On Neuroscience and Everyday Life:
Peggy Mason, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago, is teaching a free MOOC starting April 28,2014, called Understand the Human Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life, offered on the Coursera platform. Charlie Chung from Class Central talked with her via webchat about neuroscience and her MOOC. Consider some well-known “facts” about the brain:
- We only use about 10% of our brains
- People are predominantly “left-brained” or “right-brained”
- People have a strong learning style preference: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic
- We have a limited number of brain cells at birth, and new cells do not get generated
The only problem is that these “facts” are not true. They are all examples of “neuromyths,” popular misconceptions about the brain that still persist among the general public. Some of them have been so ingrained that the OECD has published a list of neuromyths to try to dispel them. These myths can limit the way we view ourselves, and also prevent us from accepting newer research findings. Here are some examples with respect to the four neuromyths listed above:
- There is a lot of work in psychology about utilizing expertise and ‘gut instinct’, which is not compatible with a ‘10% brain use’ view.
- We are starting to emphasize the role of creativity in analytical endeavors (e.g. scientific discovery), which doesn’t fit with a left- and right-brain paradigm.
- In schools, the design of engaging multi-sensory learning experiences is still taking over in some places from having separate tracks for geared for each sensory learning type.
- Recent findings about neurogenesis and the plasticity of the brain encourages lifelong learning in a way that the declining brain paradigm doesn’t.
Thus, how we think about the brain can really affect our approach to many aspects of lives.
Who is in a position to judge?
These and other neuromyths are not like urban legends, started by some clever individual as pure fiction–they are based on earlier facts that scientists observed about the brain. Early scans showed only localized activity, thus it seemed that we did not use much of our brains. Some areas of the brain related to language are usually in the left hemisphere, thus there was support for a left/right brain hypothesis. But now we see that many more parts of the brain are interconnected than we realized, even across hemispheres. All this brings us to an important question: how can we ensure that we are interpreting findings correctly and not being misled by newer neuromyths?
In the past, we could rely on highly-respected sources to act as arbiters for us. However, now there is a huge amount of research being conducted and new findings are being published all the time. Given this torrent of information, instead of having a few gatekeepers, a better approach is for those interested to ground themselves in the basics of the subject and play a more active role in keeping up with results in the context of the existing body of knowledge. As Prof. Mason says:
“Studies have limitations. It is just as important to understand those limitations as it is to understand the motivation and the findings. What you see as the correct interpretation and what you see as the correct limitation, that’s a little bit of a personal flavor. What I would prefer to do is to give people the tools to make their own decisions.”
How do you get the foundation of knowledge to be able to be a savvy consumer of information about the brain? That’s where Prof. Mason’s MOOC comes in–it is geared for the general public and provides a strong foundational understanding of the brain.
What we know about the brain
With the advent of imaging techniques over the past few decades, our knowledge of the brain has been accumulating rapidly. “We have a first level of understanding of most of what we do” says Prof. Mason. Fascinating as it is for its own sake, understanding how brains function can help us better understand everyday situations, such as attention, multi-tasking (don’t text and drive!), and learning. One direct application is a promising new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by de-emotionalizing the triggers of that event, based on an understanding of how emotion influences memory formation.
There are also new frontiers and controversial areas of research. Take Prof. Mason’s own recent work on empathy in rats, which has received quite a bit of media attention: her lab published findings that seem to demonstrate empathy behaviors in rats, which supports a biological basis for empathy. Through a series of well-designed experiments (as summarized in this short video), they found that rats helped other trapped rats that were either the same breed, or of a breed that they had socialized with. You might guess that these results could stir some controversy (besides possibly causing us to realize that we are underestimating rats). For Prof. Mason, social neuroscience is one of the fascinating frontiers of the field:
We have considered the individual for 100 years. No man is an island…social animals don’t act as individuals. It’s complicated. In a time when we remain mired in interpersonal conflict and the inability to get along and work together, what else could be more important?
But this is just one area among many where neuroscience is providing new insights. The field is in a fruitful stage where a lot of the basics can be explained, and some light is being shed on a lot of more complex, interesting questions. Thus, it’s a good time to hop on, learn some basics about the field, and then keep up with exciting new developments.
About the MOOC
Prof. Mason’s MOOC has three main modules: neuroanatomy, neural communication, and neural systems. In each module, disorders pertaining to each of these areas will be covered so that you gain an understanding of the the basis for trauma, nerve injury, strokes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions.
Going through the whole course and tackling these modules progressively seems like a great way to build a base understanding of the brain. But if you are only interested in a specific topic area within the course, Prof. Mason has designed the modules to be self-contained so that people can still learn a great deal from them. The MOOC will also cover current topics based on student interests. Participants can post current news topics, and the most popular items will be discussed (for example, a timely topic could be Phillip Seymour Hoffman and drug addiction). The goal will be to get more information about the brain into the public’s hands. As Prof. Mason says:
“I don’t think the general public is as knowledgeable as they want to be. I think they want it available to them in accessible terms and [in a way that makes] them excited. My real goal here is to show people that they can look at their lives and they can look at each other, and they can see the brain at work, they can see the brain operating.”
You can sign up for Peggy Mason’s MOOC Understand the Human Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life which starts April 28, 2014.