It’s not every day you get to hold a human brain in your hands.
But this week, youth at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility got up close and personal with human and animal brains, skulls, and eyeballs, thanks to a visit from NW Noggin, a neuroscience outreach nonprofit group.
Youth in three different units were able to visit with about a dozen NW Noggin volunteers to learn about the brain, to create related art with pipe cleaners, and to study — and, in some cases, handle — research materials like bobcat eyeballs and the brain of a meth user.
“When you put yourself into art, have ownership of an idea, then you tend to ask more questions,” explained NW Noggin’s Bill Griesar, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Portland State University. Most of the visiting neuroscience volunteers are from PSU and OHSU.
Also during this visit, the youth were able to try out a human-to-human interface that has electrodes placed on the muscles of one person’s arm. When that individual moves their hand, it signals the circuit board to deliver an electric shock that stimulates the muscles in a second person’s arm.
“All this demonstrates how information is carried by electricity — moving charges — both in copper wires, and in those biological axon wires that make up neural networks allowing us to move, perceive, remember and decide,” Griesar said.
This is NW Noggin’s second visit to MacLaren. The first, in September 2018, focused more on discussions of research and what role neuroscience can play in judicial and legislative reform.
“Last time we didn’t have the opportunity to do art,” Griesar said about part of the reason the group returned. “We find it encourages the kids to ask more questions.”
Youth did ask many questions, including Curtis D., who later said, “It’s really interesting. I’d like to be a teacher; maybe I can teach about the brain.”
Another youth with a traumatic brain injury learned a lot about how he can exercise his brain, having previously believed that any damage done was irreversible.
“They can see that there are steps you can take that are actionable toward changing your brain,” Griesar said. “It’s more changeable than you think — especially for young people.”
NW Noggin, which Griesar said is making plans to return to MacLaren, doesn’t just come to instruct, but to glean from the youth, as well.
“We like to come here because we value their perspective, their different experiences,” Griesar said. “We learn a lot from them, too.”
NW Noggin’s visits are thanks to a connection through the Hope Partnership, an initiative through Janus Youth Programs that creates community connections for incarcerated youth through arts, life skills, vocational training, and transition services programs. Kathleen Fullerton, project coordinator of Hope Partnership, was thrilled to see NW Noggin return to MacLaren.
“Staff can tell the youth that this is going on in your brain, and they can say, ‘Yeah, sure,'” she said. “But to be told by these experts in the field in a relaxed environment is so powerful.”