Your Brain Online: A Review Of The Neuroscience MOOC from Coursera
“You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and your free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate, 1962
These words mark the beginning and end of Professor Idan Segev’s outstanding course, Synapses, Neurons and Brains on Coursera. By the end of the nine-week neuroscience MOOC, the quote becomes intimately familiar as one gains a solid understanding of how the “connectome” plays such a fundamental role in our lives.
Segev is the David & Inez Myers Professor in Computational Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it comes as no surprise that he has already won several teaching awards. Lecturing on a topic as vast as neuroscience and tying micro-level cellular activity to higher-order phenomena such as behavior, learning, memory and free will seems no easy task. But this well-structured series of lectures goes into the details of electrical activity generated in a single nerve cell and links this process to more sophisticated brain functions without ever losing focus on the big picture.
The course starts with a brief introduction to the evolution of the human brain followed by an overview of the history of brain research and an account of current developments in the field, which Segev notes are a “renaissance-type of research” based on a modern, multi-disciplinary approach. In fact, as a mathematician and a biologist (and the former director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation), he emphasizes the need for mathematical models and a sound theory to understand brain function.
Starting from week two, we are introduced to the “ingredients” of the brain, the structure of individual neurons. There is frequent reference to the historical development of the neuron doctrine as well as very recent techniques in neuroscience. And Segev makes excellent use of videos and other visuals throughout the lectures.
For someone like me who has not engaged in any mathematically-oriented subject for the past twenty years, week three could have been a challenge had it not been for Segev’s ability to translate mathematical equations into an understandable verbal language. In this section, we are shown how a neuron is mathematically modeled as an electrical circuit. By the end of the lectures, I was amazed at my own understanding and at Segev’s eloquence in explaining complex processes through a step-by-step approach. Although students are not required to solve lengthy equations in the quizzes or exam, a conceptual understanding of the mathematical model in week three is essential for grasping the subject. Watching the videos attentively and carefully taking notes should work well. Additional support is also available on the discussion forums where many knowledgeable people are eager to help and where the class teaching assistant, Guy Eral, played a critical role with his responsiveness.
Based on the representation of the neuron as an input-output electrical device, topics such as plasticity, learning, perception and memory are covered throughout the rest of the course. Toward the end, Segev hands over the floor to his colleague Israel Nelken who takes us through another set of amazing lectures on sensations, perceptions, actions and emotions, with an emphasis on the auditory system.
For those who find themselves forever intrigued by the question of whether we have free will, one section is dedicated to the subject in the last week. This is a brief but insightful lecture on the topic from the perspective of neuroscience.
I am a conference interpreter by education and have been exposed to a wide range of topics and even more speakers and lecturers over the years. I’ve witnessed how it takes so much more than a coherent presentation on an interesting subject to truly engage an audience for an extended period of time. If your interest in an area has already matured or if you have chosen it as a profession, you will probably bear with just about any speaker for the sake of content. But most people who are new to a subject will lose interest if the speaker isn’t able to engage them. It takes a passionate lecturer to ignite curiosity and sustain it. And that is exactly what Segev does. He makes no pretentious effort to be interesting and hardly ever smiles. There’s nothing rehearsed in his delivery. What you see in him is a genuine passion for the subject and a heart-felt desire to share knowledge.
This review does not do justice to this remarkable course or its instructor. I can say without hesitation that I would take any course offered by Segev in the future.
Aysegul Bahcivan is a freelance interpreter with an interest in the natural sciences, online education and music. She is a fan and regular student of MOOC platforms such as Coursera and edX. Genetics and neuroscience are among her areas of special interest. In addition to their educational value, she is interested in how MOOCs serve to build communities across the globe.