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The Brain and Space

Part of the Neuroscience: Perception, Action and the Brain Specialization »

This course is about how the brain creates our sense of spatial location from a variety of sensory and motor sources, and how this spatial sense in turn shapes our cognitive abilities.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

Knowing where things are is effortless.  But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it.  Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains.  This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember.

The material in this course is based on a book I've written for a general audience.  The book is called "Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are", and is available from AmazonBarnes and Noble, or directly from Harvard University Press

The course material overlaps with classes on perception or systems neuroscience, and can be taken either before or after such classes.

Course Syllabus

There are 9 units spread over 6 weeks (with a 1 week grace period).  Each unit corresponds to a chapter or two of the book Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are.  

1. Vision (Week 1-2)  The Ways of Light

Vision is one of the most spatial of our senses.This unit explains what light is, and how it is detected by photoreceptors in the eye.  It includes a history of vision research dating back to ancient Greece, and describes the role of the astronomer Kepler in deducing how the image of the visual scene is formed on the eye.  How the two-dimensional projection of the visual scene onto the surface of the retina is interpreted by the brain as a three-dimensional world is explored through examples from various artists such as Magritte and Escher.  ("Making Space" Chapters 1-2).

2. Somatosensory (Week 2)  Sensing Our Own Shape

This unit covers how we know about the positions of the parts of our bodies.  Some intriguing illusions of body position sense are covered.  The combination of body position sense and our sense of touch yields a sense of the three-dimensional location and shape of solid objects. ("Making Space" Chapter 3).

3. Brain maps (Week 3)  Brain Maps and Polka Dots

This unit introduces the brain mechanisms responsible for sensory processing of vision and touch, with an emphasis on the formation of sensory maps in the visual and somatosensory pathways of the brain.  The implications of these maps and other neural response properties for perception of spatial location are explored, with an emphasis on object motion and contours.  Experiments using electrical stimulation in sensory maps to probe their connection to perception are discussed. ("Making Space" Chapter 4).

4. Auditory (Week 4) Sherlock Ears: How Your Brain Finds Sounds

This unit turns to a sensory system for which spatial location must be inferred from indirect measurements.  For vision and touch, the sensory receptors are able to measure spatial location in kind:  objects at different locations activated different sensory receptors.  For hearing, the brain must compare and contrast the sounds arriving at each ear to make inferences about the location of origin.  This unit discusses the how this works, from the nature of sound itself to the interpretation of location-dependent sound attributes by the brain. ("Making Space" Chapter 5).

5. Brain meters for space (Week 4)  Moving with Maps and Meters

This unit focuses on the concept of representation.  We review maps as a form of representation, and introduce another kind of spatial representation, the “meter”.  More commonly but somewhat obscurely referred to as rate coding, this kind of representation involves neural response rates that scale in proportion to spatial location – a meter whose level indicates position. This kind of code is used in movements, the sense of body position, and in the early stages of the auditory pathway.   ("Making Space" Chapter 6).

6. Reference Frames (Week 5)  Your Sunglasses Are In the Milky Way

Spatial locations are measured with respect to reference positions, but these reference positions differ depending on the type of sensory input.  The eyes measure locations with respect to the eyes, and the ears measure locations with respect to the ears.  This unit discusses some illusions related to this issue and describes brain mechanisms for translating between different reference frames.  Synthesizing a sense of space across time as the body and its sense organs move through the environment requires integrating memories of the sensory input at different times and positions.  ("Making Space" Chapter 7).

7. Navigation (Week 5)  Going Places

This unit shifts focus in two ways:  (a) it involves space on a larger scale such as traveling from one place to another, and (b) it involves a sense of one’s own position in the environment as opposed to the position of objects or events in that scene.  The role of the sense of balance and one’s own movements are incorporated.  Animal species that navigate long distances and how they do this are described.  ("Making Space" Chapter 8).

8. Remembering (Week 6)  Space and Memory

This unit builds the first of several important links between the sense of space and other kinds of cognition.  Memory is closely linked to spatial processing at several levels.  This unit discusses the role of the hippocampus in both navigation and memory, and tells the story of patient HM, whose hippocampus was surgically destroyed in the 1950’s, resulting in lifelong amnesia.  ("Making Space" Chapter 9).

9. Cognition (Week 6)  Thinking about Thinking  

This unit argues that the brain's spatial systems provide a framework for thinking. The space-sensitive regions of the brain may do more than evaluate location, but may also be recruited for cognitive processes such as paying attention, making decisions, and planning future actions.  The kinds of computations that the brain performs on spatial inputs may resemble the kinds of computations that the brain performs on abstract concepts and ideas.  Thinking about space and more general kinds of thinking may involve similar brain mechanisms.  ("Making Space" Chapter 10).

Recommended Background

No background is required; all are welcome!  

Suggested Readings

The course is organized around my book, Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Arewhich is intended for a general audience and can serve as a useful adjunct to the video lectures. Although the course is designed to be self-contained, students wanting to expand their knowledge and reinforce their understanding are strongly encouraged to complete this recommended reading, 1-2 chapters per week of the course.  The book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, and directly from the publisher, Harvard University Press.   

I will also periodically post links to the scientific studies referred to in the videos, as well as PDFs of the slides I use.

Course Format

The class will consist of lecture videos, which are between 5 and 12 minutes in length.  Integrated questions are contained in some videos.  The assignments consist of 6 weekly quizzes, weighted equally in the course grade.  There is no final exam.

Schedule details: The Brain and Space consists of 6 weeks' worth of material. The material will be posted no later than every Tuesday and quizzes will be due the following week on Tuesday.  


What do you mean by "space?"  Sounds like rocket science.

No - I mean spatial locations - spatial locations of all kinds of things and all kinds of scales, ranging from how your brain can detect the shape of these letters on the screen to how you know the position of your limbs to how you remember how to get to the grocery store.

What cool stuff will I learn?

You'll learn how your eyes are like radios, how your ears tell time, and how tiny rocks in your head help you tell which way is up.  You'll learn how you know where you are, how you get from one place to another, and why you might take a shortcut to come back.  You'll learn why it’s harder to remember how to get somewhere if you’ve always been the passenger than if you have driven that way yourself.  You'll learn why, when you set off to do something and then forget what you are up to, going back to the place where you started might help you remember.

Is Signature Track available?

Yes it is!

What resources will I need for this class?

Just an internet connection!   If you'd like to know more, the class is organized around a book that I wrote, which is available at AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's, and directly from the publisher, Harvard University Press.   

Tell me more about the book

The book is called "Making Space:  How the Brain Knows Where Things Are", and it is for a general audience.  You should be able to read and understand it without any background in neuroscience. It is available at AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's, and directly from the publisher, Harvard University Press.  You can also hear me talking about it on BBC radio's the ForumIdeas Roadshow, and NPR's The State of Things.

Does Professor Groh really have an eye movement hat?

Does she ever.  Watch for it in the videos!

Where did you get that great image for the course logo?

The image was created by Flickr user digitalbob8, and is licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution License.