Monday, December 24, 2012

Hurting Over the Holidays

There have been quite a few articles about mental health lately, and I know the conversation is long overdue. One article that is not related to most of the current discussions, but which I have found particularly helpful, describes the experience of depression around the holidays. For some, it may be a regular seasonal experience, and for others, there may be the loss of a loved one, a trying disease, a job loss, or a time of depression in one particular year. As a person who is generally cheerful about Christmas festivities, it was a great reminder to be aware, understanding, and caring toward those who may be hurting for any number of reasons.

Check out Kat Kinsman's informative CNN article based on her personal experiences battling depression:

She also has a great older piece on depression that may be helpful for some:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Final (Belated) Cambodia Update

Letter co-written by Matthew & Kristen Campbell

Dear Friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Bay Area! We wanted to (finally) write to give an update about our trip to Cambodia this past summer. We really appreciate your prayers and support and want to let you know about how God is working in Cambodia and in us.

Our experiences on this twelve-day trip included some light-hearted ones in which we experienced some interesting aspects of Cambodian culture, and others which broke our hearts as we learned about some of Cambodia’s violent history.  On a lighter cultural note, we both tried fried tarantula (Matthew popped a whole spider in his mouth just like the picture of our friend Mark to the left!), and we each had a bite of durian cake, which is made from a notoriously stinky fruit. We also learned how silk is made by hand!

Perhaps the deepest impressions, however, were left by our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields, as we learned that around 25%-35% of the population of Cambodia was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s. At the start of the regime, all of the cities were evacuated, with people being told they could return home in a few days. In reality, families were forced into years of agricultural labor in the countryside, with the hope of developing a Communist agrarian society. Intellectuals, doctors, teachers, monks, even those who wore glasses (which were believed to represent education, wealth, or elitism), as well as anyone who opposed the regime leader (Pol Pot), were killed as enemies of the state. At Tuol Sleng prison (a former school), people were interrogated and tortured, sometimes by soldiers as young as twelve years old, and then taken to the countryside to be brutally murdered and left in mass graves (which are known as the killing fields). Out of nearly 20,000 people that went through Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors. Moreover, Tuol Sleng is just one of many interrogation prisons that were located throughout the country. Many other Cambodians who were not killed directly died of disease or starvation due to harsh working and living conditions in the countryside. The individuals who lived through this experience are now the parents and grandparents of today, and we learned that this historical backdrop is an important part of understanding the problem of human trafficking in Cambodia.

So what did we actually do in Cambodia? We primarily partnered with Agape International Missions (AIM) to run “Kids’ Club” at the Rahab’s House community center in a town called Svay Pak.  This town is known to be a “destination location” for pedophiles. At Kid’s Club, we sang songs, danced, told Bible stories with puppets, and did arts and crafts with the children. We were told that five years ago, nearly every one of the of the children in Svay Pak was being trafficked (sold for prostitution).  The very community center where we were holding Kid’s Club was a former brothel of underage prostitution that AIM and International Justice Mission (IJM) helped to shut down. Today, due to the work of a variety of nonprofit organizations, children in this town are much less likely to be abused; however, more work is left to be done.  The pastor at a new church in this village knew for certain that 17 girls in attendance at Kids’ Club were being trafficked. This represents tremendous progress, yet it was still heart-breaking to know that some of the six to twelve-year-old girls sitting in front of us were being forced to have sex with adult men (many of them “sex tourists” from the West) on a nightly basis.

In addition to Kids’ Club, we had time each day to use our individual gifts to assist AIM in a variety of ways. AIM recognizes that child sex trafficking is a complex issue requiring a multi-faceted solution, so they have a wide variety of ministries attacking the problem. For example, AIM runs a gym where pimps and traffickers can mingle with aid workers. As a result, some of these pimps and traffickers have renounced their former ways and are helping to turn other perpetrators around. Some of the men from our team got to spend time at the gym with the traffickers and have conversations with them.

Another important aspect of AIM’s ministry is the development of fair trade factories that provide formerly trafficked women (once they are sixteen years or older) with training in a trade.  One of the problems with child sex trafficking is that those who are rescued may feel that they have no skills besides prostitution, and ultimately believe they have no choice but to return to sex work for “good pay” or find work in a sweat shop for insufficient income. AIM is providing an alternative by opening factories that pay fair wages and provide a work environment which is much safer than most alternatives. These factories provide a living wage, family-style lunch, free child care, and one hour of education to workers each day. So far AIM has opened one factory and is aiming to have ten factories running within two years. Many members of our team had the opportunity to visit the first factory, and some members of our team used their experience in fashion design to consult on the clothing patterns being used, the methods of sewing being employed, the quality check processes, and the layout/design ideas. We also feel hopeful that over time, through both national economic change and through the education AIM is providing to the rescued women and to the children of Svay Pak, young people may have (and create) an even wider variety of economic opportunities in future. Perhaps some of the children we met will fill the vast gaps left by the Khmer Rouge regime's systematic extermination of the nation's professionals decades ago.

AIM also runs a school for grades K-12 and pays for the most promising students to attend local private schools after grade six. The students and teachers were eager to learn, and this is where we were able to help! It is a special treat for the students to attend arts classes between all of their academic study time. Matthew taught guitar classes every day for several hours, and Kristen taught a liturgical dance class. The Sunday before we left, one student played a guitar song during church, and the dance class (equal parts male and female) performed a worship dance in the Sunday service.

In between the Kids’ Club activities each day at AIM, our team also drove to several factories in the area, which manufacture bricks, to distribute clothing we had collected for the children. Some of these kids take a van to Kids’ Club every day, and they are easily identified by their extremely dirty clothing and their penchant to fall asleep, even during loud singing. These children live in one-room shacks and squalor, and many help their families make bricks in dangerous working conditions. Their joy at receiving the packages of clothing was tremendous, yet our hearts were heavy to know that their needs remain great each and every day.

Towards the end of our time in Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit Agape Restoration Center, a home run by AIM for rescued victims of child sex trafficking. We planned a luau-themed party for the girls there, including a lunch together, nail and face painting, games, and more. It was a lot of fun, and it was very special getting to see how resilient these young women are!

Throughout the week, we also dropped in on some other organizations that are fighting trafficking in Cambodia, including Hagar International, International Justice Mission, and Bloom Asia (a cake business in Phnom Pehn—the capital city—employing formerly trafficked women). They explained some of the ongoing challenges, such as underage prostitution moving “underground” in recent years as a result of the success in shutting down child brothels. While the brothel closings show progress is being made, the underground activity is much more difficult to prosecute, and corruption remains rampant in Cambodia’s law enforcement. Despite these difficulties, we also felt encouraged as they shared about how each of their organizations is uniquely contributing to end child sex trafficking.

Overall, we feel that God showed us a lot about what He is doing in Cambodia and how much is left to be done. After returning home and pushing through traveler’s sicknesses, we have had more time to process; indeed the experience was very inspiring and eye-opening. We feel confident that God is calling us to serve abroad for about two years when Matthew finishes his graduate school program, although at this point we are still not sure in what part of the world that might be.  As part of our discerning process, our plan is to make a short-term trip to another country this coming summer. Perhaps God will ultimately point us to a new place for our longer term service, or He may send us back to Cambodia!

Our team also shared responsibilities for keeping a group blog throughout the trip, which details our daily events: Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, and thank you again for your prayers and support!

In Christ,
Kristen & Matthew Campbell

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At-Home Fitness for $200: Courtesy of "The Man" (i.e. My Employer)

Note: I do not represent my employer in any way. I write only on my own behalf. Any views expressed here are my own and are not necessarily representative of the views of my employer.

One of the constant themes of our employee surveys is that we all want more generous benefits. This year, my employer decided that as part of our benefits package, we could be reimbursed up to $200 for fitness-related expenses. This could include items like gym memberships and exercise equipment. There were a few exclusions (no reimbursement for that stylish new gym outfit or the fees for your soccer league), but all-in-all, it seemed like a pretty generous open-ended deal! So this year, my husband and I bought $199.51 worth of fitness stuff.

I thought it might be a fun idea to share what $200 can buy. Perhaps this will inspire you to see that workout equipment can be affordable, or if you help determine benefits for your own company, maybe this will spark an idea to assist your employees! So here is what we were able to get this year:

First, I purchased an adjustable work-out bench for my husband's birthday in October. He had been talking about wanting one for months and was totally surprised that I thought of it for a gift! He assumed it was a future dream to be realized when we have a house some day. But I figured we could store it on our apartment's patio with a covering, if need be. I also knew that the calendar year was already well on its way, so we had better start spending if we wanted to hit $200 before New Years! The bench cost $98.54 on Amazon. However, when it arrived, the seat for the bench was drilled incorrectly, such that it had to be put on backwards and was ever so slightly crooked. Amazon told us we could not simply send back the seat portion for a new one. Our options were to (1) disassemble the entire bench and return it for a full refund, (2) disassemble the bench and send it back in order to be shipped a brand new one, or (3) keep the bench and be refunded 30% of the purchase price. Neither of the disassembling options sounded very fun. We went for option 3, and they refunded us exactly $30.00. It is very much a functioning bench, with what really amounts to a slight aesthetic flaw. So the total for the bench ended up at $68.54.

Then, I decided to buy some workout DVD's to get in shape at home. (I already owned a couple of those small, brightly colored dumbbells, so all I needed were the moves!) Jillian Michaels' videos are consistently rated highly on Amazon, so I thought they were a pretty safe choice for a 40-60 minute workout. Plus, I had tried out one of the DVD's at a girlfriend's house earlier in the year and thought it was pretty fun (and hard, of course). I bought two Jillian Michaels videos on Amazon for $18.30.

Next, we decided that my husband needed some weights to use with his bench! So on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we went to Sports Authority, and to our delight, they were having a holiday sale on weights. We bought a set of two threaded dumbbell handles ($24.79), plus four 2.5-lb weights ($2.14 each), four 5-lb weights ($4.28 each), and four 10-lb weights ($8.58 each). We also purchased one 25-lb weight to be used for sit-ups ($19.05). With our $5.00-off coupon for joining the free Sports Authority loyalty club, plus tax, we spent a total of $112.67 on the weights.

So to summarize, we spent $68.54 on a workout bench, $18.30 on workout videos, and $112.67 on dumbbell weights, for a total of $199.51. And it was all reimbursed back to us by my employer! I was amazed that we came so close to the total allowed, but we did it! To be fair, we had a couple of lucky breaks in there, with the $30 off the workout bench and buying the weights on sale. At the same time, I know there are a plethora of sales throughout the year, so I think others might be able to have similar luck if they wait patiently to buy at good times. Sports equipment, like the dumbbells, also often comes in sets of varying price and quality, so you may be able to locate an affordable brand online. Another awesome option is to purchase used equipment at a store like Play It Again Sports!

I think this is such a great idea for a company to encourage employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In the long run, the goal is to save on medical expenses by having healthier employees. But in the short term, these purchases made me feel more positive about my company's investment in me as a whole. We probably would not have bought most of these things without the assistance, but as a result of the benefit, we can feel better equipped to get in shape at home. Now I just need to start using everything! (New Year's resolution, anyone?) Do you or someone you know get similar benefits from your employer? Please share!

Happy fitness shopping!

Image Credits:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Human Trafficking Hotline Flyer

A while back, I wrote about International Justice Mission's launch of the "Freedom Commons" webpage. This is a website showing steps that you as an individual can take to combat human trafficking. For example, the site provides form letters that you can send to your representatives in Congress regarding upcoming votes on trafficking-related legislation.

One thing I did recently from this site was to print out and post flyers in my community for the National Trafficking Hotline. These flyers provide information about what trafficking is and the phone number for a confidential toll-free hotline that you can call if you are a victim of trafficking or have suspicions about an instance of trafficking. Download the flyer here!

Also, after you print out the flyer and put it up, you can tag your efforts in an online interactive map here!

This is such an easy thing to do, yet it has the potential to change someone's life. So try it! Put up flyers at your workplace, church, community center, or other local establishment, and become a modern-day abolitionist!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Protect Yourself from Sunburn with....Sun Glasses?

A few days ago, I saw that Anderson Cooper was in the news for sunburning his eyes. The strange thing is, this is the second reference to eye sunburn that I have heard in the last week!

Since I finally bought my first pair of prescription sunglasses about a month ago, this seems like a good time to talk about the importance of eye protection for your health (you know, now that I can self-righteously say I have actually been following the right advice).

I stopped wearing contacts about three years ago due to the problems I was having working on a computer for eight to ten hours a day. After trying multiple brands of lenses and solution, I decided glasses were easier and suited me just fine. But that meant I could no longer wear traditional sunglasses. So I went without. During the months of the year when the sun got particularly bright while driving, I put down my visor and/or  squinted. I reasoned that $500 for a fashion statement was just not worth it.

Recently, however, I saw that a local store was having a sale for 40% off prescription sunglasses, so I went for it! With the discount, and avoiding all of the fancy-schmancy add-ons, they were more affordable than I had imagined. Now, after reading more about the damage the sun can do to my eyes, I am so thankful I got them. My family has a history of skin cancer, so I apply sun block religiously when I will be in the sun for more than thirty minutes. It never occurred to me that sun exposure also puts me at higher risk for another family disease, macular degeneration, which ultimately led my grandmother to be legally blind beyond correction.

According to GalTime online magazine, an eye sunburn will causes irritation and will typically feel like there is grit in your eyes that cannot be removed with water. It can even lead to photokeratitis, or temporary vision loss, commonly referred to as snow blindness. (Anderson Cooper had both of these symptoms.) If your eyes are sunburned, the only things you can do are stay out of the sun, use lubricating eye drops, and wait up to a week to heal. If that does not correct the issue, or if the pain is strong/gets worse, seek medical attention immediately.

Sun exposure not only has the potential to cause temporary irritation and blindness, but it can also have long-term effects. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, exposure to ultraviolet light can increase your risk of developing cataracts, macular degeneration (as I mentioned above with my grandmother), and eye growths, including cancer. Light-sensitive cells in your eyes may also be important to getting a restful night's sleep. A moderate amount of natural light during the day is believed to help these cells function, but over-exposure to sunlight can cause damage.

Jennifer Ko, photo taken by Jason Ko
In the past, most sunglasses were simply tinted glass or plastic that blocked out some portion of visible light. This made it possible to look directly at bright reflections or even at the sun itself without causing pain or a blink reflex. Unfortunately, while visible light is what makes us blink when we look at the sun, it is not what causes the actual damage to our eyes. It is the ultraviolet light (UV rays) which are not visible that can burn our skin and eyes. By making it easier to look directly at the sun, these tinted glasses actually caused more harm than good, because they allowed UV rays to go directly into the retina, without the wearer feeling a thing. These types of glasses gave the illusion of protection by repressing the blink reflex. But we have that reflex for a reason! Nowadays, fewer and fewer sunglasses are simply tinted glass; many, if not most, also have polarization to block out unseen harmful rays.

So lesson number one is to only buy sunglasses that block out at least 95% of ultraviolet A rays and 99% of ultraviolet B rays. The ability to block UV rays is not determined by how dark the lenses are or the price tag on the frames, so don't be fooled! Look for a special label that describes the UV protection, or if purchasing prescription sunglasses, make sure to ask your provider if this protection is included.

Secondly, choose sunglasses with a larger lens to protect your eyes more fully. Sun rays can enter your eyes from any direction, so the more coverage, the better. (Lucky for you, big glasses are cool these days!) It is also a good idea to wear a hat if you are out in the open. When skiing, it is especially critical to wear sun glasses or goggles that provide the full range protection, including from the snow reflecting under your feet.

Thirdly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology also warns that UV rays can pass through clouds, so it is safest to continue wearing your sunglasses when outside during the day, even if the sun is hiding. This is especially true when the sun is highest in the sky, between about 10am and 2pm. (I have not been so good at this one yet, because I don't think of putting on the sunglasses unless my eyes feel irritated by the visible light. I am hoping to make this a new habit.) The same applies to a solar eclipse; while it may not feel bad in the same way as staring directly at the midday sun, it can be just as damaging.

And lastly, the UV rays from tanning beds can also cause eye damage. Tanning beds can produce UV levels up to one hundred times what we receive naturally from the sun. My best advice would be not to engage in indoor tanning at all, since it is known to significantly increase your risk of skin cancer and eye disease. For example, according to "The Skin Cancer Foundation," a study from the International Journal of Cancer found that those who used indoor tanning before the age of 35 had a 75% higher likelihood of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. While the tanning industry has gone to great lengths to state that these claims are false, for your own sake, please believe the scientists who say it is true - they are right. However, if you still plan to hit the salon on occasion, as I know is the reality for many individuals, take adequate precautions to limit the damage to your eyes by wearing polarized tanning goggles. Simply shutting your eyes or putting a towel over them actually does not block out enough UV rays to prevent damage.

Polarized sun glasses are an important aspect of preventative medicine for the eyes. I am happy that I look hip in my new shades (notice my cool lingo now that I have purchased them), but I am even happier that they can be so much more than the latest fashion statement!

Photo Credit:
  • Special thanks to my awesome and beautiful friend, Jen Ko, for letting me use her photo from her fashion blog, "Life Unrefined." She is a talented writer, a fashionable dresser, and an even better person. Her blog's tag line is, "Beauty is Authenticity," and I can say without hesitation that Jen is one of the most authentic and encouraging people I know. Check out her site!
Article Sources:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holiday Gifts that Matter

Not sure what to get your loved ones for the holidays this year? One idea that you may not have considered is donating to a non-profit organization in someone's honor.

For example, if your mother is a teacher, she might appreciate a donation in her honor to an organization that supports education for the underprivileged. Or if your best friend is interested in public health, he may be touched by a contribution to an organization supporting HIV research. Does your loved one value children? Try giving in his or her honor to a non-profit providing food and shelter for orphans. Does your mentor talk a lot about women's rights? Consider providing a micro-loan or giving the gift of livestock to help a woman start a business. The list is endless.

When someone asks me what I want for Christmas, I often feel like I have no need for more stuff to clutter up my life. I have so much already. And I hear this same thing from my parents, relatives, and friends. So this year, try something a little different! And while the huge nonprofits we all know are great, consider searching for a smaller local organization or finding targeted programs within the larger organizations that provide for the specific need that touches your heart.

Here are some of my favorite organizations this year:

The Fistula Foundation
Based in San Jose, CA

This organization helps provide life-changing surgery for women who have suffered from obstetric fistula, a hole between the vaginal wall and the bladder or rectum, which can develop as a result of prolonged obstructed labor. Obstetric fistula is almost never seen in the United States, as a result of advances in emergency obstetric care, but it is all too common in the developing world. For many women living with fistulas, they suffer daily shame as they leak bodily fluids and may even be rejected by their families and communities. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I am certain if you read about it in my July blog post, you will be deeply touched, as well:

CASA of San Mateo County
Based in San Mateo, CA

This organization trains volunteers to be Court Appointed Special Advocates for youth who are in the child welfare system, either due to abuse or criminal activity. A CASA mentors a youth, advocates for his or her needs with other professionals (teachers, social workers, therapists, etc.), and reports to the courts on the best options for the child. I have been volunteering as a CASA for almost two years now, and it has been a tremendous blessing for both myself and the child I mentor. And the good news is that there are CASA programs throughout the country. Please consider supporting this organization that is changing the lives of foster children and struggling youth. And if you feel so inclined, consider becoming a CASA yourself! Read more here:

Agape International Missions
Based in Roseville, CA

Agape International Missions (AIM) is an organization working to end child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Their mission is to fight trafficking, restore victims, and transform communities through a multi-faceted approach. This is also the organization with which Matthew and I volunteered on our trip this summer. We are still working to put together a follow-up letter about all we did there (which will be our Christmas card this year and will also be posted to the blog when complete). We were amazed by the ways lives were being changed, but there is so much still to be done to end this horrible evil. AIM needs your support to continue its transformative work in Cambodia. Learn more about AIM and the months leading up to our trip here:

Samaritan's Purse
Based in Boone, NC

I have been participating in Operation Christmas Child with Samaritan's Purse since I was a child. This program involves filling a shoe box with school supplies, toiletries, and small toys to be given to a child in the developing world. This is a great activity for families to open up dialogue with their children about gratitude for what we have and the importance of giving to those in need. For many of these children, this may be the only holiday gift they ever receive. Many of my friends know that I hoard small toys in my closet all year (based on when they go on super sale) just for this program! This year, I got together with some friends to shop and build our boxes together. In addition, Samaritan's Purse publishes a "Holiday Gift Catalog," with items that Samaritan's Purse will purchase using your donation and will distribute in the developing world to assist with relief work. These gifts each have a suggested donation amount and can be given in someone else's honor. Some examples include emergency medicine ($60), household water filters ($100), milk ($4), mosquito nets ($10), fruit trees ($45), dairy animals ($70), and many more.

These organizations would be a great place to start, but there are also many more in need of your support. If you or a loved one has a passion, chances are someone is helping in that area!

Another idea is to do a family donation pool. In my very large extended family, we used to have a gift exchange where each adult drew the name of another adult and gave that individual a Christmas gift worth approximately $50. In a large family, it can be expensive to exchange gifts with everyone, so this ensured that all members received a gift without having to spend a fortune every year. Of course, this system had flaws. Sometimes "the draw" got rigged by an individual who had a great present idea for someone else. Other times, the gifts were not necessarily something the receiver actually liked. A few years ago, the family decided to change the draw. Now, instead of buying gifts, everyone who wants to participate gives $50 to go towards a charity, and each year, a different family member gets to choose the nonprofit organization that will receive the funds. There are some stipulations that it cannot be a political group or an otherwise "controversial" charity, but it is generally open to go towards any worthy cause. This has resulted in some awesome gifts to great organizations, including the year I was studying abroad (2007), when my aunt decided to designate the gift towards Baca Ortiz Children's Hospital in Quito, Ecuador (which I had told her about back then and which I also wrote about in my blog in March of this year)!

And of course, nothing beats the gift of your time! Consider serving with friends or family this holiday season! This year, my friends and I went to a nursing home and sang Christmas carols with the seniors. (I can't take credit for the idea. It was all thanks to my amazing friend Jen Ko, but I was happy to join along!) It was such a hit that our thirty minutes of prepared carols turned into fifty minutes, with the last twenty being special requests for favorite songs. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to the residents while doing crafts. So many of them expressed how much they appreciated our visit and wanted us to come back. The staff also told us that some of the residents who could not get out of bed were enjoying listening from their rooms across the hall. As a result, we are thinking about making our visits a regular occurrence, maybe once every few months.

Caroling with Seniors: My friends on the piano,
playing guitar, and singing throughout the room.

For another example, SF City Impact will be delivering 5,000 hot meals and serving 300 sit-down Christmas dinners to the poor in the Tenderloin on December 15. They will also be hosting a Christmas block party that involves that same number of meals on Christmas day. Each event is made possible by 500 volunteers in 26 positions! What an awesome way to love those in need and to build deeper relationships with your own loved ones while doing it!

Some other serving ideas I have seen implemented in my community are: writing Christmas cards to people who otherwise would receive none, baking cookies for prisoners, throwing a teacher-appreciation party for your local school, serving a meal at a local shelter, praying for those who are hurting, sorting cans at the food bank, inviting an international friend or coworker to your holiday celebrations, sending a package to our troops overseas, and the list goes on.

It is clear that I definitely advocate serving personally and donating in a loved one's honor for Christmas. One thing to keep in mind throughout the rest of the year, however, is that many charitable organizations see a surge of giving in December, but are lacking feet on the ground and are struggling for funds during other critical times (especially during the summer months). While it is important and meaningful to budget for holiday gifts, I would also urge you to plan recurrent serving opportunities and to consider setting aside a monthly giving amount as part of your regular budget to support these organizations year-round! With the New Year coming, it is a perfect time to revisit your schedules and monthly expenses, so that you can plan ahead to bless others regularly, as you are able.

He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  ~Micah 6:8

Note: All images are directly from each organization's website, except for the photo of Christmas caroling, which was taken by my friend, Jennifer Ko.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Einstein's Brain

CREDIT: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012
National Museum of Health and Medicine
Recently, there have been several news reports about Einstein's brain, due to newly uncovered photographs released on November 16 in the journal, "Brain." Apparently, scientists believe the more ridges and valleys a brain has, the more surface area it contains for neurons. This may be an important facet of an individual's potential to be a "genius," and Einstein's brain has an especially complicated topography.

Einstein's brain is said to have thicker gray matter (tied to conscious thought), more complex folds in the prefrontal cortex (used for abstract thought and planning), extra folds in the occipital lobes (related to visual processing), and asymmetrical right and left parietal lobes (key for spacial and mathematical reasoning). His right parietal lobe even has a rare extra fold, which gave him a significant inborn advantage, according to Sandra Witelson at McMaster University. For a good summary, check out this video on CNN:
Click the image above to open the CNN video in a new tab.

Yet scientists believe the brain is not a fixed organ - it can be changed for the better through choices to learn new things, actively engaging with mental challenges, playing memory games, participating in the arts, and a wide range of other activities that engage various regions of the brain and essentially grow the mind. Of course, the brain can also be harmed by trauma, drug and alcohol use, tobacco, etc. (I'm not sure if television really kills brain cells, as parents like to say, but hey, you never know!) Although the science community has made tremendous strides in understanding the human brain over the last few decades, there is so much left unknown about this complex and mysterious organ. Most likely, brain development and the shape of an individual's adult brain is based on a combination of the brain's shape at birth and the usage/thinking/experiences actively put into its development.

CREDIT: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012
National Museum of Health and Medicine
According to Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University, "It was both nature and nurture. [Einstein] was born with a very good brain, and he had the kinds of experiences that allowed him to develop the potential he had."

Maybe there is hope for me yet! Mensa, here I come!