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Lori BuchananProfessor Lori Buchanan holds a bicycle helmet, painted as part of the Brain Bucket research project of recent Master’s graduate Daniella Mlinarevic.

Brainy research project encourages bike helmet use

The colourful helmets lining the walls of professor Lori Buchanan’s lab in Chrysler Hall South are not merely decoration. They are the result of research that melds psychology, neuroscience, art, and exercise.

The helmets are the product of Project: Brain Bucket, research conducted by recent Master’s graduate Daniella Mlinarevic.

Mlinarevic visited high school art classes, bringing along bike helmets for students to design and paint.

She taught some classes about bicycle safety before having students paint a helmet.

Other classes learned about how the brain works, and what each part of the brain controls. Mlinarevic tasked those students with painting helmets in a way that reflects what they learned.

Mlinarevic surveyed the students in both groups of classes on their likelihood of wearing a helmet when cycling.

“Her thinking was that if students learned about the brain and the processes that the brain underwrites, they would be more likely to wear a helmet because they’d be thinking about saving those processes,” Dr. Buchanan explained.

Mlinarevic’s hypothesis proved accurate.

“The kids who learned about bicycle safety were no more likely to wear a helmet,” Buchanan said. “Kids who learned about the brain were way more likely to wear them.”

Students who learned about brain processes painted hands or other symbols representing touch on the top of the helmets. On the left side, they painted things like numbers or mathematical formulae, representing the part of the brain responsible for computational skills.

On the right side, the helmets bear artistic images and things like musical notes and lists of languages, representing the creative side of the brain.

In the back of the helmets, some students painted eyes because the back of the brain controls visual processing.

The helmets painted to represent the functions of the brain will be displayed in bike shops around the world. Whenever Buchanan or her students travel, they deposit helmets in bike shops along the way. One helmet is on display at a store in Switzerland. Others are in Wales and England.

Word of the project has spread. Now Buchanan is being contacted by bike shops asking for a “brain bucket” of their own.

“There’s a store in Alaska waiting and another one in Texas,” Buchanan said.

The helmets featuring designs not related to the brain will be donated to groups that serve underprivileged children.

In all, there are 200 helmets Buchanan purchased with internal research grant money. She partnered with helmet manufacturer Nutcase, which offered Buchanan helmets that normally retail for $70 for the bargain price of $20.

“This was right up their alley,” Buchanan said of the partnership with Nutcase. Fittingly, Nutcase’s trademarked motto is “I love my brain.”

The next phase of the project is to create a digital archive. It will include photos of the individual helmets and an interactive map. Clicking on the map will bring up an image of the helmet on display at that location and a photo of the shop hosting it.

“It’s a reminder of why you want to wear a helmet,” Buchanan said of the research project. “Hopefully, we will make a difference around the world.”