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Books on the brain at Sonoma Valley Authors Festival’s Students Day

Sonoma Valley Authors Festival Highlights:

Keynote Session with Dr. David Eagleman — A lecture on Sunday morning that delved into the brain and how to keep it active by creating new neurological pathways.

Stargazing with Alex Filippenko A nighttime event on Saturday where festival attendees got the chance to use Filippenko’s telescope and equipment to look at the stars.

Keynote Session with Mary Roach: in conversation with Jeffrey Brown — Science writer Mary Roach spoke with Jeffrey Brown on Saturday afternoon about her book “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.”

Authors on the Plaza — Saturday’s free event in the Plaza where the community came to see Mary Roach, Amor Towles and Dave Barry give lectures.

The Sonoma Valley Authors Festival’s Students Day kicked off with the ring of the Friday morning bell at Sonoma Valley High School.

Dozens of kids shuffled their way into the high school’s pavilion where Dr. David Eagleman, a prominent neuroscientist and author of “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” waited to share his knowledge of the mind.

David and Ginny Freeman, founders of the Authors Festival, host Students Day alongside its weekend of author lectures since they launched the festival five years ago, and the students get to hear from a different line up of speakers each year. The event was followed by a full weekend of literary-themed events, from Authors on the Plaza, to private lectures at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

Sonoma Valley High School, Sonoma Academy, Adele Harrison Middle School, Altimira Middle Schools, Hanna’s Archbishop Hanna High School and Kenwood School have all enjoyed lectures from some of the most notable authors working today.

“[Last year], we mostly saw poets and stuff so it’s exiting to see different professions,” Teagan Rhodes, a sophomore at SVHS, said.

Most of the students at Eagleman’s lecture came from science class, but floated in from U.S. History. The festival aims to pair classes with an author of the same subject.

When asked what he wanted to learn during the lecture, SVHS junior Richie Cross said; “Anything he has to say. I’ve never heard someone like that talk in public.”

Eagleman is the CEO of two neuroscience companies, an internationally bestselling author, director of the Center for Science and Law, a scientific consultant for the television show “Westworld,” the writer and presenter of “The Brain with David Eagleman” on PBS, a neuroscience professor at Stanford, a TED speaker, a Guggenheim fellow and a Pulitzer-Prize nominee, among other accolades.

“It’s such a unique experience that not every highs chooler gets to have,” Dulci Silvi, a high school parent, said. “Our daughter is a sophomore and she was just so excited because she’s always been fascinated about the human brain.”

Eagleman began his lecture by telling the students that he would walk them through some of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience from the last 10 years. His slide deck was full of imagery of the brain and he spoke in a way he knew would engage the audience.

“The thing I really enjoy is taking the complexities of the brain and talking about it like you’re talking to a friend,” Eagleman said.

He mentioned that one of his goals for the lecture was to get the students to think beyond what’s inside their biology textbooks when it comes to the human brain.

“I love talking to high school and college students both because I feel like they’re so excited about the world,” Eagleman said. “I feel like young people’s questions are more varied.”

At the end of his lecture, the Stanford professor told everyone if the audience wearing a watch to switch to to their other wrist, and he advised everyone to brush their teeth with the opposite hand the next time they do it.

“Don’t believe everything your brain serves up for the first time,” Eagleman said at the end of his lecture. He stressed the importance of students questioning their own decisions and opinions, and to challenge themselves to be thinking in different ways because it helps the brain form more neurological pathways, and makes it stronger as a result.

He told them that he drives a new route home from work everyday as a way to implement that concept and to avoid getting stuck in a mental rut.

“My concern as a professor is that young people are taught to hold a lot of opinions but they’re not taught about how to questions them,” Eagleman said.

By the time he had finished and the applause settled down, there was only a few minutes left for questions. A few students hung around afterwards to meet him and get some answers.

One of those students was Kaden Sanders, a reporter at the high school’s newspaper the Dragon’s Tale. “I though it was really interesting listening to his studies about the brain,” she said. “After listening to to his lecture the book is definitely something I’ll pick up.”

In addition to bringing in top-tier authors to speak to students, the festival also donates a few thousand brand new signed books by the speakers for the students to take home and read.

“I’m really excited for them to see Chris Gardner, I think a lot of them have seen the movie,” Janet Hanson, chief librarian at SVHS, said about the author of the book-turned-Academy-Award-winning film, “ The Pursuit of Happyness.” “Books like Chris Gardner’s that are, like, life experiences — the kids love that.”

Nikki Erlick, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Roach, Alex Filippenko, Rick Stevenson and Jaron Lanier were also on Friday’s docket.

“These are wonderful speakers for these people,” Babs Lowe, coordinator of Students Day, said. “To me, it’s the exposure these kids are getting to these brains.”

Getting students inspired and excited to read in a main goal of the event, but the exposure to the speakers has opened doors beyond Sonoma for some of the students.

Joseph Silvi, an environmental engineering sophomore at UC Berkely and SVHS alumni, was a sophomore at the high school when he met Dr. Irazoqui after his Students Day lecture. Irazoqui offered Silvi an biochemical engineering internship at Purdue University, which he accepted.

“These kids are just so blessed,” his mother Dulci Silvi said.

Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at rebecca.wolff@sonomanews.com.

Sonoma Valley Authors Festival Highlights:

Keynote Session with Dr. David Eagleman — A lecture on Sunday morning that delved into the brain and how to keep it active by creating new neurological pathways.

Stargazing with Alex Filippenko A nighttime event on Saturday where festival attendees got the chance to use Filippenko’s telescope and equipment to look at the stars.

Keynote Session with Mary Roach: in conversation with Jeffrey Brown — Science writer Mary Roach spoke with Jeffrey Brown on Saturday afternoon about her book “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.”

Authors on the Plaza — Saturday’s free event in the Plaza where the community came to see Mary Roach, Amor Towles and Dave Barry give lectures.

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