FCS Students Design and Implement Their Own Brain Experiment at MIT’s SaxeLab

In April, our 2019 Distinguished Visiting Scientist Rebecca Saxe offered a deeply engaging lecture on Theory of Mind and the directions of cognitive neuroscience research related to how we form thoughts about other people’s thinking, perspectives, and intentions. Upper School Science Core Team students had spent six months engaged in weekly seminar meetings to build a deeper understanding of the brain and neuroanatomy, the place of cognitive neuroscience in our growing understanding of how we think about and perform different mental tasks, and the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as a tool to explore when and how specific areas of the brain are being used when subjects are differently engaged in mental activity. Alongside the public lecture, Dr. Saxe spent a busy day in several sessions that included open-ended questions and conversations, along with shared reflection on science research in general, many aspects of neuroscience and ways of asking questions about the brain and the mind, and what makes this kind of work so endlessly fascinating. 

At the end of the year, 30 Friends’ Central students traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to spend two days at SaxeLab, Dr. Saxe’s Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at MIT, as the culminating experience. Dr. Saxe gave the students a remarkable opportunity, challenging them to design their own experiment and have two students scanned in the fMRI scanners to see what we could learn about their brains in relation to different kinds of thinking. During the year, students had learned that some very specific regions of the brain – especially the right and left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) – are specifically and selectively activated when subjects think about other people’s thoughts and emotions. Having an opportunity to design an experiment to explore this effect in our own students’ brains was extraordinary. 

FCS Science Core Team members with Rebecca Saxe (front, center) at the SaxeLab

Several weeks before the Cambridge trip, students met to write questions that our scan subjects would read while in the MRI scanner. These ‘stimuli’ were meant to distinguish thought processes that focused on objects from those that focused on other people’s state of mind. For example, one short story might relate a student’s frustration with group members who were not contributing adequately to a group project while another described a tree outdoors having its last leaves blown away in an autumn wind.

At the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the students’ stimuli were preloaded into a program to display them in the fMRI scanner and two students, Lindsey Schweitzer ’20 and Tristan Szapary ’20, were chosen by lottery to be our fMRI scan subjects. After a detailed discussion of how MRI scanning works and key safety precautions, two groups watched from the control room as our student subjects were scanned while reading the stories authored by the team. Members of the Saxe Lab worked overtime to process all the scan data so the group would have a chance to see the results the following day. After reading many neuroscience papers in the course of the year, students were thrilled to see results from their own experiments (and their own brains) that showed the selective activation of regions in the Theory of Mind network in the brain scans. 

“This trip not only showed me how cool neuroscience is and how much I want to know more about it, but it also exposed me to incredible women scientists that I can look up to and aspire to be like.”

Lindsey Schweitzer ’20

We are deeply indebted to Rebecca Saxe and the members of her lab for creating a truly exceptional visit and rare opportunity to not only visit the McGovern Institute but also to take part in actual fMRI scanning and see the results. Many FCS students sent back messages about their visit to Rebecca Saxe, including the following from Lindsey Schweitzer ’20: “Science Core Team trips continually excite me. They have inspired me to want to pursue a career in science, and they have shown me real ways that I can continue to learn as I become an adult. This trip not only showed me how cool neuroscience is and how much I want to know more about it, but it also exposed me to incredible women scientists that I can look up to and aspire to be like.”

While in Cambridge, students also had a second very meaningful science experience when Daniel Yahalomi and Hayden Gruber (Class of 2014) met us at the Harvard Science Center for a night of astronomical observing on the Clay Telescope and two smaller instruments. On a perfectly clear night, students had a chance to make observations of the Whirlpool Galaxy on the Clay telescope and looked at the moon and Jupiter on two other telescopes that were set up for us on the roof. Students agreed that seeing the telescopes and being part of that night of observing was unforgettable. In the words of Daniel Saligman ’22, “It was one of the most enlightening and amazing nights of my entire life. To be able to look at the moon in such clarity, to look at Jupiter, so clearly, something that just looked like a distant light. Seeing the galaxies and being able to observe was amazing.”

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