Course: The Brain and Space
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Jennifer M. Groh
Quote:Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember.
[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]
How do we know where we are? How do we know where to look when we hear a sound? How do we scratch the right place when we have an itch? I took this course to find out; I had no idea it was so complicated. In fact, the more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we’re able to feed ourselves without stabbing our eyes out.
There’s a great deal of material here: everything from neuron potentials to how we determine where sounds come from, memory, and navigation. I found several lectures to be of special interest to me: the historical development of our understanding of sight, for instance, though that was more introduction material. Leave it to me to fixate on the most humanities-oriented part of a science class. Likewise, I was fascinated to find out that reading a word like “cat” might cause neurons to fire that indicate we connect the word with petting a cat, hearing the cat purr, or seeing a cat. As a (former) cat person, I know I can almost feel myself petting one of my departed girls when talk turns to cats; I had no idea it was a real neurological thing. I thought I was just… weird. I also found the lectures on meters vs maps to be of special interest, as it gets into how we have to translate one kind of system to another. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we manage to get anything done at all.
Lots of examples and demonstration of concepts were included: a bean-bag toss showed how we learn our physical relationship to space (“limb by limb”), and we listened to a cat’s neuron – a single neuron – fire as various visual stimuli were placed in its visual field (and, no, I don’t want to think about how that was done… shame on me, my dear departed kitties are probably very disappointed in me right now). As a nice little bow on this package, as I was finishing up the last week, Numberphile released a video about the various paths we use to store the words for numbers in our brains. Given my difficulty with math, I keep hoping I’ll find a way to leapfrog over whatever my problem is; I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but it’s an interesting notion anyway, and tied in nicely with this course.
The material was all released at once, in another of those scheduled/self-paced hybrids (it’s still running as I type this, in fact). I completed the six weeks of lectures in less than a month, though I wasn’t in any particular hurry; I just kept coming back to it. In standard MOOC fashion, each week’s lectures were followed by a multiple choice quiz with two attempts.
I didn’t have high expectations for this course – I’d found the first one less than enthralling – but it snuck up on me, and I quite enjoyed it. In addition to interesting material, I kept running into little touches I truly enjoyed. Silly things, not that relevant to the subject matter – like the “eye movement hat”, a sort of jester’s cap with eyeballs instead of bells, that was not only worn during discussions of eye movements, but kept showing up on different walls in the office. Music that was part of the acoustic processing material, and it turns out Dr. Groh plays the banjo, which might account for the instrumentals closing out some of the videos. But on one memorable occasion, a video ended with Dan Reeder (a rather crazy singer/songwriter who comes up with some… pretty odd lyrics sometimes) singing “The Brain is Not The Mind.” Three day earworm, that. Uh oh, there it goes again. Come to think of it, that would be a fun unit for a brain MOOC: the mechanism of earworms.
This is one of three courses, plus a capstone project, that are part of the specialization program called Neuroscience: Perception, Action, and The Brain. I’d already taken one of the courses (Visual Perception and the Brain). I have no interest in specialization programs – they cost money, for one thing, and I have no need of credentials in any case – but I’m generally interested in the brain, and I’d already taken one of the other courses, so I thought I’d take a look. Turned out to be a good thing.