Your nervous system is you. All the thoughts, perceptions, moods, passions, and dreams that make you an active, sentient being are the work of this amazing network of cells. For many centuries, people knew that this was true. But no one was sure how it happened.
Now, thanks to the exciting new field of neuroscience, we can chart the workings of the brain and the rest of the nervous system in remarkable detail to explain how neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, and other biological processes produce all the experiences of everyday life, in every stage of life. From the spectacular growth of the brain in infancy to the act of learning a skill, falling in love, getting a joke, revising an opinion, or even forgetting a name, something very intriguing is going on behind the scenes.
For example, groundbreaking research in the past few decades is now able to explain such phenomena as these:
* Decisions: Studies of decision making at the level of neurons show that our brain has often committed to a course of action before we are aware of having made a decision—an apparent violation of our sense of free will. * Memory: Memory is composed of many systems located in different parts of the brain, which means that you can forget your car keys (information stored in the neocortex) but still remember how to drive (a learned skill requiring the striatum and cerebellum). * Willpower: Willpower is more than a metaphor; it's a measurable trait that draws on a finite mental resource, like a muscle. While any given individual has a consistent willpower capacity throughout life, it can be strengthened through training—again, just like a muscle. * Religion and spirituality: Three mental traits appear to be essential for the development of organized religion: the search for causes and effects, the ability to reason about people and motives, and language. Mystical experiences also trace to specific activities of the brain.
Opening your eyes to how neural processes produce the familiar features of human existence, The Neuroscience of Everyday Life covers a remarkable range of subjects in 36 richly detailed lectures. You will explore the brain under stress and in love, learning, sleeping, thinking, hallucinating, and just looking around—which is less about recording reality than creating illusions that allow us to function in our environment.
Your professor is distinguished neuroscientist and Professor Sam Wang of Princeton University, an award-winning researcher and best-selling author, public speaker, and TV and radio commentator. Professor Wang's insightful and playful approach makes this course a joy for anyone who wants to know how his or her own brain works. And his vivid, richly illustrated presentation assumes no background in science. Fact or Fiction?
Professor Wang points out that a lot of what we think we know about our brains turns out to be wrong. While bringing you up to date on the latest discoveries in the field, he debunks the following persistent myths:
* We use only 10% of our brains: Your brain is actually running at 100%! The myth about idle brain power has been promoted by self-help gurus and doesn't stand up to evidence from cases of brain damage, which always cause deficits in function. * Mozart makes babies smarter: Playing classical music may help calm you down around an infant, but it's not doing anything for the baby. The better strategy is to have children learn to play a musical instrument when they're older, which does improve brain development. * Women are moodier than men: Studies show that the sexes are tied in the moodiness contest, with men reporting just as frequent mood swings as women. However, both men and women tend to remember women's mood swings better. * We lose brain cells as we age: The brain is supposedly unique as an organ because it stops adding new cells after birth. In fact, some parts of the brain keep producing new neurons throughout life. The brain shrinks somewhat with age, but its neurons live on.
Tune Up Your Brain!
Operating on about the power consumed by an idling laptop, the brain has often been compared to a computer. But this, too, is a myth. Computers are logically straightforward in design, whereas the brain is a marvel of evolutionary makeshift, with layer upon layer of systems that started out with one function and then were adopted for something completely different. Some of the most primitive functions of the brain, such as the fight-or-flight response to danger, resist being overridden by the brain's powerful reasoning center, which evolved more recently.
Indeed, much of what the brain does is beyond our conscious control. Yet in some cases, there are ways to intervene. Here are some tips that Professor Wang offers to make your brain run at its optimum:
* How to stick to a health regimen: If you use your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks, this can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity. People who do this are then able to follow a diet or exercise program better. * Efficient learning: Don't cram! Spread out your study over several sessions. This allows your brain time to process what you've learned, which requires no additional effort on your part and greatly increases your retention of information. * Resetting your biological clock: The best way to beat jet lag is to use light, which cues your brain to where it is in the day/night cycle. For a flight between the United States and Europe, in either direction, a dose of afternoon sunlight after you arrive should help you adjust. * The best brain exercise is real exercise: Cognitive functions that normally deteriorate with age, such as memory and response time, can be boosted by aerobic exercise. The effect is largest if you are active starting in middle age, but it's never too late to start.
The Research Subject Is You
Turning from processes that are merely hidden to those that are utterly mysterious, The Neuroscience of Everyday Life also sheds light on these phenomena:
* Love: Prairie voles are a fascinating model for studying human mating, since, unlike most other mammals, they are monogamous. For them as well as for us, the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin control the expression of pair bonding, better known as love. * Humor: Smiles and laughter are two emotional components of humor that have deep roots as social signals. Another component is characterized by the sudden flash of insight that occurs when we “get” a joke; brain scanners show where this happens. * Haunted houses: Neurological phenomena that people have associated with haunted houses, such as the feeling of an invisible presence, also occur from carbon monoxide poisoning—a once-common problem in houses lit with gas. Reports of haunted houses have dropped sharply with the decline in gas lighting. * Consciousness: Our conscious awareness extends to only a fraction of the stimuli registered by our brains, like a spotlight focusing on a tiny portion of a flood of data. Experiments show that we often act on unconscious information without being aware of it.
Professor Wang notes that it was his fascination with consciousness, free will, and other big ideas that led him to switch from physics, which he studied as an undergraduate, to a field he regards as even more alive with possibilities for breakthroughs that will change our worldview in fundamental ways.
That field, of course, is neuroscience. The Neuroscience of Everyday Life is your chance to explore a discipline that is now going through its golden age, with the advantage that the subject is not some abstract entity.
About Your Professor
Dr. Sam Wang is Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. He earned his B.S. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in Neurosciences from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Dr. Wang is a well-known researcher in the field of neuroscience and has published more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed journals. His work includes the discovery that learning mechanisms can act like all-or-none switches, and that bird and mammalian brains share similar architectures for generating complex social relations. Dr. Wang is also the coauthor of the best-selling popular book, Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. The book has been translated into more than 20 languages and received the AAAS/Subaru Science Book of the Year Award in the Young Adult category.
Professor Wang has been widely honored for his scholarship and his advances in neuroscience. He has been the recipient of an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, the Rita Allen Foundation Young Scholars Fellowship, a Distinguished Young Investigator Award from the W. M. Keck Foundation, and a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. He was also selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as a Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, and he served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
Lectures 1. What Is Neuroscience? 2. How Do Neuroscientists Study the Brain? 3. Evolution, Energetics, and the 10-percent Myth 4. Neurons and Synapses 5. Neurotransmitters and Drugs 6. Juicing the Brain 7. Coming to Your Senses 8. Perception and Your Brain's Little Lies 9. Pain—All in Your Head? 10. Decisions—Your Brain's Secret Ballot 11. Reward, Adaptation, and Addiction 12. The Many Forms of Memory 13. Quirks of Memory 14. Learning, Studying, and Sleep 15. Willpower and Mental Work 16. Work, Play, and Stress 17. Biological Timekeepers and Jet Lag 18. The Hidden Talents of Infants 19. The Mozart Myth and Active Learning 20. Childhood and Adolescence 21. Handedness—Sports, Speech, and Presidents 22. Reaching the Top of the Mountain—Aging 23. Brain Exercise and Real Exercise 24. Animal and Human Personality 25. Intelligence, Genes, and Environment 26. The Weather in Your Brain—Emotions 27. Fear, Loathing, and Anger 28. From Weather to Climate—Mood 29. The Social Brain, Empathy, and Autism 30. Mars and Venus—Men's and Women's Brains 31. Sex, Love, and Bonds for Life 32. Math and Other Evolutionary Curiosities 33. Consciousness and Free Will 34. Near-Death and Other Extreme Experiences 35. Spirituality and Religion 36. Happiness and Other Research Opportunities