He followed them into medical school but decided he wanted to teach.


He taught high school for a while, which made him wonder how people learn, and that led him to brain science.

Now he's studying how the brain can rework itself after head injuries.

Scientists are finding out more about how the brain does things we don't even know it is doing.

Pipe the scent of cleaning solution into a room and subjects are more likely to clean up after themselves.

Science has just recently gotten good enough to scan the brain and match patterns of activity to drawings of specific objects and thereby tell whether you are thinking of a hammer or a drill. That ability is rudimentary so far, but the potential of mind reading might cause a person to lose sleep.

Speaking of which, maybe you thought sleep-deprived brains are sluggish, but the parts dealing with emotion actually get more active when we're sleep-deprived — which may explain some of the behavior you might see in the wake of this time change.

It pays to be more aware of what's going on inside your noggin. Give it some thought, but maybe wait until your brain is wide-awake.

Jerry Large's column appears

Monday and Thursday.

Reach him at 206-464-3346


Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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