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Originally published March 4, 2014 at 7:32 PM | Page modified March 4, 2014 at 10:42 PM

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Kids learn how human brain works — and feels — at UW open house

About 650 elementary- and middle-school students learned about the brain at an annual open house Tuesday at the University of Washington.

Seattle Times education reporter

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The most popular hands-on exhibit at the University of Washington’s annual event Tuesday for kids celebrating the human brain was, well, laying hands on a real human brain.

The preserved brains, whole and in sections, once belonged to people who willed their corpses to medical science.

That wrinkled, squishy lump in their palm let them feel the shape and heft of the brain. But the rest of the open house for about 650 mostly elementary- and middle-school-age students focused on the many amazing things a living brain can do.

UW neuroscientist Eric Chudler, who has organized the event for years, captured the kids’ attention in an opening assembly by juggling little gray rubber brains at an assembly in one of the ballrooms at the university’s student center.

“If I couldn’t see, I couldn’t juggle, could I?”

A quick experiment ended with rubber brains dropped on the floor, proving that he couldn’t do it without looking.

“My brain helps me see. My brain helps me hear. Every time one of these lands in my hands, I feel it,” he said.

Then students spent most of their time in another ballroom for the hands-on exhibits, staffed mostly by UW professors and students from various departments.

At one station, Ana Maria Gomez, 11, and Lillia Parker, 10, looked at faces with interchangeable eyes, mouths and foreheads and tried to figure out the emotion expressed by each combination.

But then the girls, who attend The Bear Creek School, a private school in Redmond, wanted to get over to the table with the real human brains.

“It’s pretty cool how the brain works,” Gomez said. “I want to hold the brain and see how it feels.”

Kids could also look at real spinal cords (minus the spine) and a real sheep’s brain, much smaller than the average 3-pound adult human brain, for comparison.

“Feel how light this is,” said Aileen Murphy, a graduate student studying occupational therapy. “We have really big frontal lobes because we have to do a lot of thinking, a lot of complex thinking. The sheep, they are really not great problem solvers.”

Cyrus Hunter, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at The Bush School, a private school in Seattle, liked the brain table the best. His second favorite station invited students to learn how to speak “alien.”

First they listened to a recording of English words that had been tweaked electronically to sound weird and incomprehensible.

Then they hear the same words in plain English. When they hear the alien clip a second time, it makes sense.

“As soon as you hear the English, suddenly your brain is able to interpret those pitch signals and those time signals, so when you go back to hearing the alien, it instantly makes sense. You only have to hear it once,” said Jessica Thomas, a fourth-year graduate student studying psychology.

Chudler, executive director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, has been organizing local events such as the open house since the late 1990s to celebrate Brain Awareness Week — which is coordinated by the Society for Neuroscience and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit that promotes public understanding about the brain and brain research.

The official week is March 10-16.

Chudler and a group of graduate students also visit classrooms to talk about the brain, and he maintains a website called Neuroscience for Kids.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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