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Reflecting on Brain, Behavior, and Human Well-Being

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. 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.

Reflections on our semester semester together ... where we started and where we've gotten to, what understandings of yours have changed in the process, what new questions have been opened up?  

Tamara Tomasic's picture

What is right?

Having had a course with Paul before, I knew vaguely what to expect in terms of the types of discussions we would be having, but at times I was surprised by the direction our discussions took, and my reactions to them. One of the above posts mentions a frustration with the lack of primary source articles/research when discussing our topics, but I really enjoyed being able to talk about science in a more philosophical way. Research only gets one so far, and really, no research is done without the human component, without looking for something in particular to back up your own ideas. That's one of the biggest problems today, having scientists admit that they do, in fact, have some sort of agenda in their research.

The beginning of the semester, as we were all still getting used to the class format, was an incredibly frustrating experience, both because I felt like I was being closed-minded, and because others seemed closed-minded. We all seemed to be very comfortable in our own ideas, unwilling to truly consider those of others. As the semester progressed, our discussions took a more positive note, allowing us to actually begin considering other viewpoints and learning that there is, often, no right answer. There may even be no wrong answer, just one we like less.

I think this flexibility of thought, and allowance for ambiguity, will make us better scientists in the future.

JaymElaine's picture

At the beginning of our

At the beginning of our semester, I originally thought that we were going to talk about topics in neuroscience, by mixing in our biology and psychology backgrounds. However, what we have done instead was to challenge very simple topics in neuroscience and think about these topics from lots of different standpoints: biologically, psychologically, culturally, morally/ethically, philosophically, historically, etc; and this really made me challenge how I thought about things. For example, when discussing the use of drugs such as ectasy or LSD, automatically we would say that the use of these illegal drugs for medicinal use is absolutely appauling; but this class made me say "why not?", "what is so wrong with them?", "are they that harmful?", and "do the benefits outweigh the negatives?" I was impressed this semester. There was never a dry moment; we always filled the time with discussion; and most importantly, I learned to question even the simplest of things that society, as a whole, dare not question. The possibilities are endless!


Jayme E. Hopkins, '08

krosania's picture

Final Reflections

I have really enjoyed our discussions this past semester. We were able to cover a wide variety of topics that have always interested me but were only briefly touched upon in other courses I have taken, so it was nice to be able to expand on my thoughts about these topics and to hear other perspectives.

The thing that I find the most interesting when looking back on the past semester is how interrelated all of the discussion topics were. Issues of mental function versus dysfunction, morality, animal consciousness, and pain all wound up influencing one another, and it was difficult for us to have one discussion without invoking comments from another. I think this highlights the fact that when we are looking at a given issue in neuroscience, there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. First, one must think about both physiological and experiential aspects of a given phenomena. Then, one must take into consideration how a person is influenced socially and culturally. It seem that all of these perspectives must be combined in order to study any aspect of brain functioning.

There is also the issue of how research on the brain is conducted. This past semester, I thought more about the moral implications of various research methods than I probably ever have before. Since I will be starting a Neuroscience PhD program this summer, I am glad that I've had the opportunity to consider these issues from a slight distance. I think in this field we become very focused and detail oriented, and it becomes easier to simply follow protocols when conducting research without thinking about what went into setting it up. I think it is important to question standard research practices, especially when they involve animals and humans, as research on the brain inevitably does, in order to evaluate the moral issues involved. Further, it is important to work through how these "morals" were decided on in the first place, and how standards of morality may differ between research scientists and the general population. All of these are crucial things to think about for anyone interested in dedicating their life to research, and I am really glad I had the opportunity to think these things through for myself.

tlogan's picture

Why not question?

I think what was most interesting about this class was also the most challenging, namely the expansion of topics past the basic biopsychological questions to their greater implications. I have never had the chance to translate the primary material into application, and I think this is where some of the challenge lay for me; perhaps that is just an issue with science itself. Should scientists be ethicists as well when conducting research, or rather, should scientists be required to understand the implications of their research?

I really enjoyed most of the presentations, but I particularly enjoyed the discussion following the use of illicit drugs for medical applications, mainly because challenging the foundations of our education is appealing. Why should we take what we learn from DARE as the end all and be all of drugs? This notion is even more interesting, if one was to retroactively reconsider what was taught to us in the state-mandated health courses, or for any courses, for that matter. In science we are taught to question, but only certain aspects. Why is that? Why can I not question the assumed basics of science? I know I talk too much about paradigms, but how are we supposed to advance our understanding if we might be proceeding on faulty assumptions? (Just some questions for you future PhDs and researchers)

Overall, this course significantly differed from my initial expectations of what I thought it would be. But I suppose that’s not a terrible thing.

Marissa Patterson's picture


Coming into this seminar, I was expecting some kind of huge lit review where we discussed current trends in scientific neurology research, and I didn't think there was any possible way that we would be able to have interesting discussions with such a large group of people. As the semester went on, I was so amazed and excited to participate in some extremely interesting and thought provoking discussions about such a wide range of subjects that I might not have originally thought were a part of "neural and behavioral sciences."

I feel like I was most taken by the concept of individuality and diversity. I think that every discussion we had benefitted by the inclusion of the idea that we are all unique and that we cannot fully understand the experiences of other people. We talked about such large topics as love, morality, and conciousness, where we inevitably came to the conclusion that we cannot come to a conclusion, because these experiences are so subjective and personal. Even in our discussions about pain and psychotherapy/psychopharmacology, we kept coming back to the concept of individual difference and the difficulty of many types of "typical" biomedicine to grapple with these issues in a productive way. I think that this seminar experience will do a great job for our class of future doctors and researchers to try in small ways to change these viewpoints that everyone is the same and the same treatment or educational setting is appropriate for everyone.

I was also so struck during the semester about how so many of us focused on popular media articles, from newspapers instead of scientific journals. It really gave me a sense of how widespread NBS topics are and that it is not only the scientific community that is focusing on these ideas, but rather our society as a whole.

Thank you to everyone for such a great discussion this semester and best of luck on your theses!

Ian Morton's picture

In reflecting on this

In reflecting on this semester, like others I am inclined to express my general satisfaction with the structure of this course. I expected senior seminar to be like it is in other majors where students present on their theses and receive feedback from their peers – a prospect I was not overly excited about. While this approach offers some benefits, the benefits are largely isolated and personal ones. The discussion based approach of our seminar that focused on NBS topics of interest to students, on the other hand, was much more social in its applicability. That is to say, I believe this seminars approach was most beneficial in its propensity to promote communal discussions of topics we could share an interest in. I was much more excited to hear what people thought about morality, consciousness, and the legitimacy of animal models than to hear a description of results observed when prodding the brains of rats. By focusing on such “bigger” issues, this NBS seminar promoted a deeper consideration of topics in the NBS field and thereby made conversation considerably more amenable to a diversity of perspectives (expertise in a specified area of study was not necessary for particular classes, but instead offered unique perspectives in a larger and more general discussion).
Andrea G.'s picture


Looking back on this semester, the biggest change in my own thinking (and many others', having read the posts before mine) has been a shift away from always needing to have a clear-cut, definitive answer for all of my scientific questions.  It's become more and more clear over the course of this class that the field of neuroscience, as new and constantly changing as it is, holds very few (and maybe not even any) facts.  Despite being presented with concepts in introductory courses as if there was no argument about their validity, I've started to think differently about a lot of the things I've learned in my previous classes.

I've also really enjoyed being able to get a much broader sense of the field of neuroscience this semester.  With our small departments in the Bi-Co, there's not a huge diversity in research topics, and it's been enlightening to get a better idea of what's going on out in the larger world of academia.  It's been particularly interesting to look at topics I might have previously thought of as "fluffy" (e.g. love, education, morality) from a scientific perspective.  On some level, I've always known that any behavior must have some sort of neural basis, but it's not often that you think about how your brain affects your romantic relationships, at least beyond the hormonal level.

Finally, I've enjoyed being able to discuss topics in neuroscience with a group of people with similar academic backgrounds.  We never failed to fill an entire night with discussion, and it's been fascinating to see how differently we all approach various topics (and how, sometimes, we all come to the same conclusions despite this).  Thanks, everyone, for a great semester!
aamen's picture

Like pretty much everyone

Like pretty much everyone else has said, I was surprised at how much this course challenged my ideas of both neuroscience and science in general. As biology/psychology majors, we’re all used to taking classes that primarily focus on informing you about what we ‘know’ in the field. This class, on the other hand, served more to bring to light a lot of the things that we don’t (and possible never will) know, and I think that that is just as valuable.


I’ve found that one of the issues brought up in this class that has really stuck with me is the idea that scientists tend to analyze their data from a biased perspective. Relating to what Emily said, when we do experiments and get results, we tend to try to make our results fit our hypotheses, and if they don’t we assume that something went wrong. Instead, we should probably be more seriously considering what alternate ideas or theories the results could suggest. I’ve definitely thought about this while analyzing the results from my thesis.


Overall, I enjoyed all of our discussions, but found the animal models/animal ethics topic to be particularly relevant. It made me think a lot about what I am and am not comfortable with in terms of working with animals, and will probably influence what I end up deciding to do in the future. I also thought our discussion on diversity to be particularly important, especially considering that many of the topics that were covered later on were strongly based in the ideas of individual differences and spectrums.


Thanks to everyone for a great semester!

kbrown's picture


I thought many of the discussions in this seminar were really eye opening for me, especially with respect to the ways that we classify people both in a psychological sense, and in the social realm.  I think my favorite part about this seminar was the fac that it really made me question the way that I personally, as well as the way that psychologists and doctors on the whole diagnose and classify people with diseases.  Having learned about the medicalization of psychology and the "evils" of the diagnostic criteria of the DSM, I thought I had developed a pretty open mind about mental "disorders".  However, from our first discussion of broken brains, I found that there was really a lot mroe that I was not considering when thinking about people who deviate from what is termed the "norm".  I think especially poignant for me was realizing in that discussion that the way that we treat people with autism today is really quite similar to the way that women and homosexuals have been treated throughout history, and that it is conceivable that in another century, autistics will be regarded by psychologists as simply a set of humans who have differing (not deficient) cognitive abilities which serve them well in many circumstances.  This discussion was really what prompted me to pursue a topic in sex and gender studies for our presentation. 

On a more general level, I feel like my previous notions of the dichotomous nature of most things have really been challanged in this course.  Although it is sometimes frustrating for me to not be able to seperate characteristics into distinct categories, I think in the end I am the better for realizing that almost every variable can be thought of as a continuum.  The more I think about and research terms and variables in psychology, the more I realize that nothing can truly be defined and likewise nothing can be categorized.  For me this really calls into question the validity of most if not all studies in psychology and biology, but although like I said this frustration sometimes gets the better of me, I think it is important to attend to and think about these overarching problems to more fully understand the implications and limitations of our research.  Thanks for the really great presentations and discussion guys!


Jenna's picture

When I first began this

When I first began this course I assumed it would focus on concrete facts or recent discoveries in the neuroscience field.  Although we did discuss important topics in the field, it was from an unexpected perspective.  At first it was disconcerting to discuss topics which had no clear answer or definition but throughout the class I learned that most aspects of neuroscience will never be black and white and that is the way it should be.  During previous classes I always discussed research in relation to the physical findings; however, this class provided me with the opportunity to look at the social implications of the findings and also revealed just how much society can influence the research being done.  In particular, I found the lack of ethics in research field disconcerting.  Many of the presentations and our conversations suggest that research is much more influenced by society than we are led to believe.  


I really enjoyed that we were able to pick out own topics because this provided discussion on a wide variety of topics that were interesting to both the presenters and class.  Also, this was one of the only classes I’ve taken within my major which was completely discussion based.  This was an important aspect of the class because the discussions were essential to increasing my understanding of the many interpretations of all our topics.  Overall, I think this was a good experience for me to have before leaving college because it allowed me to contemplate many controversial and important concepts in the neuroscience field.   

K. Smythe's picture


     Coming into this course I didn't know what to expect.  I suppose i figured it would simply be an overview of what we had already learned or a review of interesting literature in a journal club format.  What I found was much different and in a way more helpful and enlightening than what I had expected.  Maybe it was due to the members of the class or the professors or a combination of the two but I found as we had discussions in class that we were having serious and legitimate conversation and debate about topics I didn't really think there was too much to debate about.  Albeit sometimes I and I'm sure others in the class, were stuck in our ways and didn't have too much tolerance for these new sides of discussions, to me it was interesting to see that in fact there was another side and that what I accept as accepted science is not always as accepted as I think (or alternatively it is sometime too accepted).

         I also really liked how the class was oriented around topics that we chose and thus were of interest to us.  Because we were able to choose our own topics unrestricted I think that the presentations were much more interesting.  It was also nice to have everyone with a background in the material so that we didn't have to spend time every class hashing over mechanisms and concepts we already understood.  The discussion format is also nice and something we don't always get to do in sciences with the exception of surrounding a particular article.  It was interesting to look at neurology and behavior from so many sides and from people who were clearly passionate about the subjects. 

       I don't think there was a single topic that I found most interesting during this class.  The things I feel I will take from this class are more about discussion and the truth, or lack thereof, behind science.  It seems that we can challenge almost every scientific "assertion" and after this class I hope that I will do this more throughout my education.  I also think that as was mentioned by others this class has also allowed me to think about the value of personal anecdotes and observations outside of scientific experimentation in creating hypothesis and scientific "truths".  I think that there is a fine line as to how and when these are appropriate, however I think I have been convinced that there may be some place for them.  Though I'm not sure that we can draw conclusions from them I think this class had made me realize that they are the starting point of most research and the basis for what we know as scientific assertion.

Paul Grobstein's picture

NBS senior seminar: what I learned this semester

Does science as interactive conversation work? Can one trust brains to be curious, critical, synthetic, imaginary - and hence productive - individually and collectively?

It sure looks like it. Thanks all.

ehinchcl's picture

I, again, feel that my

I, again, feel that my experience in this seminar was an interesting contrast to my other science classes. I will admit that at times I was frustrated with the lack of primary scientific literature brought up in our discussions (those of us who posted primary lit/studies seemed to often end up talking about the more controversial topics presented by short personal-interest pieces), but I do feel that the discussions that we did have were valuable. Many were much more philosophical than I had expected-- there really is no one answer or way to approach this material and I found it incredibly interesting how many different ways we each found to get at the key themes, such as neural diversity, throughout the semester. I also felt like these boards were an interesting avenue to continue class discussion; often times in other classes I've found that time to reflect on what was talked about allows for much more critical study, so I think this is great medium to do just that.

in terms of the things that I have found most interesting, I really think through each of the topics there were a few main themes. first, the idea of everything being defined on a spectrum was fascinating for me. I do, as many people have mentioned above, tend to think of things as right and wrong and black and white. Its hard to think about some of the things I deal with during my senior thesis research in this way-- if my experiment doesn't work, I don't immediately think about all the other things it could be telling me. However, i really SHOULD think abotu all those things, because that is what science is all about... a lot of times we talked about there being a lack of definition (love, consciousness) and I think this is also applicable on a wider range of topics. what is more interesting is the question: do we really need a definition? often, im not sure we do need a concrete definition to study something-- isn't the studying it itself helping to define it? and dont our definitions change as we learn more and more about something? the other thing that i think its very important to remember is that we need to define things on a spectrum (as i mentioned above). AND, perhaps even more importantly still, we need to carefully consider the viewing and presenting audience. we cannot get outside our own personal human experience, so is there really some objective truth that exists outside of it? can we ever really attain such a thing? we have priviledged science in this way-- we feel that because science provides hard reproducible data it must be our way to discover such objective truth. this seems somewhat a fallacy in itself, because even our science is shaped by our own experience. therefore, i think one of the main things to keep in mind from this class is to consider the diversity with which we view the world-- and not to place our own interpretation of it on others and assume that their experience is similar (or judge it as better or worse) than our own.

i do want to thank everyone for such an interesting semester; the topics everyone chose were quite interesting and highly varied so it was great to have such a broad range of things to talk about. also, the discussions were insightful and definitely forced me to think about things in ways that I probably wouldn't have. I liked all the personal opinion and anecdote that were present throughout the discussion, it really brought the material onto a more personal level. so thanks to everyone!

natsu's picture

New insights and more questions

In reflecting what I have taken away from this course and from my research, what immediately comes to my mind is the question of whether there is a place for anecdotes and instincts/gut feelings in science. I think one of the things that was stressed most in most of the Psychology courses that I took at Bryn Mawr was the importance of being a critical reader of published studies. I remember having huge difficulties with this process when I first started as a student here, and I always had to read articles at least twice - once to understand the content of the article and a second time to find "holes". However, after going through this task numerous times with different professors and TAs, I realized a very easy way to do this. That is, if the author is supporting his/her evidence with an anecdote or a personal feeling in a scientific paper, it was an immediate red flag and worthy of attack. I actually clearly remember feeling one of those little light bulbs appearing in my mind, that I had just realized a new scientific formula for critical analysis: anecdote = unscientific and bad. This is why case studies are not as good as large-scale randomized control studies...


However, this semester I have been thinking more and more about whether there really is no place for anecdotes in science. Some of the most powerful statements that I remember from this seminar are different people's personal stories. In addition, when I actually carried out my research project and worked with my participants, I realized that there were many aspects of the research that could not be captured in a scientific article (or at least in an article that strictly follows the rules of what a scientific article should look like), but nonetheless seemed very important. While I was doing literature searches for my research, I came across some articles written by researchers who are starting to rethink the importance of case studies. Researchers have always been trying to get as many subjects as possible to perform a large-scale study (which is actually extremely difficult in aging research) but now some are starting to think that there might be a lot that we can learn from single-experimental studies and case studies. Of course, one might argue that case studies are quite different from anecdotes, but the point I am trying to make here is that just because sometime is not true for a huge number of people, that doesn’t mean that what we learn from that individual’s experience or perspective is meaningless to science.


One of the things I enjoyed the most about this seminar is that it provided me with opportunities to think about my thesis research in a different light. When we are frantically trying to collect data or reading article after article of past studies, it is so easy to get caught up in the data. I think that the discussion-based format of this seminar really helped me to step back and think about what I am learning from conducting my study at another level. Thank you everyone for all the insightful discussions!

Emily Alspector's picture


Coming to Haverford, I knew I wanted to be a psych major, but I also knew that neuroscience was incredibly interesting to me. I decided almost right away that the NBS concentration would be the perfect balance for me to educate myself both in what I love and what fascinates me (even though it proved to be very challenging). Taking this seminar, I was able to research, learn and discuss things that have always been of interest to me but were never really covered in any class in depth. We would always mention love, pain, psychotherapy, and psychosomatics, but never in such a way that stretches the brain to its full capacity the way this seminar has. Personally, I have been wanting to learn more about phantom limbs since I came here, but it was never in any curriculum. Hopefully in my presentation, my intrigue in this topic came across..the way that the brain and the body co-adapt to various situations is really amazing to me. And the idea of tricking the brain into thinking it's body is "whole" using mirrors really shakes the foundations of neuroscience and biological psych.

I found our discussion on diversity and productivity to be particularly interesting; the paradox that a more diverse setting will allow for the most productivity only on the condition that all parties get along (which is clearly not often the case) was a good starting point for the class. It showed that ideal situations are just not easily obtained because as humans, we are socially behaviorally complex; our behaviors clash with our brains appetite for efficiency and productivity.

Another interesting topic that I felt connection brain and behavior very well was the CBT discussion. Although there is a certain level of commitment and acceptance of the patient (which can have direct effects on CBT outcomes as well), the power of behavior (whether genuine or forced) on the brain is undeniable. It's also interesting to see the differences between patients who believe in the therapy and those that don't, because it seems that the power of positive thinking is greatly at play here.

Thanks for an interesting seminar everyone!

Amelia's picture

To agree with the other

To agree with the other comments, this course has certainly broadened my view of the field of science, not just by what I know, but by what I know I do not know. As others have said, I have often (if not always) seen science as firm and exact and never took the time to question what I was being presented. This seminar has let me question conclusions of ‘hard’ science research while adding to my knowledge on a variety of topics. It is not that I now doubt everything that I’ve been taught, but I can now think about these things on my own and draw my own conclusions.

Personally, our talk about animal models has had a profound impact on me. While I still believe the same thing as when I started the course (that these models provide a variety of information that we cannot obtain through other means), it has made me sit down and think through my exact thoughts and beliefs on the subject. I never really questioned our use of animal models before, and this course has allowed me to question and re-evaluate my support for their use. Through this process not only have my beliefs been reaffirmed, but also strengthened. Since I’m going to be using these models for a long time, most likely for the rest of my life, this was an important experience that I had to go through to be comfortable continuing with this work.

Lastly, our continued talk about disability and diversity has certainly made me think more carefully about how I categorize people. In general, how I categorize anything at all. After our talk about consciousness last week, I also feel as though I need to be more careful when talking about consciousness, and in doing so, I think that I am becoming much more aware of how often and how much we categorize people (as well as situations, events, laws, etc.). While I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, I feel as though I now am truly able to BE open-minded since I can see where I put people into categories (even if the categories are correct) and think about why I am doing this.

I am sure that this course, and how it has made me think as an individual, will stick with me through the rest of my career in science. I can draw my own conclusions, weigh categorizations, and support my belief in animal models besides just saying ‘I think they’re worthwhile’. Thank you everyone for all of great discussions.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Confronting Science

             I echo the sentiment that this course has been valuable, engaging, and broadening.  I also think it’s important to note that this senior seminar has been fundamentally different than any other science course I’ve taken in ways that are very important to me as a student.  First of all, it’s great to know that “hard science” can certainly be taught in a discussion-based seminar classroom.  This classroom structure certainly emphasizes different aspects of education. all in ways that I think are challenging, scientific, and valuable.  To be fair, I did not take away from this class the ability to regurgitate data, and if a standard test were administered to measure how much detailed information I remembered from any one presentation, I would certainly fail.  However, I value the things I did take away from this class much more than those things, included among them are

  • a sense of what we do know about given topics
  •  a sense of what we totally do not know
  •  the creative capacity to informally design experiments to find out more about things we don’t know
  •  a better understanding of the limitations of scientific objectivity
  • an appreciation of how intertwined (inseparable?) culture (sociology, anthropology, philosophy) is scientific endeavors. 

In retrospect, this class confronted and challenged what’s typically thought of as “a good/appropriate/standard science classroom” and demonstrated that it can be equally valuable, that equally good understandings, that equally good questions can be produced in a different format.  I think that’s a really great thing.  This overarching appreciation certainly has been the most important take home message for me, though I found all of the presentations to be intriguing, fun to discuss, and thought provoking.  I’m interested in working in a field that relies heavily on education, and so I appreciate the ways that I found this classroom to critique science. 

         On another note, it’s been great to take this course while concurrently taking my first philosophy course, especially since it’s one that attacks the field of science.  I’ve found that in broadening my course selection, I’ve become able to see science as a field with its own problems, with its own agenda, with its own limitations.  I see science now as something to be treated skeptically, not as an all-encompassing universalistic field.  This line of thinking was certainly to be found in many of our discussions, those on disability, diversity, romance, morality, gender differences, and consciousness among them to name a few.

         Thank you, everyone, for an enjoyable semester!


Gillian Starkey's picture

what we don't know

This class has had a surprisingly profound influence on how I receive and how I digest what I learn in my science classes. While our discussions have opened my eyes to what a wealth of information and knowledge we do have at our fingertips, I think the most salient realization I've come to is about how much we don't know. A lot of the topics we've covered have highlighted how much we (both as people in the world and also as scientists) assume to be true, without having any hard evidence -- and when we do have this hard evidence, how questionable even that can be. I've noticed that, over the semester, I've begun to view psychology and neuroscience as less of a fact-based, research-supported discipline and more of a theory-based, research-confused puzzle. This, though, means that I have a far deeper appreciation for the complexity of the field, and a heightened desire to involve myself in research that can contribute to the piecing-together of the puzzle. Four years of liberal-arts education have taught me to not just accept what I'm told; rather, to always pose questions and be receptive to new ideas. This class was the icing on the cake, in a sense -- it reaffirmed why it's so important to me to be open-minded about what and how I learn. In short, this class and the discussions we've engaged in have helped frame my questions about the brain and the mind that are the basis of why I love what I study. So thanks, everyone, for such an inspiring and thought-provoking class.

Danielle's picture


I have really enjoyed our NBS seminar and the breadth of topics covered. In this course I have broadened my understanding of biological topics by viewing them through a more social and cultural aspect. I think that the field of neuroscience has many complex issues that have not been fully explored, and this course has started to explore these issues through excellent conversation and leading questions.


I was really impressed with the openness of conversation in the course and I think that everyone brought up important issues. The course has stressed the importance of critically analyzing the sciences to develop a deeper understanding of the field. Although I have greatly enjoyed all the topics covered in the course, I think the conversations about consciousness have really tested my understanding of how we interact within the world. I really enjoyed the “gorilla in the background” study and think that it is interesting how everyone can be at a different level of consciousness or be conscious about different environmental cues.


I also really enjoyed our discussions about gender and I think that allot of science is driven by gender stereotypes and neglects the inherent variability between the human populace in terms of gender associations. I think that allot of conclusions made about gender are pushed to extremes within the gender spectrum. This class has really taught me to be more skeptical of scientific results and question the evidence.


I think that our discussions about disabilities have also brought me to think about how society molds our understanding and definitions of disabilities. I think that our society searches to find people that are different from what is considered to be “normal” or not the majority and attempts to label them as “different” or “disabled”. I think that “disabled” does not make these individuals any less capable than the majority.


The course has not only introduced many interesting topics, in the field of neuroscience, but also has engaged the class to come to new and novel conclusions. The course has introduced me to a new way of thinking about science and question the facts.


ebitler's picture

final thoughts...

I was also really surprised the approaches and directions that our nbs seminar wound up taking. I'm used to the idea that progress in science happens as the result of findings from a series of experiments and studies based on testable hypotheses. I think that we took a totally different approach in our seminar and it definitely required me to step outside of my comfort zone.

That said, I think that it was a really good experience for me to step outside of my comfort zone to think about some familiar (and some unfamiliar!) neural and behavioral science topics in a very different way. I think our seminar probably even promoted my "mental diversity" by approaching the various topics in a novel way. I've taken philosophy and sociology classes before, but it had never occurred to me that I could think about science topics (especially from the "hard sciences" like neurobiology and neuroscience) in the same manner that I've thought about sociology and philosophy topics.

I would also have to agree that I was really surprised with what I learned even within the topic that my group presented (or especially within our topic). What started out as an interesting news article about hippy drugs for PTSD turned into an overwhelming amount of information concerning an inappropriate relationship between politics and research, as well as inappropriate use of scientific findings. It was really dismaying that we've taken such a conservative approach to medical research in a country that prides itself for being on the cutting-edge of experimentation of all sorts.

I think that the biggest change for me coming out of this class is my increased skepticism towards the process of research. But then again, it's always good to question our research practices and think critically about if there's some way that we could be doing things better. I definitely think we could be approaching some of the medical research issues better, as well as the practices with animal experimentation. (Why has no one put together a data base of all the chemicals and pharmaceuticals that have been tested on animals and the results, even the negative ones? or the experiments that had null results? if PETA really wants to reduce the number of animals used annually this would be a great way for them to invest the money and energy that the government just doesn't seem to have to address the issue of needless experiment repetition...) I also think that while it may be inconvenient or even impossible to define some of the broad topics that came up in class, like diversity, love, and consciousness, breaking those terms into smaller definable parts may be the only way to actually make progress- or at least it seemed that way in our class.

So to sum up, I really think that this seminar has given me some new ways of thinking about things as well as a lot of information on some interesting topics. Thanks for everything everyone!

Stephanie's picture

final thoughts

I really enjoyed our discussions this semester in the NBS seminar.  They broadened my view of the Neural and Behavioral Sciences field.  I came into this seminar with a much narrower view of what the NBS field encompassed, and I am leaving this seminar with a much broader view of the NBS field.

I imagined that our discussions would focus on the brain and neurons every week with every topic because we were in an NBS seminar.  So, I was really surprised by the breadth and the depth of the topics we covered in our NBS seminar. I was specifically surprised with topics such as education and the brain, diversity and productivity, love, illicit drugs, social cognition and morality- really enjoyed discussing these topics in our NBS class and gaining some NBS insight into each of them.  I realized that the umbrella of topics covered in the NBS field is quite large.  Even my own topic choice I was surprised by: The Science of Love- although I was a bit nervous at first about choosing this topic for our NBS seminar and worried how relevant it would be, I feel that in the end, our topic was extremely relevant to NBS and raised interesting and controversial questions that relate to NBS.  

And then, even the topics I was less surprised to encounter like consciousness, psychosomatics, pain, gender differences, psychotherapy, and animal models- still ended up surprising me in our discussions.  The discussions were not as I expected- they were not straightforward and not as clear cut as I had imagined.  

This seminar has demonstrated to me the power and importance of interdisciplinary study.  Bringing diverse minds together allows for deep, creative insights to be made.  NBS as a concentration in the bi-co is interdisciplinary in nature bringing together departments of psychology, biology, cognitive science, and computer science together.  I value the NBS concentration and I grateful to have had the opportunity to experience such interdisciplinary classes, discussions, work, and thinking.   

atuttle's picture

Breadth vs. Depth

I definitely agree with Stephanie on the points that this class broadened by view of the behavioral sciences, as well as forcing me to re-examine much of the research that I had taken for granted during the past several years of studying both Psychology and Biology. While I was aware of some of the current controversy involving mental medications, drug policy here in the US, and animal research, the student topics helped to increase my knowledge about the various arguments being made by different social groups.

That being said, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of structure in both class organization and work expectations. I feel that a course of this nature is a wonderful addition to a liberal arts education, but in terms of serving as a 300-level, culminating course I was expecting something which could cater more to my specific intellectual interests and areas of study. I feel that much of the diversity among topics came from the large and varied student body which comprised the class this past semester. This is good for broadening my understanding about different topics, but I was hoping for something that would be a bit more in-depth. Future courses may benefit from smaller group architecture (i.e., classes within a class) to present different topics each week so that students may explore their areas in greater detail while still working alongside students with different interests.

I will be happy to talk about this more tonight.

~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

Felicia's picture

final thoughts

In an academic discipline I naively assumed to be completely cut and dry, quantitative, this course has opened my eyes even more to the way science works. Part of the reason I was drawn into science is because so much of it is quantitative – we measure things, and from those things we can draw conclusions about the way things work. At the same time, biology, neurobiology even more so, has this other indefinable facet that seems to mean something different to all of us.


Our continuing discussion on animal models was an important one for me as a scientist, and it’s now something I think about each time I go into lab. I find myself struggling to really make sense of this (evolutionary) animal hierarchy we perpetuate. I believe that research that will ultimately benefit us as humans is worth it, but I’m having a hard time untangling that from what may just feel morally okay because it’s what I grew up with. In the same vein, I think this feeling has also come up in many discussions – like Elliot mentioned with psychotropic drugs. How much of my initial disagreement with drugs as therapeutics comes from the culture I was raised in? And how much of my change of mind comes from a “backlash” of that upbringing? Again, in a broader sense, why do I have these specific moral beliefs in the first place and what to extent (and how) can they change with age, culture, experience?


Maybe the thing I’m leaving this seminar with is the knowledge that these questions may never be completely answered – at least not for each of us. The beauty of biology, I think, is the fact that such concrete (in my mind) facts about how we work will never tell the whole story. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue this knowledge, and it sure won’t stop me from doing so, but I think there’s an inevitable wall we’re going to hit. If we could really use molecular biology to explain consciousness and morality and the power of the brain, I think it would speak to the simplicity of our species. Our intricacies outnumber our abilities as an organism to explain them – and I think that’s pretty cool.

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Final Thoughts...

I started this semester talking about my background as a biology major at Haverford. As a student interested in the sciences, I find my focus often geared towards looking for reasonable, rational, logistical answers to posed questions. That’s often what biology and scientific research aims to do, at least from what I have experienced. Furthermore, my previous courses in biology and psychology have often focused on the molecular and genetic aspects of whatever topic being taught. This course had quite a different spin from these characteristics, and I think this immediately became clear in many of our complex, almost philosophical discussions. This different style incorporated the discussion that I have found more prevalent in my non-science courses while generally keeping it focused to a particular NBS-related topic. I think this change was somewhat unexpected and personally difficult at times, but also rewarding. People definitely brought up things I had never considered before, and the weekly topics allowed me to learn about a number of subjects I had never given intense thought to previously.


As for what understandings of mine have changed throughout the course, I’m not really sure. I can specifically speak to my own group’s presented topic (psychedelic drugs and treatment potential) more so than the others, just because it’s the most present in my mind. Throughout my life, I’ve been raised to think those types of drugs (e.g. LSD) are “bad” drugs. There seems to be the qualitative judgment associated with good drugs and bad drugs, and the psychedelics on which we presented have never been shown in a positive light. However, after doing the research, the short-term and long-term side effects do not appear so horrible, especially if the drugs are used in a controlled setting. Furthermore, their potential to help people suffering from various illnesses or pains seems quite great. There doesn’t seem to actually be tons of research support their current class I description, and yet it’s also difficult to get good research on the other side supporting their use in medical treatments. Learning more about this topic definitely changed my own views about psychedelic drugs and how we truly need to learn more about their incredible potential.


This course opened up an infinite number of questions to be continued in further discussions. There are way too many pose, so instead I’m going to quickly discuss some of the major themes I’ve taken away from our conversations. 1) Individual diversity is crucial to recognize in almost every facet of life. 2) One can never truly understand what another person (or animal for that matter) is experiencing, feeling, or thinking. 3) Satisfactory definitions are difficult to generate. 4) The interplay between biology, psychology, and sociology are incredibly close (or at least fundamentally related).


Thanks to everyone for some interesting discussion over the past few months and I’m looking forward to hear what the rest of you have to share between now and Tuesday…