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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Start Learning

This tech subscription box can rewire your brain for the better

Ready to become a tech wizard? Creation Crate's electronic projects are delivered to your door with everything you need to start building and learning.

Photo: Creation Crate
  • Creation Crate is a tech subscription box that sends monthly projects, with all the components, right to your door.
  • Each project in the curriculum teaches new lessons in electronics and C++ programming. The projects get more challenging as you learn.
  • Working with your hands changes your brain's neurochemistry to reduce stress and increase learning. It's also a great way to prepare kids for a STEM future.

With the subscription box market on the rise, just about anything you could possibly need can be delivered to your home monthly. Thanks to Creation Crate, that list now includes fun and educational hands-on projects. Creation Crate's subscription sends you all the components you will need plus access to online courses that include instructions, step-by-step videos, and exercises to challenge your new skills. The curriculum is designed to take your skills from beginner to tech wizard. Unlike other subscription boxes, Creation Crate doesn't send you a random project every month. Each project becomes progressively more challenging as you learn new components and commands (C++ language). For as little as $29.99/month, subscribers ages 12 and up can learn about coding and electronics and have fun doing it.

Creation Crate's Bluetooth Speaker (Challenger Project)Photo: Creation Crate

Focusing on STEM

By now you're probably familiar with STEM. Learning institutions, students, and parents around the world are being educated about the ways that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can enrich the lives of young people and better prepare them for the future. In addition to hitting all four of those key academic principles, Creation Crate projects are prime hands-on learning tools that, neurologically speaking, come with many added benefits. The curriculum has a 15x higher retention rate than passive learning techniques and has a 3x higher course completion rate than e-learning platforms without hands-on projects.

Before exploring a few of the neuroperks, let's take a peek at some of the cool electronic projects that Creation Crate subscribers can look forward to.

Mood lamp

The first project to arrive teaches about microcontrollers and basic C++ coding. Users have the opportunity to write code in the Arduino language that changes the mood of the lamp by changing the color of the LEDs. Lessons learned from this kit set the foundation for future months and future projects.

Audio visualizer

A bit further along on the curriculum in the Project 8 slot is an audio visualizer with smart LEDs that react to the volume of music. The kit introduces specialized components and goes slightly beyond the basic Arduino IDE experience with the use of downloaded external libraries.

Creation Crate's audio visualizer project arrives in week 8 of the curriculum.Credit: Creation Crate

Rover Bot

Once you learn the curriculum basics, you'll be ready to take on one of the Challenger projects! Learn how to build and program an obstacle-avoiding rover bot.

To learn more about the curriculum, head over to the Creation Crate website.

The neuroscience of working with your hands

Part of Creation Crate's mission statement is to "inspire your curiosity and help you realize your potential, as you solve real world problems with hands-on projects. Whether you're an adult interested in learning something new, a parent preparing your child for the jobs of tomorrow, or a teacher engaging your students with hands-on experiences—Creation Crate is the perfect challenge." While the actual projects are designed to be educational and challenging, the act of completing them is also an important part of the package.

"In many situations, when we allow our bodies to become part of the learning process, we understand better," says Professor Sian Beilock. "Reading about a concept in a textbook or even seeing a demonstration in class is not the same as physically experiencing what you are learning about."

When it comes to working and building with your hands, research shows that the benefits extend much further than our fingertips. According to University of Richmond neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, it can affect the brain the same way that some drugs can. Lambert coined the term " behavior-ceuticals" to refer to the way that hand-related tasks can alter the neurochemistry of the brain. Referencing 19th-century medicine, she told CBS News that doctors used to prescribe knitting to women as a cure for their anxiety. "They sensed that it calmed them down some," she said, adding that the repetitive physical motion was relaxing because of the neurochemicals it increased.

Hands-on work reduces stress. Just ask these car-driving rats.

Rats driving cars/ Experiment by researchers at University of Richmond. Photos: Crawford et al / University of Richmond.

In a recent study, Lambert and her colleagues trained two groups of rats to drive tiny cars with their front paws. They found that rats housed in "enriched environments" with ladders, toys, and balls were better at driving in pursuit of a sweet reward than rats who were housed in standard cages without the added stimuli.

The study also found that both groups of rats secreted higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and corticosterone, hormones that control stress responses. By learning to use their rat hands to solve a problem (in this case: finding a reward), the subjects were able to chemically boost their emotional toughness. "It is likely that driving gives the rats a sense of control over their environment," Lambert said. "In humans, we would say that it enhances a sense of agency or self-efficacy." Rat brains and human brains are similar in many ways, which is why the increased emotional resilience is important and promising for mental health studies. "Anything that reduces stress can build resilience against the onset of mental illness," Lambert added.

Flexing those motor skills

Maybe the most obvious benefit of a hands-on approach to learning is that it can improve motor skills, but that's only part of the story. Researchers at the University of Basel's Biozentrum recently discovered that even relatively simple tasks, like grasping, change how certain neurons in the red nucleus section of the midbrain connect.

"When learning new fine motor skills, the coordination of this specific movement is optimized and stored in the brain as a code," explained the head of the research group, Professor Kelly R. Tan. As the motion is practiced and performed over and over, the connection between the neurons becomes stronger. The next step, according to Tan's team, is to see how that connection holds up when the learned motor skill is not practiced. The assumption seems to be that when the grasping stops, those connections will weaken.

Hands-on education makes learning science easier

Photo: Creation Crate

We can now physically see what hands-on activities do to the brain. For a University of Chicago-led study published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Science, physics students were made to participate in momentum experiments involving spinning wheels and laser pointers. One group of students participated by observing while the other group led the experiments. In a test given afterwards, the observers scored lower than the students who got to interact with the objects.

The researchers also took MRI scans of the students to see which sections of their brains were activated while they looked at spinning wheel animations and thought about angular momentum and torque. "When students have a physical experience moving the wheels, they are more likely to activate sensory and motor areas of the brain when they are later thinking about the science concepts they learned about," said study co-author Professor Sian Beilock. "These sensory and motor-related brain areas are known to be important for our ability to make sense of forces, angles and trajectories."

For Beilock, the study reinforced the idea that, especially when it comes to STEM subjects, hand-on is better. "In many situations, when we allow our bodies to become part of the learning process, we understand better," she said. "Reading about a concept in a textbook or even seeing a demonstration in class is not the same as physically experiencing what you are learning about. We need to rethink how we are teaching math and science because our actions matter for how and what we learn."

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Chronic stress and captive orcas

A new study lays out the case for the damaging effects of stress on orcas living in tanks.

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Surprising Science
  • There are currently around 60 orcas living in concrete tanks globally.
  • Orcas' brain structures and behaviors strongly suggest smart, emotional, self-aware beings.
  • The study provides compelling evidence that the stresses inherent in captivity do damage to these naturally free-roaming cetaceans.

A study, "The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca)" recently published in Journal of Veterinary Behavior is the product of a unique collaboration of experts in marine mammal science, veterinary science, internal medicine and psychiatry. It makes the case for a careful consideration of the impacts of chronic stress on captive orcas, at least 60 of whom are currently in captivity. Most have spent years or decades of their lives in these conditions. 56.7% of these orcas were born in captivity, with 26 captured young. (Orcas are actually the third most commonly confined cetaceans — there are even more bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales held in tanks.)

The study explains how the continual, oppressive stress inherent to a captive orca's life is unhealthy and should be more thoughtfully addressed. Study lead author biopsychologist Lori Marino tells Big Think in an email:

"Our review shows that intelligence, complexity, and awareness are characteristics that make an animal more — not less — vulnerable to the effects of captivity. That seems counterintuitive because a lot of people think that the more mental resources you have the better you are able to cope with various situations. But it is also the case that the more mental capacity you have the greater your needs in order to thrive and the more extreme the impact of living in an artificial environment, that is, an environment outside your adaptive envelope."

While skeptics may consider it a leap to assume that orcas are intelligent and emotional enough to suffer the ill effects of stress, Marino responds, "That would be a claim in search of evidence. Stress is a common phenomenon in all mammals and many other organisms. The effects of chronic stress have been well-studied in mice, rats, dogs, etc." The study provides ample evidence that orcas are exceptionally intelligent, feeling creatures in any event.

The orca brain

Image source: FineShine/Shutterstock

The orca brain exhibits neurobiological traits that are considered prerequisites for complex psychology, emotion, and behavior:

  • a large brain size
  • an expanded neocortex
  • a well-differentiated cortical cytoarchitecture
  • an elaborated limbic system.

Even more important than sheer brain size is its size in relation to an animal's body. This is captured as the organism's encephalization quotient, or EQ. Says the study, "Odontocetes, and in particular Delphinoidea [the superfamily to which orcas belong], are the most highly encephalized nonhuman taxonomic group known … except modern humans."

Orcas also have the most highly convoluted, or folded, neocortical surface of all mammals including humans, and their ratio of neocortical surface to brain weight also exceeds the human brain's, suggesting an organ well-suited to higher-order functions.

Among a range of other clues presented by the study that suggest orcas are highly intelligent creatures are these:

  • Areas associated in the human brain with high-level cognitive and social functions including attention, prediction, social awareness, and empathy are all highly developed in orcas.
  • Orcas have a well-integrated mammalian limbic system that supports having emotions, memory, motivation, reasoning, learning, and abstraction.

Supporting behaviors

Image source: Willyam Bradberry /Shutterstock

Observations of orca behavior richly supports the implications of their neurobiological structures. Marino says, "Free-ranging orcas live in tightly-knit social groups that are necessary during their long juvenile periods and afterwards. They support each other, help each other when in trouble, and grieve each other. Mothers and calves are very tightly bonded. In some groups, male orcas stay with their mom their whole life and if mom dies [the male offpsring] may go into a deep depression and die as well. Family and social group are everything."

Orcas also demonstrate culture, with vocalizations and even hunting methods unique within groups and passed from generation to generation.

"Orcas at Punta Norte, Argentina, hunt sea lion and elephant seal pups by beaching themselves and capturing the pups, typically in the surf zone," according to the study.

Captivity morbidities

Image source: Peter Etchells/Shutterstock

In the wild, free-ranging female orcas live an average of 46 years — some live as long as 90 years — and males 31 years, or as long as 50-60 years. Captive orcas rarely live more than 30 years, with many dying in their teens or 20s. Their medical histories can be difficult to access due to facilities' desire for confidentiality. Nonetheless, some morbidities, or causes of death, have become clear over time.

One review from 1979 identified infectious disease as the culprit behind the death of 17 captive North American orcas who'd died since 1965 prior to the report's writing. The new study cites publicly available documentation revealing that between 1971 and 2017, SeaWorld parks alone have experienced 35 documented orca deaths, and that, "When causes of death were available, the most commonly implicated conditions were viral, bacterial and fungal infections, gastrointestinal disease, and trauma."

Infections such as these may not in and of themselves have necessarily been lethal, but when combined with orcas' "weakened immune system, chronic exposure to chemical irritants or trauma to the skin, excessive or improper use of antimicrobials, and an imbalance in the microbiota of the body or environment (which may exist in tanks)," they become deadly. Common fungal infections may also especially dangerous in this context "as a result of long-term and aggressive antibiotic treatment, overtreatment of water for purity, or both." The same is true for untreated dental infections.

Another frequent cause of orca death: gastrointestinal ulceration — ulcers — caused by prolonged exposure to stress.

The destructive power of stress

Image source: eldeiv/Shutterstock

"Importantly, the poor health and short lifespans of captive orcas are most clearly understood as connected elements in a cycle of maladaptiveness to the conditions of captivity that involves behavioral abnormalities, physical harm and vulnerability to disease."

The paper shows, says Marino, that "when you examine the totality of the welfare findings for captive orcas the whole picture fits best within a larger common framework of evidence on how stress effects captive animals. We know that, when confined, other animals show the same kinds of behavioral and physiological abnormalities that captive orcas do. This is not mysterious or even controversial. It is basic science."

Marino cites as especially damaging the manner in which captivity prevents orcas from making social connections. Tanks also deprive them of places to retreat, making conflicts inescapable even temporarily. Finally, captive orcas are likely to become bored and chronically demotivated by the frustration over their loss of autonomy.

The study also notes physical effects brought on by long-term stress, including:

  • the release of too much cortisol by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, causing elevated blood sugar, suppression of the immune system, as well as metabolism and blood pressure issues.
  • alterations of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex due to prolonged stress, potentially leading to Increased anxiety, post-traumatic stress, cognitive impairment, depression, and mood dysregulation.
  • organ degradation in response to unrelenting stress.
  • a loss of natural sensory information, about which, says the study, "a growing body of research has found that exposure to excessive or unnatural levels or types of acoustic input can cause a number of impacts to cetaceans, including but not limited to … accelerated aging, suppression of the immune response, as well as premature hearing loss."

A valuable conversation

Marino explains why it was important to conduct this study, saying, "My co-authors and I wrote this review to bring all of the available information on captive orca well-being together in one place and to suggest that we might all best be able to understand the effects of captivity within a very familiar and well-researched model of how chronic stress effects all organisms. We want this paper to be a catalyst for dialogue and further scientific exploration based on data as to how we can better understand who orcas are and how we can identify the important elements needed in a captive environment for them to thrive."

The Whale Sanctuary Project is hosting a free public webinar to discuss the study and the effects of stress on captive orcas with three of the study's authors Tuesday, July 14, 2020.