Perspective: Where do I learn about the brain?
For one week each March, we celebrate all things brain! Brain Awareness Week, which is happening March 15 - 21 this year, is a global campaign to foster public enthusiasm and support for brain science. And the brain is an easy thing to get excited about!
One of the reasons I love to teach neuroscience is that pretty much everyone has some interest in learning about how their own brain works. This means that my students are intrinsically interested in the material and motivated to learn. Studying the brain is such an exciting field because of how complex the brain is and how much we really don’t know. This means that there is just so much to learn! So where do you turn to if you are interested in learning more about the brain?
There is certainly no shortage of material one could use to start learning about the brain. For a broad basic understanding, Brain Facts is an excellent primer. Designed for secondary school students, this free resource covers the basics of the nervous system, including what the brain does, how it's organized, what can go wrong in the brain and how all of this is studied by neuroscientists.
Textbooks are, of course, another option, including “Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain,” originally written at Brown University by Professors Mark Bear, Barry Connors and Michael Paradiso. Another option is Neuroscience Online, an open-access introductory textbook full of clear, helpful animations, provided by The McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas.
While I’m definitely one to support using textbooks in the classroom, there are lots of other options for learning about the brain online. There are over 100 Ted Talks covering various aspects of neuroscience. Some talks I like include:
Short talks from Dr. Greg Gage that cover a variety of topics and also include demonstrations of the Backyard Brains systems, which allow you to do your own neuroscience experiments at home at an affordable price.
If you prefer podcasts, Professor Monica Dus of the University of Michigan created the Neuroepic Podcast which looks at neuroepigenetics, the study of how turning on and off genes can affect the nervous system in various contexts, including diet, aging and addiction — among others. NPR often has great shows about the brain, including Hidden Brain and many Radiolab episodes such as this fascinating episode about the placebo effect and this one about the perception of time.
Books are another great way to learn more about the brain. Any book by Dr. Oliver Sacks, like the classic, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” is sure to fascinate the reader. His books focus on case studies of various neurological disorders and what we can learn from his patients. Professor Robert Sapolosky’s books — including one of my favorites — “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” describe what we know about the brain by considering animal models. I also highly recommend the “The Autobiograpy of a Transgender Scientist” by the late neuroscientist Ben Barres, which not only chronicles how gender influences academia, but also provides an in-depth background into glia cells, the non-neuronal brain cells that serve a variety of functions throughout the nervous system.
A great way to learn about the newest neuroscience findings is to follow neuroscientists, labs and research institutions on social media platforms. Following neuroscientists on social media also helps increase the diversity of the scientists you are learning from while exposing you to a huge myriad of topics. I recommend following on Twitter @BlackInNeuro, @LatinxInNeuro, @storiesofWiN and @CarneyInstitute.
Regardless of how you choose to learn about the brain, I hope you find a great, new resource this Brain Awareness Week!
Monica Linden is a senior lecturer in neuroscience who is affiliated with the Carney Institute for Brain Science. She teaches a variety of courses including the intermediate-level course Neural Systems. Linden is the recipient of the 2020 Carol Ann Paul Educator of the Year Award from the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience.