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Neurobiology and Behavior, Spring, 2010, Home Page

Welcome to the home page of Biology 202 at Bryn Mawr College. Pleased to have you here. I'm looking forward to an interesting,enjoyable, productive semester of "getting it less wrong", and hope you are too. Let's have some fun, and see what we can all make out of it together.


Students (and visitors) should be aware that this is a "non-traditional" science course in several respects (see course information).  Its primary goal is not to convey a particular set of observations and understandings but rather to facilitate the sharing of observations and understandings so as to generate understandings as yet unconceived and further inquiries reflecting them.


Literary and historical starting points

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside-

The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Bue -
The one the other will absorb -
As sponges - Buckets - do

The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As syllable from Sound -

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Mind and Body:
Rene Descartes to William James

The course is organized in relation to the following general presumptions (see course information for specifics):
  • Neurobiology, like all science, is an ongoing process of trying to make sense of the world and one's relation to it by a recursive and unending process of making observations, summarizing the observations in new understandings, and using the summaries/understandings to motivate new observations.
  • Neurobiology is of interest and is accessible to everyone, and is an essential tool in the repertoire of anyone who is themself trying to make sense of who they are and how they relate to the world around them.
  • Neurobiology, like all science, is best assimilated by a process in which people themselves work through in their own minds and in relation to their own experiences and understandings relevant observations and the summaries of those observations suggested by others. Education, like science, should be an ongoing process of making observations, summarizing the observations as new understandings, and using the summaries to motivate new questions, observations, and understandings.
  • Neurobiology, like all science, is a social process, one in which the observations and tentative summaries are shared among individuals, so that each can benefit from the ongoing inquiries of others. For this reason, students (like faculty) will be expected to actively engage in all aspects of the course, including making thoughts in progress available not only to other students in the course but to the world at large by way of an on-line forum and web papers.

Course Information

Course Schedule

Course Announcements

Course Lecture/Discussion Notes, Notes2 (from 20 April on)

Course Forum Area

Writing Assignments

2010 Web Papers

Some Literary and Historical Starting Points

Course Evolving Book List

Course Evolving Web Resource List

Neurobiology and Behavior Resources on Serendip

Mental Health Resources, from Serendip and the Center for Science in Society


Course announcements

Getting started

Browse around links on this page. Get a sense of what's here, and how it does (or doesn't) relate to things you might be interested in. Look for things that surprise you, cause you to think differently (rather than things that are what you expect, support the ways you already think). Think about what you think you know about brain and behavior, and why, and what puzzles you, and why (what IS "thinking"? and what's it good for?). And expect to be wrong, over and over again (see Getting it Less Wrong). That's the best starting place ... for any kind of scientific inquiry. And the best way starting place for the productive sharing of ideas with others as well.

Some additional recent Serendip materials and ongoing conversations you might find interesting include

The Novelist and the Neurobiologist
The Art Historian and the Neurobiologist
The Psychoanalyst and the Neurobiologist
The Empirical Non-Foundationalist and the Phenomenologue
Exploring Mental Health
Exploring Depression
Reality and Virtual Reality
Where Does it All Come From?
Multiple Worlds, Multiple Interpretations, Quantum Physics and the Brain
Loopiness: Conflict, Humanness, and the Universe
Evolving Humanity: Towards a "Third Way"
Evolving Systems

And some recent relevant news stories

Neurotalk: improving the communication of neuroscience research, Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Jan 2010)
Accept defeat: the neuroscience of screwing up, Wired (Dec 2009)

Introduce yourself in the forum area below by responding to the following ...

  • What distinctive experiences/characteristics do you bring to the conversation this semester?
  • What are the most important three questions that you hope neurobiology and behavior will prove capable of answering?

January 26

"I am just wondering if we have any reading assignments for next week because I am confused as to where this is posted on Serendip."

There are no explicit reading assignments for Bio 202. "You should, however, plan to spend a minimum of two to three hours a week on related readings. Suggestions for particular online readings relevant to material being discussed each week will be made in class, but you should yourself be exploring available resources for materials that match your interests and background" (/exchange/courses/bio202/s10/syllabus).  For the former, see links in lecture/discussion notes at /exchange/courses/bio202/s10/notes.  For the latter, see my "Getting started" note under "Course Announcements" at /exchange/courses/bio202/s10/home and responses to your introductory postings below.

You should also be getting started on reading for your first web paper, and picking/reading a book for commentary. 

Back to brain as constructor, and science?

2 February

For more encouragement re web paper topics, books for commentary, see comments in week 1 forum

Some non-course related opportunities


 Back to science, Descartes, Dickinson, and the brain

 4 February

Examining the Sacred, Swarthmore, lecture 4:30 today, panel discussion 5 tomorrow

Train of thought is found in "vegetative" patient, NYTimes this morning

Back to models of the brain

 9 February

First web paper due 23 February, posted and hard copy in class.  See instructions

For more on loopy classrooms, see Subjectivities and objectivities in classrooms and beyond.  Thanks for class contributions to that.  

For more on "Examining the Sacred," brain, loopiness,  see  On beyond the algorithmic universe. 

Back to the material brain

16 February

First web paper due 23 February, posted and hard copy in class.  See instructions.  Looking forward to seeing what you've created.

For continuation of my thinking about classrooms and cultures see Cultures of ability. Thanks for class contributions to that.  

Biology seminar, 4:15 today, Room 229: Roian Egnor '90, Vocalization in mice and monkeys

The Voices of Tourette's Syndrome, NYTimes on line, !0 Feb 2009

Back to the material brain

23 February

See directory of first web papers.  I'll be commenting on them on-line as well as in an email to each of you.  Have a look at your colleagues' papers, add thoughts of your own on one or more?

Back to brain and on to neuronal signals 

2 March

Depression's Upside, NYTimes, 25 Feb 2009

Human Culture: An Evolutionary Force, NYTimes, 1 March 2009

Back to neuronal signals

16 March

Email comments sent to nearly all (the rest today).  Some interesting common topics in first web paper set:


Psilocybin, hallucinations, and spiritual enlightenment
A revision of vision

Hypnotizability,  Conversion disorder, Hysteria

Awareness, personal identity (see also "Brain and culture")

Behavior without memory
Shyness of brain
What am I? to who am I?
Gender identity and the brain
Foreign accent syndrome and identity
A first look at depersonalization and derealization

Brain, the world, and culture (see also "Awareness, personal identity")

Western culture of science and its synthesis of mental health and illness
A ubiquitous univeral grammar
Deproblematizing synesthesia and metaphor
The physical world, time travel, and embodied cognition

Dickensians and Descartians

Neurological correlates of transexuality
A spiritual materialist

Next web paper due 6 April. 

On to between neurons and behavior

23 March

Next web paper due 6 April, probably also good idea by this point to be reading book for commentary.

No class Thursday.  PG giving talk on "Science, Culture, Education, and the Brain." Notes, maybe video, to be available later. 

Back to central pattern generation, corollary discharge

30 March

Science, culture, education, and the brain

Deconstructing and reconstructing cultures and individuals

"Biology and the concept of death as un-American", Rothenberg Lecture in Biology and Public Policy, Lynn Pasquerella, Thursday, 8 April, Ely Room, Wyndham

Next web paper due 6 April, probably also good idea by this point to be reading book for commentary.

Back to CPG's, corollary discharge, and ...

6 April

Second set of web papers

Can animals be gay?, NYTimes Magazine, 29 March 2010

On to sensory systems

13 April

Third web paper and book commentary both due, hard copy and on-line, at end of semester (seniors, May 7; others, May 14)

Back to reality

20 April

Enjoyed, learned from second set of web papers, on-line comments available (except for last six), emails to come.  Some interesting clusters ...

Seeing without eyes

The classification problem:

Distributed systems

Brain and spirituality

27, 29 April

Third web paper and book commentary both due, hard copy and on-line, at end of semester (seniors, May 7; others, May 14).  Hard copy should be turned in in the box on the door of room 111.

Please complete a brief on-line department course assessment at

Please pay one last visit to the course forum, responding to questions posed at Reflections.

Back to I-function/story teller


Kwarlizzle's picture


Hi everyone,

I'm Naa Kwarley Quartey, a junior biology major. I am Ghanaian, and growing up in a relatively conservative, quite religious, very collectivist society definitely affects my worldview. In his class, I am interested in learning about what goes on 'behind the scenes' so to speak, to determine how we make decisions and go about our lives.

Oh, my user name is Kwarlizzle. It's a silly little nickname that a friend gave me, and now all myy closest friends use it. I quite like it.

Here's to a great semester!

Paul Grobstein's picture

cultural variation and brain variation?

Maybe growing up in a "relatively conservative, quite religious, very collectivist society" (and any another other society for that matter) affects "what goes on 'behind the scenes'?", ie the brain?  There's increasing exploration of this issue, and it might be the starting point for an interesting web paper.  See, for example, MIT brain imaging study looks at cultural influences.  

Congwen Wang's picture

My (belated) intro

Hello, my name is Congwen. I'm a freshman biology major in Bryn Mawr. My most interested field of study is plant taxonomy, which seems unrelated to neuroscience. However, through our class discussions in the past two weeks, I find that my interest of organisms without nervous system actually helps me think about questions outside of the human world, and consider more about the interaction between human and the environment.

The three questions that I want to learn through this class are:

1. Is there a structural/genetic/material base for human morality and ethics?  In my intro bio Lab, we had some discussion on the topic; the answer seemed to be yes according to research on behaviors of chimpanzees. What I want to know is, how great the influence of "material" have? Does the theory drawn from chimpanzee behaviors also applies to ethics in a higher level, such as ethics generated from religion?

2. I'm very interested in science related to sleep and dreams. Why do some people need much more sleep than others?

3. Is there any literature on the brain activies of those people in a permanent coma? Do they still think? Can they sense pain?


Paul Grobstein's picture

plants and brains

I too think that thinking about plants can help us better understand humans.  See discussion of trees in Writing Descartes.   And that does indeed relate to altered "states of consciousness."  Perhaps in some states (termed, aptly?, "vegetative states") we are more like trees?  There is indeed an evolving literature on "coma" (and an evolving definition of what "coma" means).   Exploring that in relation to what trees and other plants do/don't do might make an interesting web paper.   

Vicky Tu's picture


Hello, my name is Vicky. I don't have much background in the field of neurobiology but I have always been interested in knowing more about it. I have taken a psychology class last year. It got me very interested to learn more about the reasons behind the behaviors of humans.

My three important questions are:
1) Throughout human history there are so many cases of extreme violence committed by common people, like the Holocaust and Nanking Massacre. I am wondering what is going on in the nervous system when those perfectly healthy common people turn into a ruthless monster. Is violence genetically embodied in all of us?

2)There are overachievers and underachievers. What in the brain causes the differences?

3)Some people are very self-conscious and shy while some people can naturally always be the center of attention and at ease. I wonder what causes this difference.

Paul Grobstein's picture

human diversity: shyness

I'll be you differences are always the result of a combination of genes, personal experiences, cultural influences, and ... individual imagination, the ability to create new understandings.  More than worth looking into for any given example.  Try searching "shyness brain" on Serendip for some starting point in this particular case.

yml's picture


*Sorry for the late posting. I had been having some issue with login process, and it's been solved now.

Hi, my name is Cathy and I'm a senior psychology major at Bryn Mawr. Although I'm a psychology major (and a senior), I never had a class about neurobiology, or any neuro- etc, because I'm not a biology person and I was scared of all the brains and neuro talks. But I'm feeling good about this class in that it's not a traditional science course and it's open to anything (correct?)

I don't know what neurobiology and behavior actually are, so I don't know what to expect or hope to be proven. But I guess I'm interested to related the psychological issues I've learned to the brain and why they are acting in ways they do. I'm currently writing a senior thesis on early lexical development of Korean toddlers and comparing it with US toddlers. I want to know how and what function does the brain do in terms of language acquisition and if they are different for people from different races, ethnicity, and cultures.

Relating to the cultural issues, I'm also very interested in cultural effects on people and their "identity" issues. I'm from Korea and I've been getting my education in the states since middle school (13 years olds). However, my family has always been living in Korea all those years, so I go back and forth between two countries at least once, mostly twice a year. And I realize many people, especially children growing up in two or more cultures wonder about their identity and have hard time labeling their nationalities. I don't know yet how this topic will relate and connect with neurobiology and behavior sense, but I hope I can look at this topic in more depth as this class progress.

Paul Grobstein's picture


The relations among brain and language and culture are interesting, complex, and increasingly the focus of work by interdisciplinary exploration including neurobiologists.  For some possible starting points, see and, on Serendip, Individuals and cultures and The brain and social organization/culture

Riki's picture


Hello, I'm Riki and I'm a junior biology major and NBS concentrator. I wasn't really that interested in the brain and emergent mind until I found myself severely depressed early freshman year here. I have been medicated for milder but annoyingly persistent depression and disabling anxiety that leads to panic attacks (you'll probably never hear me speak in class because of this) since my freshman year of high school and am still medicated for all.

I think the term "mental illness" is ridiculous and often not helpful. I have yet to meet a neurotypical person. I wish mental differences weren't so stigmatized. They are more common than you think, and I wish people didn't have to be scared of sharing their own experiences, because if they did share, they would likely discover that they are not alone. I think talk therapy can be productive for everyone and should not be a subject of shame and weakness. I easily get confused about what terminology is most helpful for saying that someone has a mental disorder because most combinations make me feel uncomfortable.

I am curious about many things; most escape my slippery brain at the moment.

1. I heard about a theory that natural psychoactive drugs were/are important for the evolution of the brain, but I haven't looked into this yet

2. animal cognition (only read half of Temple Grandin's Animals In Translation)

3. to what extent skills can be developed via lucid dreaming

4. I read this article over break, and I think I would like to write one of my papers about brain farts and the default mode network

Paul Grobstein's picture

neurodiversity and the default

"I wish mental differences weren't so stigmatized. They are more common than you think, and I wish people didn't have to be scared of sharing their own experiences, because if they did share, they would likely discover that they are not alone."

Nicely said.  For interested others, see links in my response to Colette below.  And Neurodiversity and the Slippery Brain Sodality.

And nice link, the "default mode network" is a relatively new, quite interesting exploration in neurobiology, well worth a paper (or several)  For another aspect of it, see meditation and the brain.


Eve Gleichman's picture


Hey, my name is Eve Gleichman, and I'm a junior English major at Haverford. I have no academic biology background (post high school) but did spend several years before primary education at Gallaudet in Washington, DC alongside hearing and non-hearing students and teachers and have developed an interest in different levels of communication and behavior, perhaps in part due to that experience. I just came back from a semester abroad in Belgium where I took a European art history course. I took particular interest in 20th century surrealist art. I'm interested in exploring some of the philosophical themes in surrealism, especially perception of the self and others; how do we "paint" ourselves for the people we are close to and the people we're not, and how do we cope with being the only ones to fully know ourselves? How do we come to form the ways we present ourselves to others, and how different is our perception of ourselves from others' perception of us? Oh here's a cool Magritte painting which probably illustrates these questions better than I could; a man paints his wife because he can never "get inside" her brain and truly know her -- all he knows is a representation of the truth:

Paul Grobstein's picture

surrealism and neurobiology/behavior

That's a topic that would be well worth exploring further.  For a sketch of some thoughts along these lines (and some more Magritte paintings), see The brain's images: reflecting and creating human understanding and Getting it less wrong: the brain's way.  Gallaudet is also a promising connection.  Have a look at Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices, if you haven't already. 

ewippermann's picture


Hi, I’m a freshman at Bryn Mawr, and am thinking about majoring in Linguistics. My linguistics professor this semester referred to linguistics as a “primitive science,” and I think the description very apt: the field is so far behind other sciences (modern linguistics wasn’t established until 60 some years ago), but the yield from research will definitely bring new revelations concerning cognitive and neurological function. So far, I’ve read works that argue about the brain and cognitive function and evolution without really understanding a lot the science behind the arguments and case studies, and I’d like to be able to better discriminate between debates. Because so little is actually known about the brain, and the questions I have now are proven unanswerable (so far), I’m hoping the class will help me generate new intelligent and worthwhile questions.

Paul Grobstein's picture

linguistics and neurobiology

There are indeed lots of interesting intersections between linguistics and neurobiology, and its likely they will become more intertwined in years to come.  Among them, see Naming Nature.  Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices raises some interesting issues about language and cognition from his experiences with deaf communities and sign. 

natmackow's picture


Hi, I’m Natalie. I’m a Bryn Mawr sophomore biology major and am taking pre-med courses. I took psychology in high school and that made me interested in the complexity of the brain and how it works. What really got me was the fact that, despite all our research on the brain and central nervous system, there is so much about behavior, mental illnesses, language acquisition, etc. that we don’t yet know. I’ve taken linguistics courses and know a bit about syntax and the so-called “Language Faculty” (components of the brain that allow humans the innate ability to acquire and utilize language). I think I can bring some of this knowledge to our discussions.

A few questions I would like to investigate over the course of this semester are:
1) How do addictions or compulsions manifest in the brain? How do people become physically, mentally, and emotionally dependent upon a set of actions or drugs?
2) Jesika, I watch Criminal Minds too! This show has made me interested in the psychological disorders that individuals on the show have had. I would like to know more about dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia, in particular (i.e. what leads to a manifestation of these disorders, how do affected individuals perceive reality, how does treatment work, and why do individuals often stop taking their medication?).
3) What is the neurological/biological basis for personality? What makes a person introverted versus extroverted?

Paul Grobstein's picture


The case of Phineas Gage, one of the oldest and most explored sets of observations re brain/personality, has been in the news recently (The face of a famous skull found on Flickr).  Lots of interesting work on, following from this case, much of it done by Antonio and Hannah Damasio and their colleagues. 

mleung01's picture


Hi I'm Marianne and I'm a junior. My hope is to become a veterinarian in the future. I'm actually very new to the idea about studying the brain. It was always interesting hearing about this topic but never had the opportunity to look deeper into it. I have a family member who we think suffers from Aspergers but never could get a firm diagnostic. I would like to hopefully understand the brain better and get a different perspective after taking this class.

1. I'm curious whether homosexuality solely manifests genetically or whether the brain plays a function as well?

2. What constitutes a person being brain dead?

3. What are some similarities and differences between a male and a female brain?

Paul Grobstein's picture


Simon Levay is a neuroscientist and homosexual who has explored these issues over the years.  Have a look at his The biology of sexual orientation as a starting point

Lauren McD's picture


My name is Lauren McDonough and I'm a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College. I'm a pre-med biology major. I can bring into class some science behind the topics of behavior, but I am definitely interested in learning a lot more! I'm not currently sure which aspect of biology will likely be in my career path, but neurobiology has always been an interest of mine. I took AP Psychology in high school, but haven't yet had the chance to take a psychology class in college. This class merges pyschology and biology, so it can help relate to my major while still allowing me to explore pyschology. I'm most interested in how people think, act, and behave in every day life and the biology and chemistry behind it. I'm most curious about: 1) the chemicals and processes involved in how people behave 2) how the minds of people with mental diseases physically differ from the average central nervous system 3) how and why do certain drugs used to treat mental illnesses work better or worse than others? Why do people respond to treatments on different levels of success?

Paul Grobstein's picture

individual variation and psychopharmacotherapeutics

Its increasingly clear from the clinical literature that indeed people respond differently to many psychopharmacological therapeutic agents (cf Depression pharmacotherapy: lessons from/about research).  And that indeed raises questions well worth looking into more.  For some possibly relevant thoughts, see Who's afraid of Emily Dickinson.   

cschoonover's picture


Hi my name is Carrie and I am a sophomore biology major with a possible NBS concentration. For years I have been interested in the differences between "normally" developed brains and those of individuals with mental disabilities. My sister has cerebral palsy and growing up with her has definitely been a learning experience. Her physical impairments, slow development, and delays are accompanied by an incredible ability to memorize, analyze, and learn at a rate not expected when she was born, a fact that has always fascinated me. I have also worked closely with children diagnosed with varying degrees autism. They too have surprising areas in which they seem to defy expectations and excel. Last summer I worked with rats (as I mentioned in class) and studied their response to medications used to treat schizophrenia. I think I have a lot of questions that this course could potentially answer, but three of them are: 1) Why/how do developmental changes in the brain lead to mental illness or disability? And how small/large do these changes have to be? 2) How can the treatment of mental illness be improved? 3) Do past experiences dictate what we deem acceptable behavior? How do we make such quick evaluations of another's behavior? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

mental health and the brain

Serendip's Exploring Mental Health might be a good starting point.  Perhaps Culture as disability as well. 

skim's picture


Hi everyone, I'm Sarah Kim and I'm a sophomore History major and an intended biology minor, from Orange County, CA. Though seemingly unrelated, my own experiences and interests in the humanities and the sciences have shown me that the two coincide on a multitude of levels. History deals with the cultural,  anthropological, and, of course, historical aspects of what it means or meant to be human. Through history, we see what has occurred, how it has occurred, and why it has occurred: in essence, the evolution of how a set group of individuals have interacted in a given time frame.
I hope to explore the following:
Neurobiology assumes that we, humans, are biologically on the same page (we all have brains, spinal chords, etc). Why then, historically, have certain individuals responded to events in different ways?
Do innate biological responses determine our behavior? Or is behavior learned, through culture, through history, through bias? What do we really mean, then, by nature versus nurture?
We discussed earlier that there was a rise in cases of hysterics in the early 1900s then a sudden decrease. Are these cases (neurobiological cases/conditions in general), simply biological, or are they results of an earlier cultural context?

Paul Grobstein's picture


Maybe "biological" and "cultural" are not distinct but rather mutually interdependent and joint influences on behavior?  The Americanization of Mental Illness and Serendip's The brain and social organization and Genes, brains, behavior might be some good starting points for further exploring the issues you're raising. 

aeraeber's picture


Hi! I’m Ali, and I’m a freshman at Bryn Mawr, from St. Louis, MO.  I’m thinking about majoring in either Biology or Chemistry. In high school I helped coach a middle school Science Olympiad team, which was made up mostly of students from the accelerated learning program. These kids are labeled as “gifted,” and in my experience their brains seemed to work differently than those of other students their age. They make connections and learn material differently, and many of them get into quite a bit of trouble as a result of being bored with their classes.  I am very interested in learning why and how this is the case, and how education can address the wide range of thinking and learning styles, especially in young students.

My three questions for this class are:

1) Why do people have different learning styles and why can some people remember information and make connections more easily than others?

2)What is intelligence and can it be measured? More specifically, is IQ testing a good measure of intelligence, and if not does a better one exist?

3)Why do people want/need religion? How does faith work from a neurobiological standpoint?


Paul Grobstein's picture

learning styles, intelligence, faith ...

For some older thoughts on intelligence/learning styles, see a letter to the NYTimes Book Review.  A thoughtful book on faith in the neurobiology and behavior context is William James The Will to Believe

JJLopez's picture


Hello my name is Jesika, I am a junior.  I am double majoring in anthropology and spanish.  As an anthro major I think that I want to learn more on how to understand the significant impact culture has on the way people think, act, and feel.  Because of that, I think it is interesting to see how culture and science relate in terms of how people act, think, and feel about themselves and the world around them.  I have a lot of experience working with children and have been able to work with child development professionals whom have taught me many things about child behaviour and growth. 

I hope to learn in this class more about:

1. autism and how it develops and why is it onset during childhood and not in adults?

2. Watching Criminal Minds (the show) makes me want to learn more about the thoughts behind "criminal" actions and feelings and how they are developed in the brain, especially with situations where certain objects, smells, tastes etc, trigger a person to commit a crime (for example: one episode shows a murderer being completely normal, and it isn't until he smells or sees bleach that he starts killing people). 

3.  learn in general about mental illnesses and be able to understand them better

Paul Grobstein's picture

mental health, autism

Serendip's Exploring Mental Health might be a good starting place for further thinking about "mental illnesses" in general.  For more on autism, see also Being On the Spectrum and Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism

sophie b.'s picture

  Hi I'm Sophie Balis-Harris


Hi I'm Sophie Balis-Harris and I am a sophomore Political Science major at Bryn Mawr. I don't really know exactly how much experience with related fields I can bring to this class, but I am excited about the material. I suppose that in Political Science we learn a lot about what motivates groups of people to act in certain ways, which relates to this course. 

1.  I was recently reading an article in the NY times that discussed how without the use of calendars or natural indicators of time our "internal clock" is very skewed, and how the brain can skew time based on emotions- meaningful or painful experiences can often seem more recent than they actually are simply because they are important parts of our recent memory. I thought the article was an interesting addition to our class discussion of how time is a social construction, and it made me wonder exactly how much of the world around us is a construction of the brain?

2. One of my concentrations within poli sci is peace and conflict studies, and we often discuss the ways that average people can be driven to commit horrific acts of violence in times of conflict. I often wonder if this capacity for violence is hidden within us all, and simply switched on during conditions of extreme duress or if there is something more to it. In short, I suppose I would like to learn a little bit more about the role of the brain in violent behavior. 


3. I also find pyschosomatic illnesses very interesting- how is it that our emotions can dictate our physical well being, and why is our mental health linked so heavily to our physical health?  

Paul Grobstein's picture

mind/body medicine, neuropolitics, and time ...

A very intriguing book that usefully traces some of the various ways of thinking about the linkage between "mental" and "physical" health is Ann Harrington's The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine.  And there's a burgeoning field of "neuropolitics."  See for example, George Lakoff's The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain."  As for time and its constructedness, see Paulle Yourgrau's A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein

Schmeltz's picture

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Hey, I'm Tessa. Premed student majoring in math. I appreciate math, but would never label it a passion of mine.  I like medicine more, or think I do.  Applying for med school now. We'll see how that goes...Taking a year off before I matriculate to do some exploring and leave the academic, grade obsessed world.  My interest in medicine led me to volunteer in the Neurosurgery Unit at UPENN, which was, well, for me, kind of boring, probably because I never got to see a brain or surgery.  Now, I'm in the ER which I find way more exciting. So what makes me unique? Music, I guess. Have played the piano for 15 years now and sometimes I think I would be completely satisfied playing the piano in a jazz bar for the rest of my life. Could be fun, you know, play some piano, drink some good beer, meet some interesting (or creepy) people.  Because of my music background I have always been interested in music and the brain.  Anyone read any Oliver Sacks books? Musicophilia, I think, is fantastic.  Also, growing up right outside of Yosemite, as mentioned in class, I have a huge passion for the outdoors - hiking, climbing, backpacking, camping.  I always feel so contented in a natural, organic environment. Yosemite, and nature in general, really brings out a spiritual, increasingly aware, and present side of me.  I always wonder how our brains would be wired if we were not so consumed with technology, development, and structure.  I feel like the more developed we become, the less connection we have with the natural world.  Anyone see Avatar?  I think the way in which avatars feel and connect with their surroundings isn't a unique avatar quality.  I think humans have that power.  I mean, think of Native Americans and their connection with the land. These days, the natural, the spiritual, the connection is clouded by science, development, and technology. Why? What draws our brains to all this?  I wish we could be more like avatars...

Alright, questions (I'm not sure these are the MOST important, but very relevant to me at this stage in the game)...

1. How is my brain different from a man's brain? Are we opposites? Can we ever truly agree? Is there any hope for mutual understanding that goes beyond the physical and sexual? 

2. What do women consider sexual and attractive versus what men consider sexual and attractive? What accounts for any difference in opinion? How has the porn industry and media influenced, even ruined, our ideas of what is sexual?

3. What kind of connection does the brain have with nature?  Has the brain evolved to be less in touch with the environment?   

Paul Grobstein's picture

brain/nature, sex/gender

Re brain/nature, have a look at Thomas King's The Truth about Stories and/or E.O. Wilson's Biophilia?  And there's LOTS of stuff out there about sex/gender related differences in brains, including lots of stuff on Serendip.  Try entering key words in the  Serendip search box in the upper right corner.

Saba Ashraf's picture


Hello, I'm Saba and I'm a sophomore potentially majoring in math and minoring in biology from central New Jersey. I am particularly interested in the material offered in this course because I have basic knowledge about the nervous system, but I am always interested in learning about the nervous system in larger detail. Since a young age, I have been interesting in going into medicine and can potentially see myself dealing with the nervous system. I have volunteered in a hospital for a couple of years and am about to volunteer in a hospice center very soon. I am interested to see how this course will influence my experience dealing with hospice care. I have specifically found mental and emotional illnesses to be very intriguing along with the power childhood experiences have on a person's behavior as an adult. Taking this into consideration, some of the questions I hope this course can answer are:

1. Why do certain childhood experiences (e.g. verbal/physical abuse) affect the way an individual behaves in their adult life?

2. What causes certain mental and emotional illnesses such as anxiety and personality disorders and can they ever be completely treated?

3. Can some mental illnesses be passed on genetically and why are some more prevalent in certain societies? For example, why does the United States have the highest eating disorder rates?


Paul Grobstein's picture

brains, mathematics, mental illness ...

There's lots of interesting work in the area of the brain and mathematics (as a construction?).  A recent starting point: How are primates brains wired for math?  For some starting points on mental illness, see Serendip's Exploring Mental Health

kgould's picture


 Hello all,

My name is Kate Gould and I am majoring in English, minoring in Biology. I am, technically, a junior but because of a medical leave my freshman year I am missing a semester of work. This will be completed in the Fall semester of 2011. I am originally from Massachusetts, from a little 

I love science writing and, actually, most writing in general. There is almost no book that you could give me that I wouldn't want to read (save for romance novels and... a certain series concerning blood-suckers). I am unique, I suppose, in that I do not see a sharp delineation between science literature and other literature. For me, English and Biology is not an odd choice for studying because English is, itself, a look at biological processes in the writer and the reader. How we form language, interpret language, actually observe and refine what we read-- that is science. Not only that, but the content-- why we write what we do, what it means to be writing in that time period, if there are any evolutionary processes coming through in the work (literary Darwinism).

Vice versa, I take offense at the idea that all science writing is stuffy and dull. I mean, certainly, some of it is (lab manuals, so on) but a lot of it is actually very interesting. How can you read Darwin's Origin and not appreciate the beauty of the language? Beyond the content, consider the form... the diction and syntax and, in a lot of cases, the tongue-in-cheek humor that pervades popular science lit. For the purpose of this course, I recommend anything by Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran-- renowned clinical neuropsychologists whose writing is on par with their deductive medical skills. Anything by Mary Roach is also excellent.

I want to learn more about perspectives and how we develop our "Crack" over time; the process by which religious tendencies are (if at all) linked to brain activity; and looking at depression in terms of thought processes. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

brain: literature, religion, depression

Maybe add Richard Powers to your list of people who engage with both science and literature.  His The Echo Maker is one of the most sophisticated and engaging explorations of contemporary brain research that I know of.  I have yet to read his newest, Generosity: An Enhancement, but have high hopes for it along similar lines.

Redefining God suggests some interesting approaches to the brain/religion matter.  And perhaps check out An expanded neurobiology of depression and links from there?   

kdilliplan's picture


 Hello, my name is Kathy.  I am a senior biology major and geology minor.  My primary interest in the field of biology is evolution and development, and I am hoping that I will be able to apply the concepts that arise in this course in my future studies.  I am also an actor and an avid science fiction enthusiast, both of which have contributed in my interest in belief and the suspension of disbelief.  I want to learn more about why people believe in some things and don’t believe in others.  


A few questions I am interested in exploring:

1.  Why are people so drawn to science fiction as a genre?  Is it because it is escapist and unrealistic or because it is unsettlingly plausible?  

2.  Is it possible (or even desirable) to completely know how each person's mind works?

3.  Are humans as superior to all other life on the planet as we assume?   


Paul Grobstein's picture

behavioral evolution

Check out the Evolving Systems project for conversations/links that may contribute to thinking about evolution/development.   I share your enjoyment of science fiction.  Perhaps not because it is escapist or plausible but because it contributes to evolution by opening new possibilities?  There's an amusing triology by Robert J. Sawyer (Hominids is the first in the series) exploring alternate possibilites for homonid behavioral evolution that might amuse you if you haven't read it.  Sawyer, among others, is not at all convinced that we're so superior.   

Jeanette Bates's picture


I am not unique in that I am a biology major from Los Angeles; however, I did spend many summers at Cal Tech analyzing the development of quail embryos. Though I did not focus on the brain (I focused on the liver, stomach, and the lungs), I was still able to see how the quail developed in each embryonic stage. In other words, I have a very basic sense of embryonic development.

In terms of questions, I am honestly not sure if any of my questions could be definitively answered-I think that they will generate more questions. Honestly, this is fine with me.  That fact allows me to explore even more interesting topics. These questions, however, I would like to have addressed and explored.

First of all, is there such a thing as a human-exculsive behavior? In other words, are any of our behaviors actually unique? Another question I would like to ask is to what extent are certain diseases over-diagnosed and what is the line that needs to be crossed for a diagnosis to be made? For example, when does a simply hyper and overactive child become a child with ADHD? Finally, if every person's behavior can be explained by analyzing his or her brain structure and development, does this mean that he or she can't be blamed for his or her actions? Does morality fall out of the picture because people may be set to act a certain way? These are the questions that I would like to look at, and though I know that they probably won't be answered, I still think that they are questions that we should explore.

Paul Grobstein's picture

humanity, culture, morality, and what the brain does?

Some possible starting points on

human exclusive behavior

Deciphering the chatter of monkeys and chimps

diagnosis of mental health problems

Culture as disability


The emotional dog and its rational tail

Can you come up with a justification for exploring questions "that probably won't be answered"?


Colette's picture



Hi I’m Colette a biology major, NBS concentration, Music minor.

            Discovering at a late age that I have a cognitive learning disability has been a significant experience in my life. I have learned to compensate for this difference and made up for my learning differences through various means: recognizing that I “see” and “perceive” things differently from the general public; using audio books; taking speech pathology classes to re-learn how to read; formulating my own unique processes of learning; supporting my weaknesses and maximizing my strengths; using visual imagery and sound to enhance my “reading” of words.                                                                                                                
            Developing my learning differences has also led to my role as a spokesperson and representative for the “Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic Association) (RFB&D), a national organization that provides CDs, equipment, and various opportunities for students and adults who are blind or have disabilities).   See, (RFBD national video documenting my learning issue).
             Another unique experience I may share is the musical training that I have received from a very young age. My mother, a classically trained musician from the Julliard School, introduced me to the piano and voice (opera, classical, and musical theater). From this training, I have been able to learn music and memorize melismatic passages at a relatively fast rate.
2) What are the most important three questions that you hope neurobiology and behavior will prove capable of answering?
1. Being musically inclined, I would like to further discover how the brain functions when humans memorize; specifically, I’d like to explore whether the brain functions differently when one memorizes music as opposed to memorizing words.
2. I would like to explore the reasons that some people are capable of learning several languages very easily, while others struggle to learn one? For example, does the aural sense play a very big part in learning the spoken languages?
3. Whether, and if so, why, does gesturing when speaking help people understand and remember words more easily?


Paul Grobstein's picture

reading/music abilities/"disabilities"

Thanks for  Very rich/powerful.  I hope everyone takes a look at it.  And very glad you switched quickly from "disability" to "difference" above.   One of the "summaries" I think/hope we'll come to in our course conversations is that its actually most of us, rather than a few of us, who "'see' and 'perceive things differently from the general public."  And that that can be understood as a a good thing rather than a bad one.  For some other examples, see  Temple Grandin, Susanne Antonetta, John Elder Robison, Kay Redfield Jamison, and David Alan Feingold.  

Oliver Sack's Seeing Voices is a rich source of things to think about re language and its multiple forms, not only spoken and written but gestural as well.  Though I haven't myself read it, I would guess Sack's Musicophilia  is equally good on music (see Schmeltz endorsement above).

mcurrie's picture


 Hi, I'm Morgan and I'm a Sophomore here at Bryn Mawr and am a biology major. I have learned a little about the development of the brain from my developmental biology course last semester and decided that I wanted to learn some more about the nervous system.   I guess what I'm really interested in is all of the different synapses that can be formed and created as you grow and all of the chemical signals and reactions that occur in order to help the body function and respond to certain things. At the moment I can just describe my own experiences with my brain of remembering and reliving most of the times when I have been embarrassed and remember most of the people that have been mean to me and yet never remember many of the people that were nice. Three questions: Why do you remember some events and not others? For example talking to my parents my mother says that i have visited the Grand Canyon and yet I have no recollection while my brother who is two years younger than me remembers a storm that occurred while we were there. I guess I would also like to know how to improve my memory? What do I need to do in order to be able to use a little more of my brain then I am at the moment? Why do you only use a small percent of your brain? I guess I'd also like to pursue how studying an animals brain and reaction may help in understanding human brains and reactions? 

I am very excited for the rest of the semester in hearing about everyones thoughts and ideas and also expanding on my knowledge. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

memory and the brain

I'd like to know where the idea comes from that we "only use a small percent of our brain."  Betcha it turns out to be a story that mothers and fathers use to beat up on their kids.  Maybe what one remembers is also a "construction"?  If so, you and your brain aren't "remembering" differently but constructing differently?  Cf The neurobiology of nostalgia

Hannah Silverblank's picture


Hello! I'm Hannah and I am a Comparative Literature major (studying Latin, Ancient Greek and English Literature) at Haverford. My major alone - which in name seems very distant from this course's topic of exploration - speaks to the "distinctive experiences" I have had academically that I hope will enrich and underline my study of neurobiology. I look forward to witnessing the interactions between the ancient humanist tradition and our contemporary understanding of the brain: my primary interest in this course resides in the exploration of whether the two disciplines - Classics and Neurobiology - will prove to be antithetical or, more likely, complementary. I have also engaged philosophical and literary texts which addressed the subjects of identity and consciousness during last semester's Humanities Center seminar "Fashioning the Self: The Problem of Narrative and Achievement", so I hope to introduce my understanding of those texts into relevant class discussions. Lastly, my perspective on this course may be unique because I have worked closely with individuals with special needs: my older sister, Chloe, is mentally retarded and I used to provide in-home care for an autistic child named Matthew. This personal but totally unscientific connection with developmental delay/difference has recently manifest itself in an interest in the abnormalities that lead to disability, so I hope to examine such topics in this course.

My big questions:
1. Though I'm not exactly framing this as a question, I would like to explore the emerging field of "biopoetics" and the rationalization of literature and art. What is the role of literature in terms of the understanding of the mind and its biology? Where do text and mind intersect?
2. How much of our concept of "identity" resides in biological functions and events? How much do neurologists and neurobiologists understand about the roots of choice, one of the primary aspects of traditional Western notions of identity?
3. How have recent scientific explorations of consciousness unfolded, and how do these discoveries relate to philosophical texts addressing consciousness? How do thinkers like Searle and Dennett fit within the framework of neurobiology and behavior? What is the place of philosophy of mind within the field neurobiology (and vice versa)?

Paul Grobstein's picture

brain and literature

The novelist and the neurobiologist: a conversation about story telling might amuse you.  As might Richard Power's The Echo Maker

Sam Kaplan's picture


My name is Sam Kaplan and I'm a senior art history major.

Last semester I took a student seminar at Haverford that explored the brain's role in creating narratives—the narratives that structure our lives, the narratives through which we seem to derive all of our understanding of the world.

The more I learn about these and similar topics, the less confident I feel about answering the kinds of questions raised in this forum, and the more confused I get about who "I" really am—and what that kind of a question means, anyway.

In that sense, I wouldn't say that I hope to find the solutions to any particular neurobiological or behavioral quandaries this semester—or even that I hope to feel less confused by the end of the course, because overall, I know I won't. But I guess I would like to find a way to more precisely describe my confusion, and perhaps a way to harness that confusion by incorporating it into my understanding of the events that make up my everyday life.

Paul Grobstein's picture

self evolving

See Sense of personal identity: whence cometh? whence goeth?  Perhaps personal identity, like many other things, is always and necessarily a "work in progress"?  See Evolving Systems

emily's picture


 Hi, I'm Emily. I am a BMC Sophmore Biology major and am thinking about doing the NBS concentration. I am pretty much in love with visual science (Raven-- we should talk! Your thesis sounds so interesting!). I have a little bit of knowledge about vision from all sorts of standpoints (such as art history, philosophy, metaphysics, anthropology, etc.) from a visual studies class I took last semester which I hope to bring to the table to enhance conversation this semester. 

Raven-- your thesis sounds so interesting! One of my important questions which I hope this class could potentially answer is what you stated above: "How is this liquid filled ball able to receive light, send this electrical information to the brain and then our brains create an image and inform our actions all from this liquid filled ball"? In other words, how is light translated into such specific comprehension of our surroundings? Another question I have that stems from this one is what are thoughts? How does "electrical information" turn into words, voices, memories, and images in our head? And where does all of this "electrical information" for such thoughts come from? Finally, I am curious to learn more about reality and virtual reality. Although this is not a question that I think really has an answer, how do we know that our senses are giving us accurate knowledge about the world around us and what do we consider accurate knowledge?

I can't wait to see what this class has in store! 

Paul Grobstein's picture

visual art and the brain

MEL's picture

Hi. My name is Megan and

Hi. My name is Megan and I’m a freshman at Bryn Mawr. I am thinking about majoring in biology and I have an interest in pre-med. I am from Tenafly, NJ. As an EMT, I have had the distinct experience of dealing with patients suffering from mental illness and exhibiting erratic behavior. I have a great interest in the human brain and behavior.  My three most important questions are:

1. What causes mental illness and how can it be treated more effectively? Why do antidepressants work for some people and not for others?

2. What causes us to love? If chemical processes play a role in when two people fall in love then do they also play a role when two people fall out of love?

3. What controls behavior? Is it simply just the brain or do other factors play a role?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Some starting places: re

Some starting places:

Maybe "other factors" play a role in behavior not in addition to but rather via the brain? 

Raven's picture


 Hi my name is Raven and I am a Haverford Senior Biology Major. I am working on my thesis now which is about axon guidance in the developing visual system. I have always been really fascinated with the eye and how it works. I was reading an excerpt from Darwin's Origin of Species and he questioned the same thing I have always questioned. How is this liquid filled ball able to receive light, send this electrical information to the brain and then our brains create an image and inform our actions all from this liquid filled ball. I guess there are a lot of questions Neurobiology and Behavior studies can answer while there are some questions that are a lot harder to answer. Like questions about depression. How do we study depression, something which many philosophers would consider uniquely human, in rats? How, physically, are neurotransmitters connected to behavior? How do we characterize illnesses such as depression? Does depression vary in human individuals? There are so many questions that researchers have to consider in their studies. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

depression and the brain

Exploring depression might be a place to start.  And an interesting question is not only whether depression is the same in different people but whether it is the same in people and rats. 

meroberts's picture


My name is Megan. I'm a senior Psychology major with a Neural and Behavioral Sciences Concentration. I'm writing my thesis about anxiety so I hope that I can bring that experience, and the knowledge I gain from it, to relevant conversations in class.

The three most important questions I hope neurobiology will be able to address are:

1. I once wrote a paper on schizophrenia and I remember that there are usually differences, observed with an MRI, in the physical structure in brains of people who have schizophrenia and those who do not. Will there ever be a test to screen for schizophrenia? Or some way to reverse the physical changes to the brain as the disorder progresses? If these physical abnormalities could be reversed, would the disorder then dissipate?

2. What plays a more important role, genetics or environment, in the etiology of a mental illness?

3. We have already discussed that there are chemicals involved in the process of falling in love/courtship. Can these chemicals help people choose platonic relationship candidates? Are the chemicals that are found to be responsible for feelings of romantic love also involved when someone chooses people to befriend?


Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and individual variation

Maybe schizophrenia is different in different people,  and maybe it and "mental illness" in general, reflect different blends of "genetics" and "environment" in different people?  Maybe those also true for different forms of love?  And perhaps "anxiety" as well?  Would we do research differently if we admitted this as a possibility?  See classification: uses and caveats

AndyMittelman's picture


Hi I'm Andy. I am a Postbac here at Bryn Mawr. I grew up west of Boston and graduated from Middlebury in 2008 (Economics). After college I spent a year working as a paramedic in Vermont and with Middlebury freshmen in a counseling/crisis management role. I am very excited to explore the science behind many of the issues I had to confront (with admittedly little training). Issues I am particularly interested to learn about in Neurobio: a.) How are genetic diseases manifested in the brain? How can this knowledge affect treatment? b.) Eating disorders- I spent a lot of time working with students on this topic and would like to know about the physiological and behavioral factors that predispose people to this illness. Could a more in-depth understanding of brain chemistry and relative neurology affect treatment plans?  

c.) How does the brain age? As Grace mentioned above, I would like to know about the neurological changes we undergo throughout our life. What factors might accelerate or slow these changes? (a different philosophical discussion: would we want to accelerate or slow these processes if we could?) 

Paul Grobstein's picture

genes, aging, eating disorders, and the brain

Genes influence everything, determine nothing?  See Genes, brains, and behavior.  Perhaps relevant to aging:  the brain, old and young, and the brain, college and otherwise.  There's lots of stuff on Serendip (cf An artistic exploration of eating disorders, body image, and the self), and elsewhere, about eating disorders but, to my mind, still no good general story, perhaps because of cultural variation?  See The Americanization of mental illness

lfrontino's picture


Hi Everyone. I'm Liz, I'm a sophomore biology major, with a pre-med interest. One main aspect of my life that I believe will have an impact on how I view this course is my upbringing. I'm from a very small, rural, conservative town, and I've found that to definitely affect the way I view the world. Also, I recently started seriously becoming interested in the philosophy of yoga and mediation, and I'm interested to see how that type of thinking will fit into the area of neurobiology. 

As far as questions I'm hoping this course will answer, 

1. a basic one, How do each parts of the brain play a role in what we think or do?

2. I'm very interested in certain psychological differences between males and females. How do our physiological differences impact our psychological ones as well? 

3. Finally, what specific aspects of our brain make us different from other animals similar to us? What is it that gives humans the ability to reason and speak? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

meditation and the brain

There's increasing interest in this area, and a new avenue of exploration of it with recent work on a "default mode" for the brain.  A possible starting point: You are who you are by default

mcchen's picture


 Hello! My name is Michelle and I am a sophomore Chemistry major.  I can bring in my CSEM experience into the conversation this semester.  The CSEM I took was "Food for Thought" and we spent a lot of time discussing choices, such as how we go about making them and the reasoning behind why we make the choices we do.  We also talked about illusions and how we perceive the world we live in, so I have been exposed to some critical thinking that relates somewhat to this course.

My three questions that I hope this course will be able to answer is: 1. How mental illnesses affect the brain and how are they shaped by culture (their diagnosis and frequency in countries)? 2. How do we go about making everyday decisions in life and what is the science behind motivation? 3. How are genes related to emotions and supposedly "learned" habits we gain from our environment? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

food and the brain

See comments above for suggestions of starting places on several of your interests.  Given "Food for Thought" and your major you ight also want to explore effects of food intake on brain organization and function.

Melani Olivares's picture


Hi, I'm Melani. As an anthropology major, I think that the point of view that this gives me is a distinctive characteristic that I can bring into class discussions. Often times, people view science and socio-cultural aspects of society as very different entities but I find it quite fascinating how science and culture are actually quite linked and often overlap and collide.

This semester in Neurobiology and Behavior, I hope to learn:

1. The basic fuction of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. I worked at Bodies: The Exhibition in New York City last summer and was able to see first-hand all the tissues, nerves, and organs are integral to neuroanatomy and physiology. I would love to learn more specifically how these tissues work together and function.

2. I was very intrigued by the New York Times article "The Americanization of Mental Illness" that we discussed in class the first day. I think its interesting how different focuses in neurobio change with time. I hope that we can investigate that topic it a bit more in the future.

3. Lastly, I think it would be interesting to see how different cultures and people in other regions of the world come to understand and view neurobiology.

Paul Grobstein's picture

brain and culture interacting

Neurobiology is increasing looking into interpersonal and cultural phenomena.  Have a look at and, on Serendip, at The brain and social organization/culture and Individuals and cultures.   Yep, "how different cultures and people in other regions of the world come to understand and view neurobiology" would be a very interesting extension on this.  

Grace's picture


I have spent a lot of time working with the elderly. So I have experienced them as their brains seem to degenerate, which I would like to learn more about.

Does the brain control the entire body?

Why don't we use our whole brain?

What determines left brain versus right brain dominance?

Paul Grobstein's picture

brain and body: who controls whom?

See above on how much brain we use,  and on aging.  The brain is, of course, itself part of the body, so asking if the brain controls "the entire body" includes the question of whether the brain controls itself.  An interesting question indeed.