Thinking caps on for Brain Awareness Week

Thinking caps on for Brain Awareness Week
Attendees at the Brain Awareness Week seminar hosted by the Psychology Club and THEM on March 14, 2018 in the Student Center. Photo by Elizabeth Todd

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With midterms looming and anxiety levels rising, Metropolitan State University’s Psychology Club and the Transforming Health and Empowering Minds (THEM) student organization teamed up to promote Brain Awareness Week (BAW) and educate others on how to increase their brain power.

“So many students feel stressed and if we, as students, can understand that we are not alone, we can develop better ways to deal with stress,” said Ranessa Tsinnijinnie, vice president of the Psychology Club.

In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 40 percent of college students felt “more than an average” amount of stress over the last year.

BAW is a national event with participation from other schools around the country.  “We wanted to bring this event to Metro State as a way to inform and support student’s knowledge about how to take care of one of our most vital assets,” Tsinnijinnie said.

BAW is organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and held during March. The annual global event promotes brain research and education. To celebrate the 2018 BAW, the Psychology Club reached out to Storm Gregorich of the THEM student organization with a seminar idea.

“I believe it is important to recognize Brain Awareness Week because the brain is an extremely important organ,” said Gregorich. “The more we can learn about our brain, the better we can nourish, and enhance our brain’s potential.”

Dr. Cynthia Harley, assistant professor in natural sciences, agreed to be the seminar speaker. “I think it is important to acknowledge your brain because it is who you are— your personality, your wishes, your dreams— it is everything you have learned,” she said.

Harley focused her presentation on March 14 on issues that she thought students would be interested in, including learning and how to learn better.  She discussed sleeping and study habits that improve memory and learning.

Attendees got a quick rundown of how neurotransmitters are constructed and how they pass information throughout the brain. While there are multiple types of receptors that pass through the brain, NMDA receptors are particularly important when it comes to learning and memory.

“How can we influence our NMDA receptors?” Harley said. “It turns out that lack of sleep influences how active your NMDA receptors are.”

People who are sleep deprived actually have fewer NMDA receptors passing information. “If those NMDAs aren’t getting active…you can’t activate the receptors that you need to make functional connections,” said Harley.

Multiple studies have shown that one of the most important factors for learning and memory retention is sleep. “We are hoping that students and teachers are able to take away the importance of sleep, or the lack thereof, as a key element to student success and burnout,” Tsinnijinnie said.

The way students choose to study also affects how well information is recalled. Is it better to break studying time up in to multiple shorter sessions (also known as spaced studying), or should students be cramming before the test to absorb as much information as possible (also known as mass studying)?

Harley said spaced studying has been proven to be more efficient regarding memory.

“If you’re doing [mass] studies…you’re going to strengthen the synapses and prime the formation of another one, but it’s not going to be strengthened yet,” Harley said.

Her takeaway message to students? “Don’t cram.”

Even though this year was the first brain celebration at Metro State, the Psychology Club hopes to continue to celebrate BAW for years to come.

“We strive to help students become more successful in their educational journey by showing our support and understanding—even at a biophysical level,” said Tsinnijinnie.

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