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Winning questions from ‘Brain Diaries’ exhibition!

In 2017, as part of the ‘Brain Diaries’ exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we asked visitors to the exhibition and website to suggest what they would use an MRI scanner for, to find out something about the brain.  

Over 700 people entered the competition and the judges selected their favourites in three categories:

  • Best experiment that we could realistically perform in a single experiment on our MRI scanner
  • Best experiment or question proposed by a primary age child
  • Best experiment or question that it was impractical for us to perform, but we liked anyway

Below are the winning entries.  You can watch the experiment designed by the overall winner on our facebook live page on 16th March.

Overall Winner:

Richard

This experiment is to test how the brain identifies voices.  A person is put in the MRI scanner with headphones on.  They are shown a photo of a person familiar to them, either a friend, family member or celebrity.  Then, in their headphones they are played the voice of a person, but the voice is either speeded up or slowed down.  They are required to say whether the face on the photo matches the voice they have heard.  What happens in the brain when this confusion of audio and visual information is occurring?  Will the brain find a way to identify the vocal signature of the voice, even if distorted, and be able to say with conviction if the photo and the voice are a match?

The judges said:

“This experiment was fascinating because it aimed to find out how the brain makes sense of the voices we hear and whether it can piece together information if that sound is distorted or incomplete.  I also really liked the way that they are getting at a good experimental design which is an essential factor in fMRI experiments.  The brain is doing so many things at once, and what makes a good experiment is thinking of the fact that lots of different variables need to be controlled for. I think this person is really getting at that!”

Katie

A range of people can be given different equations to complete while they are listening to a range of music genres, or silence to see how music affects concentration and if a certain genre of music helps with concentration.  This study could potentially help students to revise for exams!

The judges said:

“This is a really interesting question and touched upon a theme that a lot of people are really interested in!  We are often very aware of how music affects our mood, but it would be great to find out how it affects our concentration.  Is it better to do two things at once – studying and listening – or to have complete silence.  Really fascinating!”

Fiancesco

I would like to put people in an MRI scanner and play them audio tracks (samples) of people speaking different languages. I’d like to compare what happens in the brain when someone listens to (A) a language the person knows, (B) a language a person does not know and (C) a language the person might understand because of proximity (e.g. Italian-Spanish).

The judges said:

“This is asking an interesting question as it isn’t just asking about how language is represented in the brain but also about the fundamental processing that goes on between hearing the words and understanding their meaning. The suggestion of using a language that is very similar is also a great control.  We know that brains are very good at finding patterns, so what will the response to a phrase that is almost understood be the same as one that is fully understood.”

Matea

I would like to investigate how the brain responds to certain modern electronic/phone sounds to see whether they cause us stress or happiness?

The judges said:

“I liked it a lot!  Right now, there is so much in the media about how apps and all these things are preying upon the reward system in our brain. It was very topical, and I was surprised there weren’t more technology related questions in the competition!”                     

Harry

Put an ice cube in your hand!

“Bravo on this! This is getting at two really cool things. One is the idea of chronic pain which is a really important thing we need to learn about.  The second is that it is a wonderful example of an easy experiment that looks at pain that isn’t going to hurt you and is safe to do and that we could do in lots of people, which is a really important thing about good experimental design.”

Entries by Children:

Mischa

When I look at a picture of my identical twin sister, Lily, do I process it differently to when I look at a picture of myself?

The judges said:

“She came up with such a brilliant and creative idea, I was fascinated by it and immediately went to look up whether anything has been done on this before.”

“Brilliant! All the visual information is going to be pretty much the same and it is only through very subtle differences that other people will be able to pick up that this is someone different. You’re looking at everything that allows you to recognise people, but without having to change your visual input.  For me as a vision scientist, that is such a great question to ask!”

Grace

I would like to investigate how the brain interprets different flavours and textures of food and how it would react to us trying to trick it, for instance giving someone cake that looks like a hamburger.  You could use the MRI scanner to see which parts of the brain light up depending on whether they are shocked, surprised or if it’s what they were expecting.

The judges said:

“It gets at core neuroscience: the idea that brains make predictions about the world and then we look at our environment to see if the predictions are correct. When there’s an error, you quickly reassess what the environment is about. It [this question] is getting at something very core, which is awesome!”

Dominic

When your brain cells are dying, is it possible to make a robotic brain to replace them?

The judges said:

“People would be really fascinated if there was a way of doing this.  There are already really cool and promising success stories of implanting little chips that mimic what should be happening in the brain for someone who is paralysed.  Deep Brain Stimulation, where you implant a brain pacemaker of sorts, is already being used to treat patients with Parkinson’s Disease.  It [the pacemaker] does the electrical activity that the neurons aren’t able to do anymore.”

Anonymous

Can you take someone’s brain and transfer the neurons from it to another brain?

The judges said:

“This is a really nice idea and so far ahead of their time!  It’s philosophical too: if you get someone else’s neurons, are you still you?”

Charlotte

Can you tell me where naughtiness comes from in my brain?

The judges said:

“I loved that one! If you knew where it was, you’d know what to do J ”

Lucius

I want to see what happens in the brain when I am watching my favourite football team play a match and win!

The judges said:

“Football fans know that elation or sinking feeling when they watch their team score a goal or lose a match.  The intense emotions can have a really strong influence us, and to see what is going on in the brain would make them all the more real.

Lily

When I am hearing, I know that the auditory nerve sends signals to my brain. How does my brain decode these signals?

The judges said:

“A lot of people asked that question and we are still working on it. It gets at fundamental neurobiology and it is a very complex and really big question in neuroscience.”

Steffan

I would like to know if the brains of children are better at playing computer games than adult brains!

The judges said:

“There is a worry that parents have that playing computer games promotes violence or aggressive behaviour and that it is not as stimulating as reading a book or going out to play. Those claims aren’t really backed up by the science and so trying to see whether computer games could positively affect motor skills and hand-eye coordination would be quite interesting!”

Finlay

I would like to know if the MRI scanner can detect if someone is lying or telling the truth.

The judges said:

“What is great about this question is that it gets to a myth about imaging, which is that we will somehow be able to scan your brain and we’ll be able to see if you are telling the truth or not. That is not something we can do! It gets at what is and isn’t possible with imaging.”

 

James

Does the movement of protons depend on the size of a magnet, the type of magnet or the strength of the magnet?

The judges said:

“I love this question. This is all about the physics of MRI, which is what I research. They really learned something from the exhibition. We do know how the strength and size of the magnet affects the movement of the protons, so this is a really sensible question!”

Impractical

We loved these questions, but we didn’t think we could come up with an experiment that could be done in a single scan, or it was not practical, or indeed ethical, to perform.

Molly

Famous YouTube vloggers get millions and millions of views every week.  I would like to know what happens in our brain when we watch vlogs - video blogs - of other people’s lives?  Do we trick our brain into thinking that we are experiencing what we are watching?  How does this affect us in the long term?  What are the psychological effects?  It’s a brand-new media concept and I think we ought to find out its effect on us!  The experiment should test both “fans” and “non-fans” of the vloggers.

The judges said:

“I like the idea of why some people are so hooked on other people’s lives.  This got to the mirror neuron type research: does watching other people do stuff activate your own brain in the same way as doing it yourself?  It’s very topical, always in the news and I find it fascinating that people do sit down to watch ‘a day in the life of…[the vlogger].”

Tom

Can we use computer chips to replace areas of the brain that aren’t working properly?

The judges said:

“Modern medicine has given us artificial limbs and an artificial heart – so why not an artificial brain.  Research is already being carried out in this area and we thought that this was a brilliant question.”   

Tina

I would like to know whether people explain their decisions differently depending on how they are asked about the way they made that decision to explore rational versus emotional reasons for the same decision. I would really like to know whether that links to different bits of the brain.

The judges said:

 “We have to make decisions in our live that are often very difficult to make and that is because there doesn’t seem to be a purely logical reason to make one decision over another. So often we are guided by how we feel in some emotional way. It’s a field of research that is really important, especially if you think about self-driving cars or Artificial Intelligence. I think there is really relevant and exciting work to be done!”

Gergo

I have read many studies indicating that many people are much better at finding errors in other people’s ideas then finding them in their own.  It would be interesting to see if this is the result of using different areas of our brains. It could also give insight into how we can be more insightful when we scrutinise our own logic.

The judges said:

“We loved this one, but we wouldn’t know how to do it in one person.  In the ideal scenario, if we had lots of money and scanners, you would have people being scanned simultaneously and they were communicating somehow.  We don’t have the ability to do that here, but it’s a great idea!”

Aditi

What happens when a toddler has a tantrum?  Which part of the brain lights up?

The judges said:

“Children’s prefrontal cortices are only starting to develop at the age of 4ish and will continue to develop until late adolescence.  The ability of a small child to reason and put their thinking into order while they are actually quite upset is in a way related to this. They don’t really have the mental capacity yet to be very orderly in their thinking and often that is expressed with just an outburst of irrational anger and they throw themselves onto the floor and actually that makes a lot of sense if you weren’t able to put things into order.”

Philippa

What makes us laugh until we cry? What happens to the brain when we lose control laughing?

The judges said:

“What happens in your brain when you get to the point when you can’t stop laughing and everything triggers it, I’d be really interested in finding out what happens in the brain at that point!”

Anonymous

I would like to compare the activity in human brains when observing different canine “facial expressions” to the activity in canine brains when looking at different human expressions.

The judges said:

“I love this one! There is a study that trained dogs to sit still in the fMRI and looked at pictures of human faces and they found that there is a part of their brain that responds to pictures of faces that they are familiar with.”

Charlotte

I would like to investigate the effect pregnancy has on your senses, particularly sense of smell, and how smells which are pleasant while not pregnant can have such a strong unpleasant smell during pregnancy. I would also like to find out how emotions are affected during the stages of pregnancy and how the brain is impacted post-pregnancy.

The judges said:

“This is a very interesting question, but very difficult to study with an MRI scanner during pregnancy as at the Centre we are not allowed to scan pregnant women.”

Anonymous

How does our gut bacteria influence our thinking? What is a brain without a body?

The judges said:

“This is very topical and philosophical – this separation between our brain and our body. To an extent we’re actually just a series of loops. […] The internal state of the body is very much a big amount of information that the brain is continually processing and that affects how we think and feel. So being able to study this is of key interest to a lot of people.”

Issy

I am interested in finding out about experiences of wonder and awe and if they are related to 'ah-ha' moments. I think it would be interesting to see if the areas of the brain that respond to the experience of finding meaning (as when solving a cryptic crossword clue) are related to those triggered when experiencing wonder or awe at nature, beauty, the earth from space and so on. I think there is a relationship and that these experiences are as crucial to well-being as feelings of pleasure.

The judges said:

“This is something that people can really relate to: everything changes in an instant because things come together.  The idea that your brain can piece things together and come up with something new is really amazing!”