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        The Human Spark | Journey Into the Brain

        Using segments from the PBS program The Human Spark, students learn about the human brain, including information about brain regions, brain activity and technologies used to explore brain activity.

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students view and discuss video segments from the PBS program The Human Spark, as they learn about the human brain, including information about brain regions, brain activity and technologies used to explore the brain. In the Introductory Activity, students compare the brains of chimps, rats, monkeys and humans and discuss why the brains of some species are larger than others. In Learning Activity 1, students explore which regions of the brain are activated during different types of tasks and in Learning Activity 2, students learn about different technologies which provide insight into brain activity. In the Culminating Activity, students explore different regions of the brain.


        Students will be able to:

        • Identify the brains of chimps, rats,monkeys and humans.
        • Discuss why the brains of some species are larger than others.
        • Describe which different regions of the brain are activated by language activities, tool use and thoughts about other people’s thoughts.
        • Discuss different technologies used togather information about brain activity.
        • Label and describe the different regions ofthe brain.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Two 45-minute class periods

        Media Resources

        A Matter of Size Video

        Scanning the Brain Video

        The Brain in Action Video


        Scanning the Brain Student Organizer

        Scanning the Brain Answer Key

        Four Brains Handout

        Web Sites

        The Secret Life of the Brain

        This website for the PBS series “The Secret Life of the Brain” features information, interactives and video clips about the brain. This site includes information about the regions of the brain and brain scanning technologies, which can be used in Learning Activities 1 and 2.

        Neuroscience for Kids

        This website contains a variety of information and activities about the brain, spinal cord, neurons and the senses. It includes a section on “Brain Imaging,” which can beused as a resource in Learning Activity 2 (

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introductory Activity

        1. Let students know today’s lesson is about the brain. Ask students to brainstorm some facts they know about the human brain. Write down their answers and discuss. Keep them available for review and discussion later in the lesson.

        2. Ask students to discuss how they think the size and shape of the human brain compares with those of a rat, a chimp and a monkey.

        3. Distribute the Four Brains Handout and ask students to identify the four species whosebrains are shown.

        4. Let students know they will now be watching a video segment from the PBS program The Human Spark which features the brains of the four species featured on the Four Brains Handout. Ask students to observe which four species are featured and to try to determine which brain on their handout corresponds to which species.

        5. Play A Matter of Size Video. After playing the segment, ask the students to review their photos and discuss which species were featured in the segment (chimp, rat, human and monkey). Ask students to discuss which brain they now think corresponds to which species. (1-chimp; 2-rat; 3-human; 4-monkey)

        6. Ask students to compare and contrast the brains of the monkey, chimp and human. What do they have in common? (Their shapes.) What differs between them? (Their sizes. A human brain is three to four times bigger than a chimp brain.)

        7. Ask students how the brains of primates compare to the brains of other species. (They are larger.)

        8. Ask students to discuss what Robin Dunbar from Oxford Universitystates as the reason why the brains of primates are larger than those of other species. (Their brains are bigger because of the more complex societies in which they live. The larger brains help them collaborate with others in order to solve problems of everyday life and death. Dunbar states that in order to live in a big group, one needs a big enough brain with sufficient computing power to handle all of the relationships.)

        Part II: Learning Activity 1

        1. Let students know they are now going to view a video segment which explores different parts of the brain and examines which sections are activated during a variety of tasks.  Ask students to record the tasks featured in the video, as well as which sections of the brain are highlighted during each task.

        2. Play The Brain in Action Video. After playing the segment, ask the students to discuss each of the featured tasks and which parts of the brain were highlighted during each one.

        • Task: Language errors.

          Words that don’t make sense-
          Region of the brain: area in back of brain, mostly on left side

          Grammatical errors-
          Region of the brain: toward front of brain, exclusively on left side (in adult). In child, the region is on left side of brain, but the area is less focused than in adult.

        • Task: Tool Use

          Region of brain: Left side of brain, very close to regions used for language.

        • Task: Thinking about someone else’s thoughts.

          Region of brain: Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ), located on the right side of the brain, above the right ear.

        3. Ask students to discuss why they think the brain regions activated for language and tool use are similar. (Both tasks involve action planning and sequencing. Both involve the ability to modify a behavior in order to achieve a desired goal.)

        4. Ask students to discuss what type of tasks stimulate the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ). (Thinking about other people’s thoughts.) Explain this region is among a small number of cortical regions that are the most different in human brains compared to other brains. This is one of a few cortical regions that takes a long time to reach maturity in the life of a human child.

        Part III: Learning Activity 2

        1. Ask students to brainstorm the names of some of the machines or techniques that researchers use to find out about the activity taking place inside someone’s brain. (Possible answers: MRI scans, CAT scans, etc.)

        2. Let students know they will now be viewing a video to learn about MRI scans. Ask students to observe what an MRI machine does and what type of information it can provide.

        3. Play Scanning the Brain Video. After showing the video, ask students to discuss what MRI machines do and what type of information they provide. (MRI machines use a powerful magnetic field to image the brain and they can find out what parts of a person’s brain are active when the person is performing different tasks. The MRI takes images of slices of the brain from side to side, top to bottom and front to back. The slices are combined to give a complete 3-D image of the person’s head.)

        4. Explain that the class will now be learning more about the different technologies researchers use to explore the brain. Distribute the Scanning the Brain Student Organizer and ask students to explore one of the following types of technologies in more detail:

        • CAT/CT
        • EEG
        • MEG
        • MRI and fMRI
        • PET

        5. Ask students to find out the following information for their assigned technology and to record their findings on the “Scanning the Brain” student organizer:

        • how it works
        • the type of information it provides
        • its advantages and drawbacks

        Encourage students to use a variety of resources to find out the information. Here are two sites with information about brain scanning technologies:

        6. After the students have recorded their findings, ask them to share their information with the rest of the class. As students share their information, have the rest of the class fill in the information about the technologies that they did not research. Refer to the Scanning the Brain Answer Key, as needed.

        7. Lead a discussion about the different brain scanning technologies and ask students to compare and contrast the different approaches. Refer to the answer key, as needed.

        Part IV: Culminating Activity

        1. Ask students to select one of the following brain regions to research:

        • Brain Stem
        • Limbic System and Thalamus
        • Cerebellum
        • Occipital Lobe
        • Corpus Callosum
        • Parietal Lobe
        • Frontal Lobe
        • Temporal Lobe

        2. Encourage students to use the “3-D Brain Anatomy” section of The Secret Life of the Brain website ( and other resources to explore their assigned region.

        3. Ask students to find out the following about their assigned brain regions:

        • the location of the region
        • the main functions associated with the region
        • other facts about the region

        4. After students have completed their research, ask them to give a presentation to their classmates about their assigned region.


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