Mayim Bialik's Big Brain Theory

From the WebMD Archives

It's probably safe to say that only one top-rated television show has a real neuroscientist -- not just someone who plays one on TV. For the past 7 years, Mayim Bialik has starred as neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon Cooper's "friend who's a girl, but not a girlfriend" (except now she is) on The Big Bang Theory, one of the highest-rated comedies on television.

But playing a scientist on TV isn't much of a stretch for Bialik, who earned a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2008.

Now the Emmy-nominated actor brings that brain science to a new book for girls going through tween and teen changes. Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart, and Spectacular, out this month, uses kid-friendly insights about how the brain and body are linked to give girl-to-girl advice. It's about everything from periods and body image to the ups and downs of friendships, first kisses, and budding sexuality. For young readers, it's sort of like having a grown-up version of Blossom -- Bialik's popular TV character from the 1990s -- plop down next to you on your bed and give you the straight scoop about what's going on in your life.

Grateful to Be a Late Bloomer

The book comes from a piece Bialik wrote for her website, GrokNation -- named after the verb meaning to understand something by instinct or empathy. It's about what it's like to be a sexual "late bloomer" and play one on TV (after the episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Amy and Sheldon become intimate for the first time).

"I knew that lots of people had sex well before marriage, and I was the kid and teenager who just stayed confused about that for most of my young life," Bialik wrote. "I was a very late bloomer, and I felt a lot of shame about that. Now that I am a grownup, I am grateful I was a late bloomer. It protected me from a lot, and if I could do my teen and young adult years again, I would not change a thing."

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Bialik's editor asked if she'd like to write a book about sexuality from that point of view. But Bialik, who also wrote Beyond the Sling and Mayim's Vegan Table, was thinking bigger. "I proposed that we cover more than just sex or dating. I wanted to write a full exploration of what it's like to grow from a girl to a woman, from a neurological and psychological perspective. I had an early medical book for kids teaching about how we grow and how our bodies work, and that was the inspiration for my book."

This angle is a great way to help girls understand what's going on as they grow physically and mentally, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership. It's a book designed to strengthen middle-school girls' self- and body esteem.

"When I work with girls, particularly when I talk about their social/emotional intelligence, I always include neuroscience, because it's so important for girls and for parents to understand their own wiring and what's happening in their brains," says Steiner-Adair, who's a clinical psychologist. "Reflective practices like these help girls -- all kids, of course -- really understand how they can better handle the challenges of growing up."

For example, as Bialik explains in the chapter titled "How We Love," when you start to get romantic feelings for someone, "the nervous system is sending information to the body to indicate that there is excitement going on. When that happens, adrenaline (a hormone) is sent out from the brain to increase heart rate and blood flow -- that's responsible for the blushing, rapidly beating heart, and sweating.

"The 'out-of-it' feeling is caused by a sort of overload that the brain experiences when there is a lot of exciting input happening at once. If we're focusing on someone's beautiful clear blue eyes or their adorable freckles, our brain sometimes has a hard time also managing to multiply fractions or remember who was the prime minister of France in 1879."

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From 'Blossom' to STEM

Bialik praises writers on The Big Bang Theory for creating a character like Amy -- a brilliant, offbeat woman who isn't a traditional "romantic lead" but still has a romantic storyline. "They wanted her to be not androgynous, but not sexual," she says. "Sheldon falls in love with her because of her. I think it's important to highlight that there are different kinds of females and different ways to be a woman, which is an important message for girls, and something I talk about in the book."

Bialik has pushed hard for girls to go after careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), filming a series of videos for PBS's Nova series The Secret Life of Scientists, and visiting schools with Texas Instruments (the maker of her favorite calculator) as a spokeswoman for TI Education Technology. Bialik also took part in an education event with the cancer center City of Hope last fall.

But she confesses she was a "late bloomer" as a scientist herself -- in part because of outdated beliefs about girls and science.

"I was raised by English teachers with a real love for being intellectually involved, but I always thought science and math were for boys," she says. "All the boys said so! They were subjects that did not come smoothly to me, so I assumed that I just wasn't smart in those areas. It wasn't until high school, when I was on Blossom, that I had a biology teacher who really taught me a love of science. Working one-on-one with a female mentor who was so passionate about the sciences really inspired me."

After getting her PhD, Bialik decided not to do further studies so she could stay at home with her children, Miles, who is now 11 (and reviewed Girling Up to make sure Mom got the language right), and Frederick, now 8. "I had my first son while I was in graduate school, and I got pregnant with my second son right after I filed my thesis," she says. "So for about 5 years, I raised my kids, and I taught Hebrew and piano, neuroscience, and biology in the homeschool community here in Los Angeles."

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Bialik returned to acting, at least in part, for very practical reasons: "We were running out of health insurance. I figured if I could get a couple of jobs here and there, I could take care of my family. I was not planning on being cast full-time in the most popular comedy in America!"

Although Bialik and her husband, Michael Stone, divorced in 2012 after 9 years of marriage, they still celebrate holidays together and are close to one another's families. "I think I talk to my mother-in-law more than my husband does," she says. "It took a lot of work individually and together to describe to ourselves what it would look like to put our kids' needs first. It works well for our boys -- they're not confused. They know we're not getting back together. We're all focused on what the children need."

Standing Up For Mental Health

In 2016, Bialik partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to do public service announcements for its #StigmaFree campaign, aimed at rejecting myths about mental illness and encouraging people to see the person first, not the mental health condition.

The issue is personal. "There's suicide in my family -- actually, my family history includes depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder. You name it, and it's in my family somewhere," she says. "So I am a direct recipient of NAMI's services. I used to attend their support groups, and they provided a lot of help when my family member was ill."

She made sure to give attention to that topic in Girling Up as well. "I have a whole chapter devoted to the difficult things in life: major stressors, unusual events, what symptoms spell depression vs. those that spell grief. I feel really passionately about educating young people about this -- it's so important that we talk about it."

Besides the book and her intense filming schedule for The Big Bang Theory, Bialik has plenty of other plans. "GrokNation takes up a lot of my time and energy, and I'm hoping to make that more of a charity platform," she says. "I'd love to do other acting work for sure -- I would love to be in a movie. And the rest of the time, I'm pleasantly governed by whatever my two children need."

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How to Be #StigmaFree

Bialik uses her fame to speak out about mental health issues, but you don't have to be on TV to make a difference. About one in five adults has some type of mental illness in a given year. Even though it's common, many people don't want to talk about it, and negative stereotypes about mental illness can make people more isolated and afraid to try to get help. Here are three easy, but important, steps you can take to fight mental health stigma:

Educate yourself and others. "When you're talking about changing behaviors for a condition that has been so historically shrouded in misunderstanding, the first step is learning," says Katrina Gay, communications director for NAMI. Find out more about mental health conditions and how to support friends and loved ones at NAMI.org.

Try to see the person first, not the condition. If your friend has diabetes or asthma, you don't think of that condition as defining them. The same should be true of depression or schizophrenia. Avoid using stigmatizing terms when referring to people with mental illness, like "crazy," "wacko," or "nutjob."

Speak out and get involved. "May is mental health month, so it's a great time to start the conversation," says Gay. "Participate in a NAMI walk or another mental health awareness walk or event, or speak out on social media to show that this cause is important to you."

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 10, 2017

Sources

Mayim Bialik, actor, interview, March 2017.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Mental Health Facts in America."

Katrina Gay, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

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