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Neurobiology and Behavior, Reflections

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. Leave whatever thoughts in progress you think might be useful to others, see what other people are thinking, and add thoughts that that in turn generates in you.

Revisit your thoughts/questions as you posted them at the beginning of the course in the forum at the bottom of the course home page and in subsequent forums.  What three questions would you now like to explore further?  Are these the same or different from the ones you started with?  Why?  What do you now think of Emily Dickinson's suggestion that the brain contains the sky ... and you as well?  



nafisam's picture

The largest impact that

The largest impact that this course had for me was day 1, as it set the foundation not only for the rest of the course, but for a new way of thinking. I had never considered that my brain could contain a set of boxes, or that as we go through life we are constantly making a new summary of observations. The knowledge gained from this course has changed my pattern of thinking, in that it has shown me that there may never be a right answer; but that it is perfectly fine to keep revising information in the context of  new informationt that we gain. From day 1 I was a fan of Descartes, who believed that we are composed of our brains, and "something else". I think that is just based on the core beliefs that I have. However Dickinson's model served as a great way to explore the topics of the course, considering that the "something else" that Descartes referred to could not be examined in the classroom. I think that my actual views on the brain and behavior lie somewhere between the two.


Three questions I would like to explore further:

1. Are instincts inherently the same among individuals, or does the environment play a significant role?

2. Are there differences in the nervous system between an introverted vs extroverted individual?

3. As humans, are we in control of our actions as much as we think we are, or does the nervous system usually take the lead?

bbaum's picture




            Thissemester I learned to stop accepting everything I hear, read, or see as fact.At first this was a very unsettling conclusion for me because I love being sureabout everything, but now I am enjoy the idea. The idea that our brain is able tomake up some of my reality makes me feel very unique (which sounds vain). Thisrealization also makes me want to challenge all the information that I hear orread, which has forced me to look certain issues from angles that I wouldn’thave considered before. I think that this is useful for scientists duringresearch because I feel like researchers (and humans in general) get started ona certain path and seem blinded to all information that may contradict theirchosen path.

            Ialso learned that our behavior is more than a simple output that is caused by asingular input from our environment. Even though it seems quite obvious today,I had never thought of an action potential starting from within the nervoussystem before, which helps to explain so much about my behavior. I am also gladthat I finally learned how an action potential works. I have been hearing thatphrase for years now and never thought it was really necessary to understandthe mechanics, but from our discussions I learned that action potentials areeverything.

            Asfor Emily Dickinson, I am still not convinced of her argument. I don’t thinkthat the brain can contain everything, but I do think that my brain contains me(me being my I-function). I think that parts of my environment are constructsof my brain, but I think (am hope) that parts of my environment are actuallyreality.


Three questions that I still have…

  1. Why isn’t it possible to reconnect neurons after they have been destroyed? So many diseases are caused by cell death or weakening, so would it someday be possible to transplant neurons?
  2. In the future, how will new technologies be able to help us better understand the animal mind? Will we ever be able to determine the thoughts of animals?
redmink's picture

A Box Created In My Brain

I am pleased now to have created a box in my brain.  I stored what I have learned in this course.  I will always leave a room for more summary of observations that would explain brain=behavior throughout my life.

We think every moment.  Onto many streams of thoughts that I constantly have carried along in my brain for the past 20 years, I added one more topic, that is, neurobiology and behavior.  This topic can stand on its own as one independent topic in my brain because it's so fascinating.  I am going to keep thinking about it constantly for the rest of my life, making new summary of observations.  While doing that, I will be reminded of the dear classmates, interesting activities we did during class like blind spot and three doors, and Professor Grobstein asking us an open-ended question. 

I first found this course stressful and intimidating because I was not a native speaker of English and I could not express myself fully in class.  But writing webpapers based on the topics I am interested in and searching for articles that revolve around those topics, I was able to express myself fully based on my cultural backgrounds and my brain. As time went, I became more engaged. 

 I agree with Emily Dickinson's suggestion that the brain contains the sky ... and you as well. The organ that constitutes 2% in weight of our body creates a person's world and a sense of one's identity too suggesting stories that fits in one's belief.    

The three questions I posted at the beginning of the semester were as follows:

1.  Where does curiosity come from? 

2.  How can I improve, maximize, and use both visual attention and auditory attention?  Which one is more beneficial in life?

3.  What is the biochemical mechanism of eye?  What is the relationship of this particular organ to the brain?

My next three questions now would be the same as above.  Although I know the answer to each question partially, I believe there are much more that need to be added. 
Adam Zakheim's picture


Looking back at the questions I initially posed at the beginning of this course, I begin to appreciate just how challenging this semester has been. Over the course of the semester, our class discussions forced me to reconsider my own assumptions about the nature of human behavior. Largely based on my background in molecular biology, these assumptions proved too myopic in their focus and frequently, I had to adapt my previous beliefs in order to understand the evolving “story” of the brain = behavior model. Although this idea seemed intuitive at first, the issue became more complicated through class discussions. Through our discussions, we discovered that this “loopy” process of identification and reassessment provides the basic framework for all scientific inquiry. Therefore it was appropriate that by the end of the course, I once again found the brain = behavior credible. In reflecting on the semester, it is important to realize that the fluid nature of science can also be applied to my own life. This is an important realization and so, despite the challenges presented by this course, I am greatly indebted to Prof. Grobstein and my fellow classmates who helped me gain this insight through our discussions.
Sam Beebout's picture


I liked the metaphors we used in these class because although they are very broad they make the brain make sense, and they make sense. While I leave this class with about as limited a knowledge on the anatomy of the brain and the functions of its various regions, I am affirmed by a realization that learning everything there is to know about the brain would not give me a much better understanding of how it works. Thinking about the brain as a storyteller actually does make a big, potentially revolutionary hypothesis about the brain. It makes the assumption that ultimately everything we do, and therefore everything the brain does, operates in the same process, by filling in the space between the edges and telling a story. This seems to take us a lot further than an exploration of what each part is purported to do. 

While I liked the storyteller metaphor and the way it led us to an understanding of the brain as an dynamic system and a constant construction, I wanted to apply this to more examples. I wish that this concept had been introduced earlier in the course as our lens as opposed to be presented as the course's conclusion. 

I came into the course wanting to know more about the relationship between our body and our sense of self, and I began to explore this in my web paper about conjoined twinning. I am still very interested in this idea that we should reevaluate thinking of ourselves as a fixed boundary. We are much more adaptable. Throughout everyone's life their body changes and they adapt with it, and throughout everyone's life their sense of self changes and they adpat with it. 

I would have liked to go deeper, though, into the relationship between memory and this dynamic sense of self. We are unaware of so many of our adaptations, and our sense of self is a filling in of details. We remember, evolutionarily speaking, to survive, not to be self-reflective. So then, why are we self-reflective? Is it just a fluke, a side effect of an evolved memory function? 

jwiltsee's picture

This class had the same

This class had the same effect on me as one of my statistics class in economics.  That is there is always a way to manipulate data and present data so that it supports your arguments more strongly.  In Neuro we learned that there is no truth in science, but there are ways to present truths that may be currently correct at that present time.  This refers to the loopy model of science.  From this loopy model, we were able to explore various topics of neurobiology and behavior from many fields of thought. 

The main question I wanted to learn about was the effects of depression on the body.  Indeed I did learn a lot about this, especially through writing one of my web papers on this topic.  A question I still would like to learn more about is the anatomy of the nervous system.  I understood we did learn a about neurons, synapses, axioms, motor neurons, and how they interact with the spinal column.  On the other hand, I would have like to look for a more indepth micro level explanation, but this may not be the goal of the course.  Lastly, the explanations about the I-function and the bipartide brain answered many of my questions relating to how the nervous system plays into behavior. 

Finally, I felt the discussions were very engaging and Prof. Grobstein was able to direct the discussions to where he wanted them to end up.  This I believe was very intellectually stimulating, especially because many comments were made that came from all different backgrounds of learning (i.e. psych, econ, bio, classics, english..etc) 

BeccaB-C's picture


I have really enjoyed the chance to hash out new questions as they arise, and to discover the internal conflicts that I have in approaching neurobiology and behavior. While I have tended to think of the class topics from very physiological and psychological perspectives, this class has allowed me the chance to attempt to  incorporate some of the less scientifically-based conversations we have had in class into my story-teller's comprehensive view on neuroscience.

I especially enjoyed our discussion of reafferent loops, especially in thinking about them behaviorally, rather than simply chemically and physiologically. I wish we had gotten into psychological phenomena like the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which I find fascinating. I think it would have been exciting to talk about that in the context of implicit memory, and non-I-function behaviors.

Thanks to everyone for rich discussion and a great semester!

Crystal Leonard's picture


The most important thing this course has helped me to understand is that the brain is not a system of inputs and corresponding outputs, but is much more complex. This explains a lot about the brain that I hadn't previously understood, such as personal agency, the internal voice, and imagination.  I still have many of the questions that I had at the beginning of the semester because we didn't talk about how everything in the nervous system works due to time constraints. The topics covered in the course have made me curious about pain and discomfort, and how strong of an effect one's environment has on the structure of one's brain.
Lisa B.'s picture


At the beginning of the semester I wanted to explore these three topics:

(1)    What have studies shown about a possible association between artificial sweeteners and cancer?
(2)    How was phrenology used to determine an individual's psychological attributes?
(3)    What research methods are used to understand the human brain?

I have three new questions:

(1)    When is it right to alter a hyperactive child’s behavior with ADD and ADHD medications?
(2)    Is the overmedication of children used as compensation for poor parenting? (
(3)    The individual is a product of both genes and culture. Does the ratio between these factors drastically vary among people?

Before Neurobiology and Behavior I compartmentalized neuronal function within the nervous system, and disregarded the role of culture in behavior. During the course, I began to rationalize the brain as a story, and the I-function as the storyteller.  My recent questions reflect this new perspective. ADD/ADHD, overmedication of children, and the transformation of the individual are multifaceted subjects influenced by both genes and culture. If a person is always a storyteller then I believe that Dickinson’s conclusion, that the brain contains the sky, may be a reasonable statement. Although I was aware that my opinions of neurobiology and behavior would change as the semester progressed, I never thought that in the end I would consider Dickinson’s poetry as scientific. This non-traditional course was beneficial since we discussed the brain as a “story.”

Leah Bonnell's picture


Compared to the beginning of the semester, I have a much stronger belief in the idea that brain=behavior. Now I think all behavior and perception comes from the brain and not from from the external environment, although the external environment certainly does influence us. Reading over Dickinson's poem, I can truly appreciate it for its ingenuity. 

 Some questions I would like to further explore:

In class we defined morality as a story based on the unconscious. We discussed how some things we find morally repugnant, like incest, might have a biological basis (phermones). I wonder is there may also be an evolutionary basis. In the case of incest, inbreeding produces offspring with a higher chance of recessive disorders. So, evolutionarily it is more favorable for a species to find incest immoral. In this is the case, we could talk about the evolution of morality, which is an idea I find interesting. I thought morality was solely a product of our culture, but it seems like morality could be a product of biology. When people refer to the term "collective unconscious" I imagine they are referring to such shared morals rooted in biology. 

jlustick's picture


One concept that has interested me throughout the course is the relationship between internal and external hierarchy. We've talked about the nervous system being distributed, not dependent on any leader but the synchronization and coordination of multiple parts. On the other hand, it seems that we constantly create external hierarchies- in corporations, schools, government, and even families. An the other hand, the best "hierarchies" are also distributed systems- for example, a democracy rather than a dictatorship. Still, why is our brain so focused on hierarchy? In addition, yesterday we discussed the fact that hierarchy is inherent to culture which involves selectively assigning meaning, and so hierarchy may, in fact, be inevitable in our external worlds. How does our brain, which lacks hierarchy, accept this? Is external hierarchy created to satisfy the lack of internal hierarchy? Do individuals need to feel as though they have a place within hierarchy- is that how one comes to know thy self?

Also, I wonder if there might be some heirarchy between the congitive unconscious and the storyteller. It seems that the omnipresence and obscurity of the cognitive unconscious gives it a kind of power- it's beyond our control and understanding.

Brie Stark's picture


I have to say that the most important entity that this class provided me with-- and if I may use psychological terms -- was "relevant arguments."  While I had many ideas on the concept of perception, culture, disability, constructs of the brain... I heard relevant and meaningful arguments from many people in the class that served to provide a template for me to further pursue thought upon. 

In reflecting upon the knowledge that I received from this class, I seem to have formed a simple explanation in my head: everything is a system of pushes-and-pulls, of feeder tubes which connect everything to everything else.  With culture, it is entirely plausible that the body influences the cognitive unconscious, which influences the storyteller, which influences the culture--and, using this newfound knowledge, I can simply reverse what I just said and it will make complete sense.  This, to me, worked for the other 'boxes' and systems of the brain that we discussed (corollary discharge provided those extra tubes, as did the fact that the brain was not a hierarchical system with an ultimate dictating box). 

I would like to pursue further the connection between the constructs of our brain and the social implications, as well as the actual restructuring that occurs within our brain when we learn or are influenced by culture.  I find it particularly interesting that everyday our brain restructures itself a bit more, because we constantly partake in learning; it makes evolution seem like an almost tangible process, looked at on a miniscule level.