Nickerson brings neuroscience to Wheeler
LINCOLN – At 11, Ella Nickerson never tires of neuroscience and the possibilities it opens up.
âIt’s the infinite capacity of the brain that interests me,â Nickerson said.
Nickerson, a 5th grader at Wheeler School in Providence, has explored the most complex part of the human body, the brain, and is ready to explain it.
The Lincoln resident recently raised hundreds of dollars to purchase an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine for her school by selling baklava with her mother, using her great-grandmother’s recipe.
Demonstrating the equipment, Nickerson soaked a series of sensors in saline solution before his mentor, teacher Travis Dumais, helped him install the device on Nickerson’s head.
Nickerson and Dumais teamed up last year, when Dumais visited his class for a chat. Since then, Nickerson and other students on campus have started independent studies and electives in neuroscience.
The EEG device donated by Nickerson will help extend programming across the school, allowing students to collect data and conduct their own studies.
Once connected to the device, an image of Nickerson’s brain appeared on the computer screen in front of her, glowing with bursts of firework-like color.
âSo that’s my brain right now,â she said. âThe different colors represent different types of brain waves and shooting speeds.â
Sitting in her classroom in Wheeler, Nickerson searched her brain using the software.
âYou can scan my brain right now. It looks like I have a lot of action in the left hemisphere, âshe said.
Dumais, who also lives in Lincoln, explained that when the arm is at rest, parts of the brain can pull at a slower rate.
âWhen you decide to move your hand, they can move faster,â he says.
Ella demonstrates by waving her arms and the image of her brain lights up with activity.
Last week, she used the equipment to study whether people with better visual ability could more easily move objects with their minds. While it might sound similar to something from Star Wars, moving objects with one’s mind is made possible with the device and the EEG software.
Switching to a different type of device that picks up visual signals, Nickerson played a tennis-like game, only using his eyes to move a block around the screen.
âYour eyes send a signal to the visual cortex, and the headset picks up that, determines what you’re looking at, and selects that thing,â Dumais explained. “She literally moves this digital object with her neurosignature.”
Dumais said there are a lot of technical challenges to overcome with neurotechnology, “but if you think of it as the earliest stage of these types of technologies, the possibilities are truly endless.”
âI feel like that’s where smartphones were in the early 2000s,â he said. âThese are the first steps of what I think will happen. My prediction is that 30 to 40 years from now these things will be as common as smartphones. “
This possibility is both exciting and frightening for Dumais and Nickerson.
While technology can help people who are paralyzed or physically disabled, or expand possibilities in language, play, music and art; Dumais said he and his students were also discussing the dark side of technology, asking, âWhere do we start to lose our humanity? And, where can these things go wrong? “
Nickerson said he found a website advertising a stress relief headset that “was supposed to calm you down by sending a signal to your brain.”
âIt turns out it wasn’t real,â she says. âI think there could be a real danger in the future. You can ask a kindergarten child to say, âI love brain technology!â They’ll see that $ 20 ad on YouTube for a stress-relief helmet while watching slime videos and be disappointed when it doesn’t do anything. “
âUnless there is a placebo effect,â she added.
Nickerson imagines a more idealistic version of the future of technology. One where âyou can put on your headband, play a video game, take it off for dinner and put it back onâ.
She imagines a virtual reality headset and a brain headset for a totally immersive experience.
For now, she says she is excited by the discoveries she and Dumais make every week.
Today she moves blocks on the screen, tomorrow, said Dumais, Nickerson will create virtual environments, navigate them and modify the objects within them.
She and Dumais plan to expand their neuroscience programming, start a club, and eventually launch a podcast and YouTube channel to share their research.
âThe goal is for students to get to know the brain in any way, even non-traditional,â Dumais said. âIf young people don’t have these kinds of programs, they will go to the world the same way we went to the world without knowing the Internet. If young people are made aware of the potential dangers, they can best avoid them and use these technologies to promote their own well-being. “