Q&A with Marija Heffer, M.D., Ph.D.

Get to Know the Brain Awareness Week Partners
March 15, 2011

Marija-Heffer-2011Marija Heffer, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Medical Biology
University of Osijek School of Medicine


Dana Foundation : A lot of your Brain Awareness Week (BAW) events target students. What are your strategies to engage this population in conversations about the brain?

Marija Heffer: My students are future medical doctors. As a neuroscience professor, I have to teach the subject as it is written in textbooks. But new and exciting findings pop up on a daily basis and some of them will not be covered in textbooks for years (for example, mirror neurons), or they will never become a direct interest of the medical community (for example, neuroeconomics). Some of these exciting discoveries deal with everyday life, such as the neuroscience of attraction, moral choices, and criminal behavior, and it is fun to discuss them. My students and I found that classroom learning gave us too narrow of a space for discussion and so we organized Student Section for Neuroscience Osijek. We watched movies, discussed news stories, developed our own surveys, and organized our own neuroscience events.

Student Section for Neuroscience Osijek
Student Section for Neuroscience Osijek. These medical students were instrumental in the planning for Brain Awareness Week. Photo by Andrija Ljubicic

One of your events last year (Green Omelets for Breakfast) explored the idea of people’s unique palates and how they experience the world differently based on their senses. You pondered the question of whether food would taste the same even if its traditional color was changed. What did you discover?

It was a really fun. My students Jelena, Marina, and Željka made green, red, orange, violet, and even black pancakes. Kids attending the event tried to discover a difference in taste, although all the pancakes were made out of the same ingredients. For most of the tasters, red pancakes seemed sweeter then green or blue ones. Black pancakes were the most avoided. Interest expressed by participants was amazing; students, faculty members, employees, and journalists participated with the same enthusiasm. Pancakes were even served at our closing party at the end of BAW.

(Left to right) Students Jelena, Zeljka, and Marina prepare pancakes for the tasting event. Photo by Vinko Krajina
Colored pancakes served at Green Omelets for Breakfast. Photo by Vinko Krajina

You have covered emotions in creative ways. Can you talk about that?

We were interested in emotions because we believe that medical doctors have to be good at reading their patients’ emotions. So, first my students and I examined ourselves, and we were not brilliant at all. Then we tested medical students and the result was almost the same—girls were better than boys, older students were better than younger. The funniest were the two detectives who attended the workshop and who demonstrated remarkable skill in reading other peoples’ emotions. Despite their proven ability, they claimed this talent was not useful when dealing with their own wives.

We also asked drama students to perform emotions and pose for art students. The result was interesting; the art students drew certain emotions for the first time, while actors were left surprised by how hard it is to perform certain emotions, such as shame and despair. Both groups found out how reading emotions is a skill, which can be learned over time. Most of our findings are already documented by psychologist Paul Ekman, but we had fun and learned a lot by repeating the exercises ourselves.

A few of your lectures have dealt with the effects of disorders on creativity. Why does this topic interest you?

Some human gifts are particularly respected. Many would like to have absolute memory, exquisite orientation in space, the skill to read emotions, exceptional creativity. Through past lectures, such as Ideas that Pain Created and the Mute Poet, we wanted to acknowledge that natural gifts are sometimes combined with a risk for disease. Also, we wanted to point out how a disease itself can be a tool for neuroscientists, helping them to understand which neural circuits are crucial for expression of aptitude. A great lab, advanced technology, and expert teams are not always available, but we can still come to exceptional findings using precise observation.

What events will you be participating in this year?

At our workshops this year, you can learn how to imitate sounds and gestures, how to learn and how to teach, what makes us laugh, to whom we are attracted, and what makes relationships successful. Our lecturers will speak about attributes of great teachers, as well as motivation and emotions that drive us to seek understanding. Younger students will be able to draw and describe their role-models, while high school students will participate in an exercise about the features we recognize and appreciate that make us love our teachers. Our Brain Awareness Week is made possible by the commitment of the many students of medicine and biology who work to improve our lives.