The psychology department gets brainy

New plasticized brain to enhance student learning

Rachel Dvareckas, Managing Editor

The university’s psychology department took the phrase ‘pick someone’s brain’ to a whole new level. This past summer, Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Victoria Heimer-McGinn received RWU’s new plasticized brain.

The brain, which costs between $4,000 and $5,000, was paid for by the psychology department and Dean of the School of Social and Natural Sciences Ben Greenstein. Donated by an organ donor, it is a human brain that went through a preservation process. It was first covered in formaldehyde to stop it from decaying and then shellacked to allow people to touch and interact with it safely.

“There are few companies in the world that do that and we were able to find an American company that does it,” Heimer-McGinn said.

The brain will be used in psychology courses like introduction to neuroscience (PSYCH 261). Heimer-McGinn has the brain in her house so she can use it to help her teach online classes this semester.

“It’s a great tool because it really allows me to talk about the brain without speaking hypothetical,” Heimer-McGinn said.

She enjoys that she can talk about the history of neuroscience with the brain to keep students engaged.

Next semester, it will be moving to the psychology pod in the College of Arts and Sciences building, where students will have the opportunity to check out the brain from the building for studying purposes.

“If you want to check [it] out, you will have to get trained first in knowing what it is about the brain that you should know,” Heimer-McGinn said. “We obviously don’t want people just taking [it] and taking it to a party.”

The brain will also be used outside college classrooms by Brain Week RI, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Heimer-McGinn that educates people on brain research, and in elementary schools by trained RWU students who teach about the brain.

The process to get the brain took about six months from the time Heimer-McGinn put in the order to when she received it. Only educational and medical institutions have access to obtaining human body parts, so RWU had to send in proof to the company that it is in fact an educational institution.

The psychology department has already put in a budget request to get a full set of brain materials.

“In the next five to 10 years, there definitely will be an increase in the spending for that kind of educational material,” Heimer-McGinn said.