Beyond the Headlines

Take a closer look at the human brain
Register now:
October 31, 2016 - December 11, 2016
The Brain: Structure, Function and Evolution, Climate Change, Evolution, The Diversity of Fishes, Genetics, Genomics, Genethics, The Ocean System, The Solar System
See the full calendar.

Authoring Scientists

Rob DeSalle
Dr. DeSalle is curator in the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology.

About the Course

The human brain is an enormously complex system. It regulates all of our physical and mental functions and shapes who we are. This six-week course explores this remarkable organ: how it has evolved, how it works and how it changes over the course of our lives. Each week participants will draw from essays, media resources, textbook readings and online discussion forums to explore aspects of brain function - from sensing to decision-making to expressing ourselves. A weekly case study, written by a specialized neuroscientist, will describe cutting-edge research in areas as wide-ranging as functional MRIs as a diagnostic tool, the neurology of hearing and the evolution of mammalian brains. Students will complete the course with a solid grasp of how the brain works, how we know what we know and the exciting research prospects ahead. Read more.

Key Science Concepts

Signals are transmitted along nerve cells at amazingly fast rates by electrical impulses called action potentials. The arrangement of nerves can be mapped to give a picture of the anatomy of the brain and nervous system.

Our senses of taste and smell involve the conversion of chemical signals into neuronal impulses, while sight, hearing, and touch convert energy from light, sound waves, or physical pressure respectively, into impulses that travel to specific regions of the brain where they are interpreted.

Long-term and short-term memory involves vastly different parts of the brain and also play a part in how we express emotions. The expression of emotions is an evolutionary phenomenon that is strongly associated with the limbic system.

Language involves the coordination of several brain regions, such as Broca’s Area, which is involved in the production of speech and Wernicke’s Area, which plays a role in the comprehension of language. Split-brain studies have helped elucidate specific left and right brain functions.

While the number of neurons in our brains is essentially fixed at birth, the number of connections between them grows over the course of our lives. Late in life, certain cognitive abilities typically decline, while others typically increase. Physical and mental activities can help compensate for this decline.

Brain size increased independently in at least three different lineages of the genus Homo, including our own lineage, H. sapiens. The first signs of symbolic behaviors are seen well after the evolution of anatomically modern humans, suggesting that the development of symbolic reasoning may have been spurred by cultural stimuli.

Course Textbooks

The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs
Author: Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall
Publisher: Yale University Press
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 0300175221
Buy online: Amazon

Graduate Credit

This course is approved for graduate credit and continuing education units from leading institutions at an additional cost. Read more.

Adams State UniversityCity University of New YorkFramingham State UniversityHamline UniversityNorthwest Missouri State University

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