Rated 4 out of 5 by JimG404 Better Living Thru Neuroscience
I enjoyed this course. Professor Wang is pleasant and generally easy to understand, a man with a gift for teaching. Some reviewers seemed a bit bothered by the frequent camera angle shifts during the video, but I got used to it rather quickly. I suspect that the use of this technique is appropriately supported by a neuroscience study; perhaps the shifting promotes cognitive alertness in the viewer, and thus increases mental absorption of the material.
The focus of this course is precisely described by its title. It centers around everyday life experiences and how they relate to various aspects of the inner physical workings of the human brain. As such, the course is something of a "fruit salad", sometimes relating to one aspect of brain functioning, sometimes to another. Dr Wang starts with common life-experiences and shows how physical aspects of the brain respond to, control, or otherwise correlate with the senses and cognitions that comprise the experience. The axis on which the course turns is the mundane, i.e. what typically goes on in the mind (with some exceptions for rarer "altered conscious" states such as narcotic intoxication, religious euphoria and near-death encounters).
Perhaps I can make my point more effectively by saying what the course is NOT -- it is not a "deep theory" approach based around a master paradigm regarding how the brain takes in sensory information, creates intermediate cognitive and mental states, and then combines those "higher order states" with various levels of sub-conscious and autonomic processing to direct a person's behavior, so as to maximize that person's chances for survival. Dr. Wang initially reviews the basics on how neurons work and how neurotransmitters and hormones affect their functioning. He emphasizes how chemicals created in the brain and body influence the mind, and he delves into how medicinal and illicit drugs impact that mental chemistry (he also considers the traditional "brain boosters", e.g. caffeine and nicotine). But he then shifts his focus to the macro level, relying for the balance of the course upon generalized notions and summarized study findings regarding the workings of various brain components.
So, although the sudden video shifts did not bother me, the sudden shift in course focus did. I was a bit surprised that Dr. Wang offered next to nothing regarding the mid-level organization and functioning of the "electronic" brain, with its massively parallel networks, pattern recognition routines, and self-training features, which drive the mind's myriad sub-cognitive processes. There was also no discussion of how the higher levels of cognition might be organized, e.g. the "global workspace" paradigm and Steven Pinker's "bulletin-board" analogy. Even if handled perfunctorily, I believe that some discussion of the brain and mind's "data processing" and decision-making paradigms would have enhanced the "everyday phenomenon" material that follows the "basic mechanics" introduction to this course. But given the complexity of this topic (the subject of entire books and courses unto itself along with a body of active ongoing research), perhaps Professor Wang felt that if it can't be thoroughly presented, it might only confuse many viewers and detract from their appreciation of the "everyday" topics that make up the bulk of this course.
Also, almost nothing at all is said about the entire field of psychology. Yes, I realize that there are multiple Teaching Company courses about psychology, but a brief mention of how psychology also concerns itself with the interaction of the human brain and everyday life might have been helpful. Dr. Wang seems out to prove that psychology does not have an exclusive franchise on the interplay between the mind and our daily lives, that neuroscience also has much to contribute. And I think that he succeeds in that regard. But it might have been useful to have had at least a small dose of cross-discipline perspective.
Dr. Wang also skirts around the intellectual brier-patch regarding the true nature of human consciousness. There is a lecture near the end entitled "Consciousness and Free Will", and in an earlier lecture Professor Wang briefly mentions the odd effects on mind and behavior experienced by people who have had "split brain" operations. This operation, once used to help control seizures, effectively divides the neo-cortex into two independently working systems (however, the limbic system which drives emotions generally remained unified in these patients -- they can arguably think two things at once, but they only feel one thing).
In the consciousness lecture, the professor spends a few minutes going over some general notions regarding consciousness, along with several ways to conceptualize it. He quickly concedes that there is a "fundamental gap" between our understandings of the physical processes of neural activity and our subjective awareness of phenomenon, and then shifts his attention to some generalizations that can safely be made. E.g., that consciousness can be broken down into essential components (attention, working memory, emotional substrates, etc.); and that many of our behaviors seem either uninfluenced by conscious thought, or are at best only partially influenced by it. He mentions the famous Libet experiments which cast doubt on the notion that behavioral decisions stem directly from conscious decisions, even when they clearly seem to. This obviously leads to the question of whether free will actually exists. But Wang again avoids the deep philosophical pit underlying this topic by focusing on the practical implications of "predictability". I.e., even if all we think and do is theoretically fully determined by surrounding forces, our brains are so complex as to preclude any ability to externally predict what we will next think and do. So, on an "everyday life" level, free will is safe for now.
Despite these limitations on the scope of this course, the "bird's eye view" that Dr. Wang does offer allows the viewer to reflect on what a complex and multifaceted thing that the brain is. Even at this "general survey" level, a review of all that the brain does is quite breathtaking. Memory, emotions, drives, cognition, automatic regulation of critical organs, emergency response mechanisms, social functioning, relationships, sexuality, personality, creativity, decision-making . . . it's quite amazing when you stop to think about it. And in allowing you to make that stop and do that thinking, this course shines through.
Despite the fact that Dr. Wang does not delve too deeply into theory, I still picked up some interesting and even surprising insights on various topics, including e.g. how the cerebellum is now seen as being intricately involved with autism; on sleep and circadian rhythm; on child development and learning; and on the implications of left-handedness. Also, Wang mentions an interesting difference between gay and straight men in the size and structure of the third interstitial nucleus of the hypothalamus.
But on a more practical level, Dr. Wang offers a lot of information and pragmatic insights that are potentially useful in one's daily life. E.g., self-discipline can be seen as a muscle that can be intentionally exercised and strengthened; also, the remembering technique of "memory palaces", based on the knowledge that a key brain structure involved in memory formation (the hippocampus) is also heavily involved in spatial navigation and positioning.
It appears that Professor Wang surveyed the neuroscience field and came up with a list of practical information that can help the interested layperson to better understand her or himself, and thus make better use of the great gift that the human brain represents. I'd say that the professor deserves a "mission accomplished" in this regard. As such, this course blurs the line somewhat between the academic material traditionally offered by The Teaching Company and the various "better living" courses that it has added to its lineup in recent years.
It should be made clear to all potential purchasers of this course that it will not turn you into an expert on the brain's structure, design, composition and electro-chemical processes, and if you wish to dig deeply into the nature of mental experience, consult the philosophy and psychology sections of the TC catalog. Nonetheless, this course will help you to better utilize what's within your skull so as to expertly navigate the many opportunities and challenges that human life presents us with -- each and every day!
March 12, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by GPMOC Outstanding Course
Professor Sam Wang had an impressive command of the subject matter, presented the information in an organized way that resonated with everyday implications of neuroscience, interspersed his academic presentation with humor, and provided summaries at the end of each lecture. Neuroscience is a complicated and dynamic field, but Professor Wang brought it to life and demonstrated its relevance to us all in a comprehensible manner.
January 25, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by DonL "You are your brain"
I read / heard somewhere that the human brain is the most complex thing that we know of in the universe, so I was eager to buy a course on neuroscience from TGC. They have two general, introductory courses on neuroscience: Professor Jeanette Norden's "Understanding the Brain" and this one, Professor Sam Wang's "The Neuroscience of Everyday Life." Professor Wang describes neuroscience as the intersection of biology and psychology, and this course has a definite "tilt" toward psychology while Norden's course, based on the lecture titles and the reviews I've read, has a "tilt" toward biology. While Wang's "tilt" toward psychology accords well with his title, the neuroscience of everyday life, it should be noted that there's plenty of discussion about neurotransmitters, voltage gates and the like in his lectures. Much of the neuroscience discussed in this course is the search for what Professor Wang calls "neural correlates" to human behavior, emotions, etc., and is often conducted by brain scanners and other imaging devices.
To appreciate the range of this course, I was particularly intrigued by: Wang's discussion of willpower and the ability to defer gratification, which he says are more associated with future success than IQ; his distinction between working memory and long-term memory; his discussion of autism and its relation to empathy and the social brain; and his speculations on why humor and abstract mathematics have emerged from the evolutionary process given that they have no discernible survivor value. And yes, Professor Wang does use the word "now" very much, but so what. It's not a bad "transitional" word when changing topics or giving an example. More disconcerting, at least to me, is his constant glancing toward the side, as if he's monitoring his time or something. As the lectures progressed, I found myself appreciating more and more the substance of the presentation, i.e., it's a well-written presentation, so much so that I wished I had purchased the transcript.
While I can't blame this course because it was produced in 2010, I'm disappointed that it cannot discuss two hugely-funded and ongoing neuroscience projects: Europe's Human Brain Project [HBP] and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative which is modeled after the Human Genome Project. HBP's goal is to "reverse engineer" the human brain and, at least initially, mathematically simulate the brain's 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses on a supercomputer. The U.S. Brain Initiative is focused on advancing "innovative neurotechnologies." Also, the [Paul] Allen Institute for Brain Science has launched online "digital atlases" for the mouse brain and the mouse spinal cord among others. I would have been interested in hearing Professor Wang's take on these huge projects, i.e., how much is good science and how much is human hubris [HBP is said to be in "disarray"].
January 19, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Lidlone A User's Guide to the Brain
That's how I see this course, and it's wonderful from that perspective. Being "of a certain age", I have family and friends with various of the neurological conditions cited by the instructor over the length of the course, and I was very interested in the scientific component of how our brains work. I have to admit that I finished the first 6 lectures somewhat disappointed and was concerned the whole course would be a highly technical recitation of neurotransmitters and brain components that would bore me to tears. Then I came here and read other reviews and realized I had to push past this stage-setting. Once I did that, the various special topics and their presentation, grounded in experiments and enhanced by some speculation, captivated me, one after the other.
And the little touch of the instructor saying "Welcome back" at the beginning of each session really warmed my heart!
January 16, 2015