Through An App, A Better Way to Teach Kids About the Brain

An interview with the brains behind "The Adventures Ned the Neuron."

Posted Sep 17, 2012

J: How far along is this project? Can I get the app now?

Alesha: We should have a beta version of the app available next week. The characters are developed and the stories are put together.

J: Alesha, why did this particular project interest you?

A: The goal of my company, HenryNate, is to help difference makers make a difference—to get them exposure. We saw a great opportunity with Ned. It seemed like a great use of technology. I was not a big technology person, but when the ipad and iphone came out, I thought that it was something bigger than just technology. The apps offer a tool for kids to explore their world.

So to make the value of technology more personal, my son was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder. We took him to an occupational therapist at age 3, and I saw all these techniques that helped my son to regulate himself—his experiences of the world. He’s very sensitive to sounds, loud noises. The therapy helped him tremendously. He’s better able to stay focused. I thought, this should be available to everyone: kids getting help through technology. Everyone will understand themselves better. I think back to my own childhood, and I probably could have benefitted from this. I probably had a form of sensory processing disorder.

J: So the technology that helped your son also taught you about yourself?

A: Definitely. Everyone can understand themselves better. You can learn real life skills through apps, such as how to identify your emotions. For children, by understanding the science, you might understand the changes your body will go through at puberty. You experience these emotions that you’ve never had before, these new feelings. If you introduce science at a young age, a child will understand that the feelings are normal. They’ll know that their emotional experiences are coming from hormonal changes, little molecules that affect their behavior and feelings.

J: Erica, how did you get involved with Jessica Voytek, the other founder of Ned the Neuron?

E: We’d been friends for 5 years. Her husband, Brad Voytek, was in neuroscience PhD program with me at UC Berkeley. I’d been working on this for a few years and last summer I was trying to decide what I wanted to do after getting my degree. I was thinking about pursuing Ned the Neuron. I went to a barbecue and Jess was there. She was in the same spot, finishing a degree and not sure about the future. I told her I was thinking about trying to make Ned a fulltime thing, and I asked if she wanted to get involved. We talked as friends over the next few months until it developed into something more—a business project.

Josh: Alesha, how did you get involved with Ned the Neuron?

A: Jessica’s husband, Brad, tweets a lot. We started a conversation and I liked the ideas, so he put me in touch with Jessica and Erica.

J: Where did the idea for Ned come from?

A: Ned came from Erica’s desire to share her excitement about the brain and neuroscience with young kids. Erica had been going to schools to teach about the brain. She eventually created a stuffed neuron, like a Muppet, to bring with her. You can open it up and see all the parts inside—the mitochondria and cell nucleus. The kids liked the stuffed neuron and had a lot of fun learning about the brain. Erica thought about turning the project into a book, but then with iphones and apps, it seemed like the perfect way to tell the story and make it interactive. The Adventures of Ned the Neuron makes learning fun, fascinating, and packaged in a way that’s easy for kids to understand.

J: Erica, how did you develop the character?

E: I wanted him to be scientifically accurate. I could take him to schools and then talk to kids about this neuron and they could interact with it. I could ask them questions (what is he? what’s he made of?) and then use him to explain.

I also wanted the character to be believable, so I had to figure out who Ned was. Where in the brain is he? What does he do? First of all, he had a smile on his face, so I thought, “maybe he’s excited, so he can be an excitatory neuron.” The characterization followed from there. He’s in the motor cortex, and he’s brave and likes to do stuff, take action.

J: I think I would have had more fun learning neuroscience if it was taught to me that way. So what happens in the story?

E: He has a friend named Stella. She’s a stellate neuron, an inhibitory type. She’s more cautious, like the Hermione to Harry Potter. She’s a bit of a nerd and she helps keep Ned in check. They also have a friend, Bernard, who’s a bipolar cell in the retina. Bernard is the sensitive type, because he’s a sensory neuron.

J: That’s interesting. Each character has their own personality and role, just like each cell in the real brain.

E: Yea, and I also wanted the cells to work together. That way, the story has a message beyond the science. We all have different personalities, but we can all learn from each other. When we work together and combine our talents, we can do big things.

J: Erica, how did you find the balance between being scientifically correct and still creating a story that kids would want to read?

E: We gave up some accuracy right at the beginning when we put a face on a cell. But we had our neuroscientist friends read the script to give us feedback to make sure everything was as correct as it could be.

There are a few examples where we took liberties. At the beginning of the book, Ned wakes up in his house, in a bedroom. This summer I had a 7-year old ask me, “Do neurons really live in houses?”

Of course they don’t, and I will apologize to the world if the next generation grows up believing that neurons talk and live in houses, but it’s a metaphor. We anthropomorphized them to tell a story. We hoped that by taking a few leaps, we’d inspire more questions. Facts are not as important as nurturing curiosity.

I want people to have the feeling that anyone can learn about science. That way in the future if they’re prescribed an anti-depressant, for example, they can understand why. They can make better decisions.

J: What would you consider a success for Ned the Neuron?

A: I think first of all, it can help connect people who are interested in getting this message out there. Already with the kickstarter, so many people have heard about this project. Second, it builds awareness. That’s a big piece. People don’t know enough about the brain, but this is a way to start a conversation. Ultimately, we would like to get enough funding to take this project to the next level and reach more people.

Help make this project a reality by supporting it here (you get neat stuff in return, too!).

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