Pacific Beach resident and brain scientist pens children’s book about learning and perseverance
To be a good scientist, you have to be a good storyteller, according to brain scientist and professor Jyoti Mishra, Ph.D.
And some would argue, vice versa.
The constellations of connection between science and storytelling is something that is being made more accessible to readers, researchers and thinkers. So, when Mishra decided to write a children’s book, she found inspiration in familiar things: brain science and her son, Ayan.
An ambitious little boy (“little brain”) and a scholarly brain scientist are the connected main characters in Mishra’s debut book that teach readers how to turn goals into a reality with science-backed practices.
As the “little brain” navigates all his goals, including becoming a tennis player, movie star, singer and writer, he learns from the brain scientist that it will take daily practice and perseverance, even on the days when it feels hard.
“This particular book ‘The Little Brain’ came about when my first child, who is 11 now, was 3,” Mishra said. “It doesn’t explicitly reference my son, but that’s who I had in mind. As he was growing at these early ages, it was, sort of, me trying to see how I could encourage his learning process.
Want to attend?
Weekends with Locals featuring Jyoti Mishra
When: noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8
Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
“Although the journey started out when he was only 3 years old, within a year or so, I wanted to see if it could be something others would find useful reading because the story was interesting.”
Mishra is trained in cognitive, computational and translational neurosciences. She is also the founder of the Neural Engineering & Translation Labs (NEATLabs) at UC San Diego.
The Pacific Beach resident will hold a book signing for her children’s book “The Little Brain” at Warwick’s “Weekends with Locals” from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8. The store is at 7812 Girard Ave. in La Jolla.
The science driving the story of Mishra’s book comes directly from her experiences researching and teaching.
“In the lab, we are interested in looking at new ways to enhance mental health care and the work constantly enriched by people from many different backgrounds,” Mishra said. “We have students from the social sciences, engineering, neurosciences, psychology, medicine all working together on problems. Putting that forward, what I want to convey is that the people I work with every day, whether they’re collaborators or students, they all come from so many different backgrounds.
“I’m constantly learning from them,” she said. “Having this open mindedness about, no matter the age of a person, anybody can teach us.”
Although this is her first children’s book, it is not her first publication. She has written over 50 scientific papers on researched topics like the “Cognitive and Neural Correlates of Loneliness and Wisdom during Emotional Bias” and “Closed-Loop Neurofeedback of a Synchrony during Goal-Directed Attention.”
When Mishra decided to try something new with writing a children’s book, it was these experiences and the importance of science that led her to want to share this story.
“As an educator and as a researcher, our job is to convey our science to other scientists and people in the field review our work,” Mishra said. “The complexity in scientific publications is always there. A children’s book is not like that. It has to be simple. It has to tell an engaging story.
“It has to come through to the public as to why it’s important and how does it advance our understanding of where we’re trying to get to,” she said. “In some ways, a children’s book is a very simple and elegant way to distill a very complex field into concepts that are important.”
The book writing process was an enjoyable experience for Mishra.
“It was fun writing it because the concepts that are brought out in every page are things that we still research,” she said. “They’re still complex questions like, ‘How do we pay attention? Is something I work on every day in the brain? How can we help people with attention deficit?’ Attention is so vital to learning. There’s always this deep story of science behind it.”
After writing the first draft for her son, Mishra said she realized there could be a bigger impact on others with the book. She initially gave it to a nonprofit publisher based in India with the goal of helping children from poorer backgrounds access literary content. When they didn’t respond about publication status, she had to pivot.
Around the same time, she connected with the book’s illustrator, Grace Wiguna, who works with watercolors.
“I loved the art she was posting,” Mishra said. “Her art is very intricate for watercolor work. We had a call. Grace just really loved the story, and she could immediately imagine what would happen on each page.”
Over the next two years, Mishra received illustrations from Wiguna.
“It took her almost two years to finish 24 pages,” Mishra said. “One art piece a month is how she did it. When she was done, I was looking for publishing this book and looking for channels that would support independent publishing.”
The book was published in August 2022.
“My daughter is 5 and my son is 11 now,” Mishra said. “Seeing them grow during this time, the concepts are still true. I encourage them to learn new things and I learn with them.”
Along with sharing the book with her kids, family and friends, it has gained traction on Amazon and she has shared it with local classrooms.
“When I go read it to classrooms, I don’t read it word for word,” Mishra said. “It’ll start with (me saying), ‘This kid has these dreams and he wants to be a tennis player and these five other things.’ (Then I’ll ask) ‘Well, what are your stories? What do you want to be?’
“Many kids will tell me about their aspirations (and challenges),” she said, adding, “They’ll go into details. The kids will have a long conversation around the things they’re experiencing through learning. Sometimes I think when parents are there, what they tell me is it helps to normalize that conversation around learning new things and embrace the challenges.”
Regardless of readers’ ages, Mishra said she hopes the book is much more than a heartfelt message about a “little brain” trying to achieve his goals. It is about how science, practice and perseverance all help us to be life-long learners.
“What I’m trying to get at in the book is, especially as a brain researcher, one of the things we know and have learned about the brain is that the brain is constantly being shaped by experiences,” Mishra said. “The learning in the brain and how it gets represented, it doesn’t end. Brains are changing throughout life. How do we embrace it throughout life?”
The book is available through booksellers including Amazon for $14.34 as a paperback, $25.94 as a hardcover and $9.99 in Kindle version. It is geared toward ages 3-11.