How the Brain Becomes the Mind: A Bottoms-up and Top-Down Perspective

Semester: 

Fall

Offered: 

2022

Thomas Byrne (Harvard Medical School)
Freshman Seminar 25X     4 credits (fall term)       Enrollment:  Limited to 15

Prerequisite: The course is intended for those who have scored -5- on AP Biology, Chemistry, Physics or Calculus

Is the human mind an “emergent” property of the brain?  How might that occur?  We study how structure and properties of the brain and mind are shaped by biology, chemistry, experience and disease. Experiences during "critical periods" modify brain anatomy/function resulting in learning a foreign language before or after puberty is revealed by a native or foreign accent. Mirror neurons play a role in motor skills, emotion, and empathy: Examples include "contagious" happiness or sadness and theory of mind; their dysfunction may cause autism. Beyond these “bottoms up” explanations, we will also consider a “top down” approach, in which the intention or purpose of a behavior or idea can “pull” our behavior or state of mind, what Aristotle termed “Final Cause.”  The human brain/mind is a pattern-seeking organ that uses logical patterns to predict the future.  From infancy we make sense of the world by using the logic which is embedded as “core knowledge”.  We then use these patterns to look into the future, to anticipate where a given pattern will lead; we may choose to be “pulled” to that goal; thus, the goal often determines behavior and worldview.  We read Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning which explores human thought, behavior and purpose. This seminar straddles the realms of science, which asks “how?”, and the humanities, which traditionally asks “why?” and strives to reconcile these two approaches to understanding the world and our place in it.

See also: Fall 2022