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Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life

Learn how the nervous system produces behavior, how we use our brain every day, and how neuroscience can explain the common problems afflicting people today.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

The Neurobiology of Everyday Life is a 10-week course intended for anyone interested in how the nervous system works. The course starts by introducing basic neuroanatomy, neurodevelopment and mechanisms of neural communication. Students will gain an understanding of how injury and disease of different types and in different locations can alter a person’s life. Students will then use their understanding of fundamental neuroanatomy and physiology to examine how: 

1) we perceive the outside world;
2) we act in the world either volitionally or emotionally;
3) our nervous system allows us to live; and
4) cognition operates to make us the human individuals that we are. 

We will look at the neurobiology of everyday situations such as multitasking (walking and chewing gum) and at the ways in which the nervous system commonly fails us (e.g. motion sickness). Each week, topics that are best described as neuro-philosophical conundrums will be discussed in forums. Beyond emerging from this course with a new appreciation of many neurological conditions, students will come out recognizing the brain in action all day and every day.

If you'd like to get started thinking about the brain now, follow us on Twitter @neuromooc!

Course Syllabus

1.        Introduction: neurons, development and organization of the human brain

2.        Neural communication: Information transfer in the nervous system

3.        Neuroanatomy, strokes, and the blood-brain barrier

4.        Perception and Vision

5.        Hearing

6.        The Vestibular System: Balance and Gaze

7.        Voluntary movement: From stumbling to Simon Says

8.        Voluntary movement: Coordination, chunking and habit

9.        Homeostasis: Thermoregulation, sleep, and eating

10.      Executive function: Memory, language, playing well with others


Recommended Background

Anyone interested in the brain is encouraged to sign up. No background is required. For those who may have forgotten their high school biology, short lessons for catch-up will be available as well as suggestions for further study.

Suggested Readings

The lectures are designed to be self-contained. For those interested in more information on any topic that is covered, the instructor’s textbook (Medical Neurobiology, Oxford University Press, 2011) contains in-depth treatment of every topic covered. 

Course Format

In each week, up to 2 hours of lecture and laboratory exercises will be presented. Videos will be broken up into chunks of 5-10 minutes, with a short quiz at the end of each chunk to ensure that students understand the material. Each week, the instructor will lead a Discussion Forum to explore the neurobiology of an item related to the material presented that week; the item can be a current event, YouTube video, or the like. 

Multiple choice tests will ensure that students understand the material presented each week. The class will end with a final project that asks students to find an example of neurobiology in their own life and analyze it.


What do I need to know to be able to take this course?

Nothing! There are no prerequisites for this course. All you need is curiosity.

What kind of credit can I receive for taking this course?

Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor. Students that complete all tests including challenge exams will receive a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction.

Who should enroll in this course?

The target audience is the non-neurobiologist who is interested in the brain. The course is intended for people in all walks of life who feel drawn to the brain and nervous system. For those without a background in biology or those who may need a refresher, captioning will explain terms and concepts of basic biology.

Will this course require a belief in evolution?

Understanding any part of biology, the nervous system included, is greatly aided by looking at the natural history involved. For example, to understand motion sickness, it is critical to remember that our ancestors did not have vehicles and had to propel themselves in order to move through the world. This type of approach is termed ethological. Viewing neurobiology through the lens of evolution is similarly useful. For example, the topography of the spinal cord – arms, trunk, legs and then saddle (buttocks and perineum) – is derived from the four-legged body plan of our ancestors rather than from the bipedal plan of humans. Ethological and evolutionary perspectives will be used to advantage throughout the course.

What are the differences between Neurobiology and Neuroscience, and Neurology and Psychiatry?

Neurobiology and Neuroscience are terms that refer to the basic study of nervous systems in all types of animals from sea urchins to worms, sea slugs, flies, fish, turtles, and chickens to mice, rats, monkeys and humans. The terms are largely synonymous with Neurobiology having a more biological connotation and Neuroscience being a term that is more inclusive of connections with fields outside of biology such as computer science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, economics and so on.

Neurology and Psychiatry are medical fields that concern disorders of the human nervous system. The line between Neurology and Psychiatry is blurry. Generally speaking, disorders of mood and thought (e.g. depression, schizophrenia) are considered psychiatric whereas disorders of movement (e.g. paralysis, Parkinson’s disease), perception (e.g. blindness, chronic pain), and communication (language) fall under the rubric of neurology.

This course will focus on the neurobiology of modern human life: how our nervous system works on a day-to-day basis. Beyond looking at how the nervous system operates normally, we will also cover the common ways that the nervous system fails, topics that draw primarily from Neurology as well as from Psychiatry.