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Understanding the Brain

Understanding the Brain

Professor Jeanette Norden Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Course No.  1580
Course No.  1580
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Everything that goes on inside your body and every interaction you have with the outside world is controlled by your brain. It allows you to cope masterfully with your everyday environment. It is capable of producing breathtaking athletic feats, sublime works of art, and profound scientific insights. It also produces the enormous range of emotional responses that can take us from the depths of depression to the heights of euphoria.

Considering everything the brain does, how can this relatively small mass of tissue possibly be the source of our personalities, dreams, thoughts, sensations, utterances, and movements?

Understanding the Brain

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Everything that goes on inside your body and every interaction you have with the outside world is controlled by your brain. It allows you to cope masterfully with your everyday environment. It is capable of producing breathtaking athletic feats, sublime works of art, and profound scientific insights. It also produces the enormous range of emotional responses that can take us from the depths of depression to the heights of euphoria.

Considering everything the brain does, how can this relatively small mass of tissue possibly be the source of our personalities, dreams, thoughts, sensations, utterances, and movements?

Understanding the Brain, a 36-lecture course by award-winning Professor Jeanette Norden of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, takes you inside this astonishingly complex organ and shows you how it works, from the gross level of its organization to the molecular level of how cells in the brain communicate. With its combination of neurology, biology, and psychology, this course will help you understand how we perceive the world through our senses, how we move, how we learn and remember, and how emotions affect our thoughts and actions.

Solving the Mystery of the Brain

The ancient Egyptians discarded the brain during mummification while carefully preserving other organs; to them, the brain was of no importance. Starting with the Greek physician Hippocrates, however, observers began tracing more and more of our sensory, nervous, and intellectual activities to the brain—and eventually to specific regions of the brain.

The brain is still a mystery in many respects—for example, we still are unsure as to how consciousness is generated—but recent decades have seen unparalleled advances in understanding how the brain does what it does. In the last 50 years, an explosion of knowledge about the brain's structure and function has occurred. Scientists have performed amazing research by using tools such as MRIs and PET scanning to get a better grasp on deciphering the mysteries of how this important organ works.

Due to these technological advances, we can now pinpoint:

  • where light that enters the eye is converted into the subjective experience of sight
  • where pressure waves that reach the ear are processed into sound
  • where fear is generated
  • which areas of the brain are involved in spoken and written language
  • where the deep chemistry of love is kindled

What You Will Learn

Understanding the Brain provides you with an in-depth view of the inner workings of your brain. Your tour starts with the organization of the central nervous system at the gross, cellular, and molecular levels, then investigates in detail how the brain accomplishes a host of tasks—from seeing and sleeping to performing music and constructing a personal identity.

  • The Structure of the Brain: Lectures 1–11 cover the cellular structure and the overall layout of this intricate organ. You learn how the brain develops during gestation, and are introduced to the technical vocabulary that you will use throughout the course.
  • Brain and Mind: Lectures 12–19 explore how the brain and mind are thought to be related by examining the sensory functions of sight, hearing, and bodily sensation. You analyze the motor system, which governs how movement is initiated and coordinated, and explore Parkinson's disease and its progressive impairment of movement.
  • Higher-Order Cognitive Functions: Lectures 20–29 discuss the areas of the brain thought to be responsible for language, emotion, executive function, and cognition—abilities that, in large part, define us as humans. You look at the underlying neurological mechanisms and explore their role in various phenomena like depression, musical ability and appreciation, and drug use.
  • Special Topics: Lectures 30–36 look at several subjects of universal interest. Are the brains of males and females different? How does the brain regulate sleep and dreaming? What is consciousness? And how can you understand the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

Our insights into the functioning of the brain often come from cases where something has gone wrong, such as strokes, tumors, injuries, neurological diseases, and mental illnesses—pathologies that vividly demonstrate the distinct roles played by the various affected regions. An expert neuroscientist, Dr. Norden provides a fascinating presentation of these cases.

Know Your Mind

We now know that something important is always going on inside our brain and, as Understanding the Brain illustrates, if you know what to look for, you can observe specific aspects of your own brain in action:

  • Vision: The "now you see it, now you don't" feeling you get when you see an illusion is your brain trying to interpret raw data from the eyes. Far from taking a picture of the world and sending it to the brain, the eyes actually transmit very little information; "seeing" is a creation of the brain.
  • Thought: Sometimes, you can have trouble thinking after taking an antihistamine. This is because antihistamines do not just combat the effects of an allergy, they also block histamine as a neurotransmitter in the brain, altering your ability to think and process information.
  • Motor skills: When you learn how to walk, ride a bicycle, knit, dance, or perform some other motor skill, you reach a point where all of a sudden you are able to coordinate the new movement. That is because specialized neurons in your brain's cerebellum are now firing in sequence.
  • Emotion and memory: Think about doing your taxes. Does that thought elicit a particular emotion? We do not just remember something; our memories are colored with emotion. All of our experiences are influenced by previous experiences through complex loops in the brain's limbic system.
  • Social bonding: Your feeling of well-being with your spouse or friends has a neurochemical basis. The neurotransmitter oxytocin is found in very high concentrations in the limbic systems of animals that bond socially.
  • Consciousness: Sometimes, you can arrive at work with very little memory of the details of your journey; obviously you were not unconscious, but you were not fully aware either. This occurs when your brain is in "autopilot" mode—where it was in control without your being conscious of all that was happening around you.

Appreciate the Wonder of the Brain

As a researcher, Dr. Norden has participated in an ongoing scientific revolution. She is also a nationally recognized educator, singled out as one of the most effective teachers in America in What the Best College Teachers Do. Among Dr. Norden's special qualities cited in the book is this simple, but highly effective, approach to teaching: "Before she begins the first class in any semester, she thinks about the awe and excitement she felt the first time anyone explained the brain to her, and she considers how she can help her students achieve that same feeling."

You can share her consuming passion for the intricacies of the brain in this lively and engaging course, which Dr. Norden has designed specifically for those without a background in science. "All you need to bring is your own brain and a desire to learn," she says.

Thus equipped, you will explore a broad range of exciting topics in neuroscience. Above all, you will come away from Understanding the Brain with a deeper knowledge of how the brain is organized—and a feeling of wonder and appreciation for all that it accomplishes.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Historical Underpinnings of Neuroscience
    Our picture of the brain has changed markedly since antiquity, when it was considered an organ of minor importance. This lecture traces the major paradigm shifts in our understanding of the brain and the contributions of such pioneers as Leonardo da Vinci, René Descartes, and Thomas Willis, the "father of neurology." x
  • 2
    Central Nervous System—Gross Organization
    This lecture covers the overall organization of the brain and spinal cord and defines important terms and concepts, focusing on areas of the central nervous system that can be viewed from the outside. Neuroanatomists divide the brain into five major regions from rostral (front) to caudal (back). x
  • 3
    Central Nervous System—Internal Organization
    We examine how the central nervous system is organized internally, starting with the basic unit: the nerve cell or neuron. The brain and spinal cord are made up of concentrations of neuronal cell bodies called nuclei (gray matter) and bundles of axons coursing between them (white matter). x
  • 4
    Central Nervous System—Subdivisions
    The hundreds of nuclei in the brain can be grouped into specialized systems for sensation, learning, memory, and other functions. Regions of white matter can also be subdivided into functional types; for example, projection pathways connect different areas, like the motor cortex and the spinal cord. x
  • 5
    Cortex—Lobes and Areas
    The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neurons or "bark" covering the brain. Considered the seat of the mind, it is where cognition and other higher-order functions such as language, intellect, and memory take place. The cortex can be divided into four lobes, each comprised of areas that are associated with specific functions. x
  • 6
    Cortex—Sensory, Motor, and Association Areas
    This lecture introduces the traditional and modern classification of sensory, motor, and association cortex. One of the crucial discoveries of the past 40 years is that much of what was previously called association cortex is actually sensory in function. For example, there are many more cortical areas devoted to vision than previously thought. x
  • 7
    Central Nervous System—Development
    We investigate how the brain's subdivisions and different cell types are generated during the remarkable process of development. From a few cells, a human brain forms that is capable of regulating the function of all the other organs as well as producing a theory of relativity or appreciating Bach. x
  • 8
    Central Nervous System—Cellular Organization
    This lecture focuses on the structural and functional differences between the two main types of cells in the central nervous system: neurons and glial cells. The name glia ("glue") derives from the historical view that glia simply hold the brain together, but modern neuroscience has revealed that these cells have many other functions. There are about 100 billion neurons and 10 to 100 times that many glial cells in the brain. x
  • 9
    Pathways and Synapses
    Unlike most cells in the body, neurons are designed to receive and transmit information. How do they do it? The critical factor is the internal and external environment of neurons, where changes in the distribution of ions (charged atoms) act as a signaling mechanism for encoding and transmitting information. x
  • 10
    Neurotransmitters
    Neurotransmitters are specialized chemical messengers that signal activity from one neuron to another. More than 60 neurotransmitters/neuromodulators have been identified, including simple amino acids like glutamate; enkephalins and endorphins, which are involved in the processing of pain; and dopamine, which plays a role in reward and addiction. x
  • 11
    Stroke
    This lecture uses the damage caused by stroke to review material covered up to this point in the course. By understanding the organization of the brain and its blood supply, we can predict which functions will be lost or affected after a stroke impairs the blood flow to specific regions of the brain. x
  • 12
    The Visual System—The Eye
    This lecture investigates how the eye works in concert with the brain. Far from taking a picture of the external world, the eye actually transmits information primarily about edges and contrast to the brain. From this limited input, the brain constructs the visual world we experience in all its complexity and detail. x
  • 13
    The Visual System—The Cortex
    We trace pathways from the retina of the eye to different areas in the cortex, where functions such as face recognition and color perception take place. Color is a fascinating example of how "seeing" is a mental construct; color is not a property of objects in the world but rather a consequence of brain processes. x
  • 14
    The Auditory System
    Like seeing, hearing is a construction of the brain. This lecture discusses how the ear converts pressure waves in the air into electrical signals that travel to the auditory areas of the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. We don't just "hear" sounds; we apply meaning to them, as in our processing of language. x
  • 15
    The Somatosensory System
    The somatosensory system gives us information not only about the immediate external world but also about our own bodies. From receptors in our skin, joints, and other parts of our bodies, parallel pathways transmit information that we experience as the senses of touch, pain, temperature, and proprioception (awareness of where our limbs are). x
  • 16
    Agnosias
    Agnosia ("without knowledge") is the inability of individuals to recognize some aspect of their sensory experience because of lesions in the brain. This lecture concentrates on visual agnosias, where an individual who can see loses some specific knowledge related to vision, such as the ability to identify faces or to distinguish between stationary and moving objects. x
  • 17
    The Motor System—Voluntary Movement
    Not only do we experience the world, we move around in it. This lecture covers the pathways and brain areas that allow us to make voluntary movements of the body. The motor system is divided into pyramidal, extrapyramidal, and cerebellar subsystems, which work together in normal movement. x
  • 18
    The Motor System—Coordinated Movement
    Coordination of movement, especially learned, skilled motor movement, is largely under the control of the cerebellum. This "little cerebrum" allows for the proper timing and execution of movement and for the correction of errors during ongoing movement. We could not walk, play, or dance without a cerebellum. x
  • 19
    Parkinson's Disease
    Parkinson's disease arises when neurons are lost from a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra. This removes a major source of input to forebrain structures involved in regulating movement. This lecture covers signs, symptoms, and treatments of this disorder. x
  • 20
    Language
    The ability to communicate symbolically through language is thought to be unique to our species. Language involves both higher-order sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex. Even though written language is an invention, specific areas in the brain underlie this ability as well. x
  • 21
    The Limbic System—Anatomy
    The limbic system represents a large number of interconnected nuclei that together allow for learning, memory, emotion, and executive function. Its importance is dramatically illustrated by the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker in the 1840s whose personality was completely altered by a frontal lobe injury involving part of the limbic system. x
  • 22
    The Limbic System—Biochemistry
    This lecture discusses some of the neurotransmitters that are critical in the normal functioning of the limbic system circuits. Damage to this system can cause the delicate balance of excitation and inhibition to be disrupted. Such imbalances are believed to underlie many mental disorders such as depression. x
  • 23
    Depression
    Depression is a scourge of modern societies. This lecture focuses on unipolar depression, a central nervous system disorder that has known anatomical and biochemical correlates. We also investigate how the three major classes of antidepressants work and what led to the development of designer antidepressant drugs, such as Prozac. x
  • 24
    The Reward System—Anatomy
    All humans seek experiences that are rewarding or pleasurable. This lecture covers the brain structures and neurotransmitters involved in reward—in functions as diverse as slaking thirst or enjoying a sunset. The endogenous reward system allows us to tap into the joy of life and engage in the world. x
  • 25
    The Reward System—Drugs
    Psychoactive drugs that produce euphoria or a "high" do so by altering the biochemistry of the endogenous reward system. Such drugs can be both physiologically and psychologically addicting. Using cocaine and marijuana as examples, we investigate how drugs can hijack this system and even produce permanent changes in the brain. x
  • 26
    Brain Plasticity
    Far from being static structures, synapses are highly dynamic and can be modified by experience. This synaptic plasticity underlies learning and memory. We look at several ways synapses can be modified and the neurobiological basis of why memories change with time. x
  • 27
    Emotion and Executive Function
    Truly rational behavior is not possible without emotion, as evidenced in humans by the tremendous elaboration and interconnection of structures involved in both emotion and executive function. Emotion, memory, and cognition combine to give meaning to our experiences, which can then be used to influence and guide future behavior. x
  • 28
    Processing of Negative Emotions—Fear
    Fear is often considered a negative emotion, but it is critical for survival. This lecture explores the role played by a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala in the rapid processing of sensory information signaling threat. The amygdala is implicated in a number of disorders, including posttraumatic stress syndrome. x
  • 29
    Music and the Brain
    The ability to write, read, and perform music requires the coordinated activity of the sensory, motor, language, and limbic systems of the brain. Studies of musicians who have suffered strokes have identified specific brain areas involved in both the composition and appreciation of different features of music, such as rhythm. x
  • 30
    Sexual Dimorphism of the Brain
    At birth our brains are sexually dimorphic, meaning they are either male or female in pattern. While the most dramatic differences in brain structure involve areas associated with sexual behavior and mating, how we experience and interpret the world may also be influenced by the sex of our brains. x
  • 31
    Sleep and Dreaming
    Why do we sleep? What, if anything, do dreams mean? Far from being a passive event, sleep is actively induced and involves areas of the central nervous system extending from the spinal cord to the forebrain. Researchers have also learned a great deal about the types of dreams that occur during various stages of sleep. x
  • 32
    Consciousness and the Self
    Why does consciousness appear to be something that is happening to a "me"? What is the "me"? We explore these and other questions surrounding the nature of consciousness. We also delve more deeply into some of the cases discussed in Lecture 16 on agnosias, re-examining what is actually lost in cortical blindness, prosopagnosia, and contralateral neglect. x
  • 33
    Alzheimer's Disease
    This lecture uses the number one neurological disorder in the United States—Alzheimer's disease—as a clinical example to bring together much of the information given in the course. The signs and symptoms of the disease can be understood by looking at the particular brain areas most affected. x
  • 34
    Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease
    We look at what has been learned about factors that appear to increase or decrease the risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease, focusing on a study of Catholic nuns who showed a very low incidence of the disorder. This study and others suggest ways to make positive lifestyle changes that may help ward off this dreaded disease. x
  • 35
    Wellness and the Brain—Effects of Stress
    Our brain has mechanisms that allow for rapid response to threatening events by preparing us for fight or flight. Unfortunately, in our modern world we respond to everyday stressors as though they were life-threatening events. This lecture reviews evidence that chronic activation of this system has deleterious effects on our health. x
  • 36
    Neuroscience—Looking Back and Looking Ahead
    We summarize the course, survey present research challenges, and address the question: What does our remarkable understanding of the brain tell us about ourselves? Our ability to reason, feel, or even act morally may be the result of neural processes, but this does not denigrate our experiences or our uniqueness as a species. x

Lecture Titles

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Jeanette Norden
Ph.D. Jeanette Norden
Vanderbilt University
Dr. Jeanette Norden is a neuroscientist, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine, and Professor of Neurosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology, with training in Neurobiology and Clinical Neurology, from Vanderbilt University. She completed postdoctoral training at Duke University, the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Professor Norden is also the Director of Medical Education in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Her innovative approach in integrating 'humanity' into basic science courses has been recognized at Vanderbilt and nationally. Dr. Norden has twice won the Shovel Award, given by the graduating class to the faculty member who has had the most positive influence on them in their four years of medical school. She has received several other teaching awards, including the Jack Davies Award for teaching excellence in the basic sciences, the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and the Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award from the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society and the Association of American Medical Colleges. She was the first recipient of both the Teaching Excellence Award given by the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the University Chair of Teaching Excellence at Vanderbilt.
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 134 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by One of the best courses we have taken My husband and I are physicists from Germany and we really like TTC Courses and have listened to and watched various. This course has become one of our very favorites. We thoroughly enjoyed a. the teacher's passion and knowledge of the subject, b. the intelligent organization of the course, c. the interesting topics chosen - d. and the excellent presentation which helped us memorizing the terminology and principles. Having been generally interested in brain science for many years, we still didn't know the subject from its basic principles and ideas or in a well-structured way - this course gave us a wonderful and solid foundation in the terminology and brain basics of biology, anatomy, medicine, clinical medicine and psychology - as well as many incitements for further reading. It picked us up from where we were in the beginning and took us to a new level. A great compliment and thanks to the wonderful teacher and this excellent course. November 18, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Superb! Dr. Norten does a superb job in teaching a potentially conceptually and technically difficult course. I've been trying for quite a while to get a grasp of cognitive neuroscience, and her course capped it. A particularly useful approach was her using Alzheimer's Disease as a case study to integrate the course material. She asks: "Now that you know about the brain, how would you predict the brain and its functions are altered with Alzheimer's ?" While a distressing topic, she concludes with a positive note, and suggestions on how to keep one's brain "healthy. Great teaching technique. She offers cutting edge research; this is the sort of course that gives up-to-date material with a solid framework to continue study for years to come. This may be entirely non "PC", but I also enjoyed watching her vary her hairstyle and fashion in different segments, and showing photos of her pets to explain some material. Little touches like that brought Prof. Norten further to life for us. February 21, 2009
Rated 5 out of 5 Amazed I'm a complete layman - a wannabe writer doing research for a story - and this course, minus a bit of technical terminology, was as engaging as any I've ever had. Dr. Jeanette Norden is clearly fascinated by her subject matter, and it helps immensely as she infects her class with equal awe during this preliminary tour of the brain. There's a lot to slog through, but its all worth it, with enough graphics to enthrall the uninitiated. Its hard not to be changed by the information once you start to comprehend how complex and astonishing these little machines inside our heads actually are, but my grandmother also had Alzheimer's in her waning years, making me and others in my family candidates, so it affected me on a deeply personal level as well, offering more than facts, but actual ways to use the plasticity of our neuronal pathways to our advantage - learning new behaviors that could drastically change the quality of our lives. Whether you're a wannabe brain surgeon, a health-nut, or just interested in something new, this is a great way to immerse your mind in the mind, so to speak. Outstanding teacher, outstanding subject; thank you Great Courses! September 12, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Powerful course demanding full attention This is a remarkable and challenging course requiring full concentration. I came through it with the feeling that I had been on a wondrous journey of discovery and learning... and indeed with a new understanding of just how marvellous the brain is, how it works and controls our functions, and what can go wrong. What a trip! A large portion of this course initially is dedicated to an arduous listing of names of various parts of the brain -- just pure anatomy you might think, but it is essential to have this groundwork in order to appreciate and follow later lectures, as the specialised terminology rolls off the professor's tongue. Lectures 10 and 11 on neurotransmitters and stroke particularly grabbed my interest... and from then on the course was flying, including an excellent explanation of Parkinson's Disease. Dr Norden is a powerful, highly-qualified lecturer, but I became very tired of hearing "basically". The course is ideal for those looking to start a career in a related field or with a special interest in the brain; it may be too technical, at least in part, for the less serious, more casual student. Graphics are superb and the on-set large colourful plastic brain model is an impressive aid. Congratulations to Great Courses and Professor Norden for presenting this course. August 8, 2014
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