Cognitive challenges tackled – a youth’s perspective

Opportunities for high schoolers to gain experience in university labs are few and far between. However, after reaching out to Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Institute for Neuroscience and Neurotechnology (INN), Advaith S. Iyer, an eighth-grade student from Alpha Secondary School’s BETA Mini School program, had the chance to conduct his experimental study—testing the cognitive load in the teenage brain associated with performing various activities from playing musical instruments to playing video games—in-person with Sarah Faber.

“Science is a team sport. There is a certain camaraderie when everyone involved is really interested about what you’re going to find out,” says Faber, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and music specialist at SFU’s INN. 

After hearing about Iyer’s research idea, Faber, an avid researcher in studying brain activity linked to music listening, was eager to support. With Faber’s mentorship, Iyer  delved into more scientific collaborations and engaged in more hands-on learning.

Testing and data collection 

Playing musical instruments is the most challenging activity for the teenage brain. | Photo courtesy of Neuroscience Newst

Initially, Iyer had the lofty goal of creating his own Electroencephalogram (EEG) and using the instrument to conduct experiments for his  Grade 8 Independent Directed Studies (IDS) course. The plan was to study the differences in how the adolescent brain behaves when subjects perform cognitively challenging tasks.

“Building an EEG is incredibly difficult. My school did not have the resources and my science teacher sort of gave me a reality check,” says Iyer.

Soon after, Iyer came up with another idea, this time to borrow an EEG instead of trying to build it from scratch, and use the instrument to run his experiments.. His mother, Lakshmi, a health science professional, reached out to SFU’s INN, where they were connected with Faber. An expert in music and brain activity, Faber was eager to help.

Using the INN’s resources, and accompanied by Faber’s guidance, Iyer designed his experiment and recruited volunteer participants. Though many were reluctant at first, Iyer collected six volunteers from his network of teenagers  to perform these cognitively challenging tasks. Some of these activities included solving math problems, Rubik’s cubes, word puzzles, playing chess, scrolling through social media, playing video games and playing a selection of musical instruments. Given this opportunity to work in a university level laboratory, Iyer learned how to use EEGs to collect and read the data on his test subjects’ brain activity. Behind his curiosity to find the most cognitively challenging activity, Iyer also had a motivation.

“I wanted to tell my friends who were constantly on social media and playing video games that it is bad [for the brain],” says Iyer.

After several rounds of testing and data collection, Iyer’s hypothesis was correct—playing musical instruments  was, in fact, the most challenging activity for the teenage brain. He also believes the brain reacts in different ways depending on the difficulty of a task. 

“It is more of the challenge level of the activity rather than the activity itself. For example, someone who faces a weaker chess opponent will have a less cognitively challenging load  compared to someone who faces a stronger opponent,” explains Iyer. 

Benefits of mentorship

Most of the time, Faber played the role of a research assistant for Iyer’s project. Regardless, she was still essential to adjusting Iyer to the university lab setting and for fostering the mind of a scientist in him. Faber provided the necessary scientific equipment at the start and gave thorough explanations of how each component worked on top of her continuous advice, encouragement and mentorship. 

“She left it to me. It is very different from High School, where teachers teach you with low expectations . This was a true experimental study with high expectations, at University level,” says Iyer.

Although it was Faber’s first time working alongside a high school student in the science lab, she felt immensely rewarded and grateful.

“Seeing his enjoyment and ability to put everything together was definitely the most rewarding part. It was seeing the spark and joy in him,” says Faber.

Opportunities like what Iyer experienced are encouraging—they inspire and motivate the next generation. Undoubtedly, it is important for youth to be exposed to real world situations in order to learn, grow and lead.

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