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Reflections: brain and behavior

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. You're welcome to post here any thoughts that have arisen during the course this week (and to respond to thoughts others have posted)

So, what has changed (or not changed) in your thinking about the brain, behavior, and/or the relation between them in our semester?  If you need some help reflecting, go back to your thoughts at the beginning of the semester and use those as a starting point.  

heather's picture

the white noise of reality

professor grobstein suggested i share a personal weird neurological story on the forum. the link is to my final webpaper, which explains and discusses what happened.

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

This semester has been a

This semester has been a very interesting and fascinating journey. I have learned a great deal about the brain and behavior and hope have taught others some things as well through the forum and my web papers. I enjoyed all the discussions both in class and in the forum. This whole semester I would leave class or exit the forum, dizzy because of all the thoughts running through my mind. It's too bad that the class had to end because I still have so many questions to ask.

I loved how we learned about science through discussion and not lecture. I liked that the students were able to question and answer interesting topics ourselves with the guidance of Dr. Grobstein. Although somewhat confused at times, I feel like I learned a lot more than I would have in a traditional lecture.

My favorite topic this semester was no doubt the discussions about reality. Although we never got to a direct answer of what it is, I enjoyed the process we took to get to different conclusions. I know that everyone still has their own idea of what reality is, but I have learned this semester that any idea of reality can be right because they are all a hypothesis. I have learned that we cannot prove anything in science, but only find more evidence about a hypothesis. Therefore, we should not abandon any idea.

From Emily Dickenson to boxes to Christopher Reeves to the i-function, we have traveled so far. I can only thank Dr. Grobstein and my classmates for a great semester and expanding my knowledge of the nervous system and behavior.

Anna G.'s picture

Reading through the posts

Reading through the posts that others have left, two thoughts in particular resonant with me. Angel discusses one of the things that I think is most vital in accepting scientific query. This is the rejection of the thought that perhaps if we discover the truth about everything, we’ll find we are boxed in; that life is dull, and that the rainbow, once unwoven, is no longer beautiful. I think this class has made it pretty clear that the rainbow, once unwoven, is not in anyway less beautiful, in fact it is more so. Like the rainbow, we have spent time this semester looking at processes in the brain. But has this demystified the brain? Reduced it to boring and predicable cables? No, in fact, we’ve discussed some pretty outrageous things that the brain does, things we never would have expected nor even though possible. Learning that so much goes on in the brain has merely expanded the query for knowledge, and immeasurably increased my respect and admirable for the mass of cells that sits protected in my skull, composing what is me.


The other post that I thought was definitely true was Jackie’s. She talks about how this class made us re-evaluate the very process of living. In our everyday lives we see things that need processing. While before we simply let our brain do this processing, now our I-function is aware (well, more aware) of the brains actions. It makes you stop and wonder if the things you act upon are really things you want to act upon, or things you’ve simply become accustomed to. One instance I can recall was in Orgo Lab. Jackie and I were writing down observations, and one was that the oil was yellow. It was after the class where we discussed color and vision, and we both looked up and said, “Well…it appears as if it is yellow….so it must be giving off the average wavelength of about 570 nm.”


Overall, I think this class was very important because it made us realize the fact that our brain is really just a storyteller. While I disagree with the claim that science isn’t after truth; it is, just a relative truth that our human capabilities limit, this class has made us all very cognizant of the fact that we know things we don’t know how we know, and that we don’t actually know things that we think we know.


I think the major take home message for me from this class was that I have a lot more thinking to do on how I define reality and truth. I’m a person who tends to believe that there are concrete truths, and while we may be limited in how we can approach and understand them, that they exist. I’d like to know how the brain works, how it functions, and I believe that one day its functioning can be explained. However, this will leave us in a more precarious place than we are now in trying to define reality and free will. While I do believe in free will and reinforcing behaviors though our brain, I think that when more becomes elucidated about our brain, that we will have to make an even clearer distinction on how we choose what we choose to be. I don’t believe this is cause to concern however, but merely a challenge to set out upon, and this class has really been a runway for the acceptance and understanding of this kind of thought.'s picture

my own reality

   Some parts of the lectures during this semester made me happy in the sense that I was often told that many things were not real or were not true and for some reason, it was refreshing because it felt as though I had cheated myself out of the "system" of reality and found a loophole to make my life a bit easier....But then I realized, despite the fact that these things may not be real, everything around me is influenced by them, resulting to me having to abide by them as well...So then that would make me sad again.

   All the routines, the studying and papers, homework that is due by next week isn't really there?  Isn't really due?  Doesn't really matter?

   But in the end, even if it is true or not, existent or not, it does matter and no matter how hard I don't want to write papers and take exams, I am forced to do so....

   This class was enlightening in the sense that I was given another way of looking at things, but I must admit, unfortunately, that my own reality is just the same.

Jackie Marano's picture

Thanks to All!

       Wow...what a class this was for me this semester! I don't think words could quite describe how much our class and forum discussions have changed the way I think about the brain, behavior, my own actions/thoughts/perceptions of reality, but also about human and animal behaviors and other assorted phenomena. It is amazing to me how even in this day and age with our ever-expanding summaries of observations, we as humans are still quite perplexed about the 'hows' and the 'whys' of the brain and behavior. I have even begun to think about some of the topics that we have discussed in relation to other areas of study. For example, in today's world, we can more readily discuss the more technical aspects of the brain (chemicals, channels, neurons, etc) in attempt to make more precise summaries of observations, or to explain some what we observe. BUT in the past, such complexities were less known, and perhaps this is why religion was so important and so central to many societies. And as we continue to make summaries of observations, what could this mean for the future of religion? Will science trump religion eventually? Or maybe not completely, since we will never really know everything?

       Also I think that the topics of our class and forum discussions were even more fascinating because pretty much everything that we contemplated or considered is in some way something we encounter (consciously or not) every day of our life. For example, we can now think more scientifically and philosophically about what we 'see,' 'hear,' 'smell,' 'feel,' and 'taste.' Who is to be held accountable for the good and the bad that note in our everyday world? Even something as simple as walking is really quite complex and mapped out at some level in the nervous system. And if we are paralyzed and cannot walk, what are the implications of this? The nervous system isn't necessarily dead in this is more likely partitioned in a severe way. And if we are not awake and taking note of the world around us, what are we doing in our sleep? What keeps us from acting out our dreams? What happens when the I-function and the rest of the body don't sleep at the same time (as in sleep paralysis, for example)? Are there evolutionary underpinnings or advantages to all of these phenomena?

      There have been so many mind-opening discussions and experiences in this class this semester, and I really don't believe I will ever perceive the world around me in the same less-sophisticated sort of way. I think that our careful consideration of what is around us and what accounts for who we are was a really enriching experience, and our collaborative thinking about all of this was the foundation for all of my new perceptions and thoughts. I think that this course has brought to my attention that I am MOST GRATEFUL for being able to think. I think there is that saying, "I think, therefore I am." That could not be closer to the truth. No matter what is 'real' and what is 'not real,' the fact that we can all think and share our ideas...and this is something that we must not take for granted!


mcrepeau's picture

The Universe from the inside and other things

As has been previously stated, I would like to generally thank Professor Grobstein, as well as, the members of and participants in this class and forum for contributing to how I look at, view, and understand myself (especially in establishing the implications allied to the suggestion of just how odd and interesting that self-objectification really is) and generally helping me to get it less wrong. For me the most significant part of this course, beyond obtaining a better and uniquely approached understanding as to the underlying mechanics behind certain neurological systems i.e. how the eye works, corollary discharge, reafferrent loops, etc. function, has been the dialogue between the quote un-quote perceived "abnormal activity" (the implications of hallucinations and auditory phenomena, possession, voices, even some psychosomatic issues) experienced by the brain which can be construed as "paranormal" and workings of the brain itself. The understanding that the brain is perfectly capable of generating its own input and output and experiencing these activities as indistinct from external stimuli does not detract from a fascination with out-of body experiences, past life experiences, "ghostly" encounters, possession, etc. but instead only serves to augment the neurological orchestrations which are able to produce these inputs and outputs and then format them into a story, a story that is just as amazing and "real" to the nervous system as any external, perhaps more expected or more accurate stimuli.

Also, the break down of the dichotomy between the mind/body paradigm and the quest for the authentic self within that paradigm has likewise been a fascinating, useful experience for me. Especially, the realization that the "self" is not limited to the special part(s) of the nervous system designated as the objectifying, storytelling "I-function" but is composed of all the distinct qualities and aspects of the whole nervous system (beyond the brain and part of the body), the mannerisms, learned and innate, and idiosyncrasies, and unique patterning of physical behaviors that are as much apart of who we are, both to ourselves and to other people, as the "I" in our head. That ourselves are both mind and body, all that is recognized and objectified by the "I-function" adds an interesting twist on eons of philosophical, theological, and medical debate concerning the place of the body and the mind in the universe. The mind is just a part of the body and the body is just a construct of the mind and somehow together they form the universe from the inside.

Jessica Krueger's picture

I think my favorite portion

I think my favorite portion of the class, the real "take home message for me" was that science, though always in pursuit of something, is rarely undertaken in pursuit of truth. To me, the "less wrong" nature of science is determined by limitations on the creatures which do science: humans. If anything, this entire review of how we come to behave and think the way we do has cast a critical light on even the most "objective" of findings. We can only understand what we can perceive, and because of that, we really can't even wholly understand what we do perceive for the chance that something outside of our scope of experience is really driving the phenomenon we're observing: a third variable effect, if you will.


To that end, I'm not convinced that Professor Grobstein's demonstration of free will really was that. Changing what I see based on another person's demand to do so seems to me more like following an order, and for some reason I can't shake this feeling that the changing arrows is just another trick of the nervous system. Furthermore, given how beholden we are to our central nervous system for information to fill-out our stories, what good is free will? We cannot will ourselves to detect everything our nervous system does any more than we can will ourselves off the ground. What is the purpose of free will inside a human machine?

Sophie F's picture


I have really enjoyed our ongoing discussions. More than anything, my thoughts about human behavior have been expanded to include a greater sensitivity to and understanding of the nervous system role in shaping human experience. From our class foundation of the expansive Emily Dickinson view of the mind as residing within the brain, we have come full circle. The breadth of examples both within humans and other organisms of the relatedness of the boxes within the nervous system and their role in giving context and meaning to experiences. The ways in which inputs to the nervous system generate outputs and, too, how outputs can be generated without inputs simultaneously demystifies human experience and explains the variability in perception. Particularly, the areas of pain, specifically chronic pain, and other nervous system compensatory mechanisms make more sense than when the semester began. The ways in which the nervous system integrates conflicting information and how the I-function mediates reality. I like the idea that the I-function can create and overcome realities, as realities are just a best guess.

Thanks for the thought-provoking dialogue.

evanstiegel's picture

First and foremost, this

First and foremost, this course introduced to me to many unbelievable and complex functions of the brain and nervous system.  The lack of understanding about both the brain and behavior that I brought into this course was mostly overcome, and I leave with new understandings of brain/nervous system/behavior that I have always taken for granted.  However, I am left with many unanswered questions.  I guess this was point because it is difficult for me to believe  that anyone leaving this course could leave wihtout many new questions.  These questions will probably  motivate new observations which I guess is more support for loopy science...
Angel Desai's picture

My own self-understanding

I think in part, some of the things I learned this semester have made me realize that autonomy in action was misrepresented in my own belief. While I thought that would make me feel helpless in the face of the nervous system and free will, I feel more empowered in many ways. While I understand that "boxes" inside of the nervous system literally guide my behavior and action, the fact that I recognize that allows me the freedom to believe that people can revise parts of their behavior. Bottom line, I am not "stuck" in a pattern of behavior that I don't like...and more importantly, the person that I am is interconnected in some way to everyone else. My environment shapes me, and I shape it in return.


Thanks for the great semester all! :)

eambash's picture

Accounting for agency

Like Caitlin, I think what I have gotten out of this semester is a way of combining my interest in raw details with my need for a bigger story, picture, or philosophy to account for imperfections. Ideas like the I-function and synaptic thresholds allow for a level of spontaneity and uncertainty even while providing some answers as to how the nervous system actually works. Similarly, looking at how the inner system relates to the outer world and all its stimuli helps me understand why we call it a nervous "system" and why that system is characterized by nerves instead of by chemical or motor impulses carried by, or through, those nerves.

At the beginning of the semester, I was pretty insistent on dispensing with the idea of a "mind" except as a grey area that helped account for our inability to find great language with which to talk about science. I think at this point I still agree that I don't like the word "mind" in this context. Maybe, though, I am more flexible in terms of how I think about that "grey area" and what it means. Maybe there IS a level of consciousness and agency that we simply can't describe completely. I still think that talking about the nervous system as a network of computers is not harmful to the idea of humans as primary agents. I think the level of randomness and uncertainty built into the system, and the necessity for the system to interpret signals from the outside world as well as from within it, makes talking about any system not a reductive but an additive way of talking. Above all, I think this class has helped give me a vocabulary of reference for thinking about HOW to account for agency within a system and how to account for a system within an agent.

Caitlin Jeschke's picture

Enlightening Semester

I came into this class with some knowledge of senses and behavior from a cultural/anthropological perspective, and a basic understanding of how neurons worked.  Through our discussions, I have learned so much more about neurobiology, and had the opportunity to explore completely new ideas.  One of the most interesting discoveries for me this semester was the idea of the “I-function”, and its relation to conscious v. unconscious behavior.  I also really enjoyed exploring the architecture of the nervous system in detail, particularly discussing the way that the interpretation of reafferent loop and corollary discharge signals affects output/behavior.  One thing that hasn’t changed throughout the semester is my belief that the brain and the rest of the nervous system (as opposed to a “mind” or “soul”) are responsible for all aspects of behavior.  In fact, this opinion has been strengthened by many of the examples that we discussed in class.  However, I am now able to combine this “purely chemical” viewpoint with the acknowledgement that the nervous system is in fact a “storyteller” that, at times, can do some very unpredictable things.  Overall, this semester has been enlightening.   Thanks, everyone, for sharing all of your interesting ideas!  

Paul Grobstein's picture

and on ...

My thanks, all, for an engaging, rich, and productive semester. Among the things I'll take away from it are