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More than Meets the Eye: Dr. Len White on Perception and the Brain

The brain is fascinating, and though we know so much, there is much more that is still unknown.

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There have been good optical “illusions” you can perceive in different ways (known as ‘multistable perceptual phenomena’, such as these), but nothing has been as startling as “the dress”, which caught the public’s attention in February, and was tweeted over 10 million times. It is is also unique, because people generally cannot switch between the two perceptions: white-and-gold or blue-and-black. Why is this?

Media naturally looked to neuroscientists for an explanation, and though a plausible explanation has been proposed, having to do with individual differences in the number/types of retinal cones cells people have, remarkably, there is not yet a definite answer! Professor Leonard White, Associate Professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, and the Director of Education for the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, is upfront about this:

“It is both entertaining and mystifying. I think the most honest explanation is that no one truly knows…we simply don’t have the evidence in hand. This shows we still know so very little about color vision.” 

“The brain is one of the most fascinating topics we can possibly teach on” 

Not that people need more convincing how remarkable the brain is, as advances in neuroscience are providing insights across a wide range of fields, including psychology, economics, and even philosophy. “In our field,” Prof. White says, “we take advantage of the fact that the brain is one of the most fascinating topics that we can possibly teach on”. He teaches Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action on Coursera, which just started.

Helping More Brains Study the Brain

Professor White’s first course session was two years ago. The course had a narrow focus, as it was closely modeled on his campus class on medical neuroscience, for first year grad students in the health professions. To his surprise, by the third session, a combined 150,000 people had enrolled in the course–by way of comparison, there were about 85,000 medical students in the U.S. in 2014.

The makeup of the course was also surprising: there were students in health programs who did not have a solid neuroscience course available to them (expected), and there were medical professionals who wanted to go back and review foundational content (unexpected). Some learners were experts in specialty areas, and would contribute their knowledge, enhancing the learning for students and teacher alike. Prof. White reflects on the experience:

“It has been an education for me to be learning together with this global community. People from all over the world have been posting different links and resources and connections that have provided us all the opportunity to learn more deeply.” 

A New Specialization on Studying Perception

Now Prof. White’s course is part of a new Coursera Specialization, Perception, Action, and the Brain, which consists of his course, The Brain and Space led by Dr. Jennifer Groh, and Visual Perception and the Brain led by Dr. Dale Purves, along with a final project. Prof. White envisions three types of learners that may be interested in pursuing this Specialization, as he explains in the video below:

Prof. White is fully aware however, based on his prior experience, that completely different types of learners may be interested in this Specialization. Since learners will have diverse goals, they can choose between different types of final projects: creating a research proposal, writing a popular press article, or creating a virtual or real-world demonstration. Prof. White is excited to see the these projects, as he was astonished by the creativity of learners in his MOOCs and he adopted a motto: “never underestimate the creativity of the learner.”

The Potential of Online Brain Education

Prof. White started out creating a MOOC with the goal of improving his on campus class through developing a strong video library, but it turned into much more. It broke his preconceived notions of what an online course could do. For example, 20,000 of the 150,000 who enrolled for his course joined it after it was over, thus using the archived course like a digital textbook. Some of them even took quizzes and exams, showing that people will put in effort solely for the sake of their own learning.

As an expert on the human brain, Prof. White is optimistic on the future of online learning:

“I think we have tremendous opportunity to increase access, to reduce costs and to design educational experiences that take advantage of what we’re learning about neuroscience and cognitive science.” 

“Learners don’t enjoy being a fly on the wall” 

Prof. White agrees that some things are better done in person, but also that the digital medium allows us to do some things better. When online learners take quizzes or do assignments, for example, they may be presented with questions and get feedback on whether their answers were correct–though not as good as a personal tutor, this can beat a passive classroom group experience. A key component of most MOOCs are video lectures made specifically for the online audience. Dr. White explains: “I think one thing we’ve learned from cognitive science is that learners don’t enjoy being a fly on the wall of someone else’s lecture.”

Teaching online has also been personally gratifying for Prof. White, and he still receives periodic messages and (physical) mail from learners from different parts of the world, expressing gratitude. The need uncovered by his course also led to new opportunities to expand educational access. He is currently working with medical training groups in Vietnam and Africa that don’t have the resources to hire a neuroscientist. By leveraging the course materials, and having prepared teaching staff, they can access to high-quality content that would previously have been out of reach.

That is a major evolution of Dr. White’s initial modest goal of creating  high quality videos to enhance his campus class in Durham, North Carolina. The human brain has the same amazing properties in people all over the world. Thus, it only seems right to try to give as many people as possible a good opportunity to study it.

If you are interested in finding out more about perception and the brain, or just want to talk more about the dress, you can check out the Perception, Action, and the Brain Specialization, and you can still sign up for Prof. White’s course, Foundational Neuroscience for Perception and Action.

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