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Understanding the Brain

Go inside the most astonishingly complex organ that has ever existed and learn how it works in this engrossing and surprising course on the human brain.
Understanding the Brain is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 220.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from A brilliant series of lectures! This has to be one of the best courses I've completed on this site. When I saw that it had been made around 2008, I was in two minds to do it, as I've completed other more recent courses on the brain. I count myself lucky that I went against my instincts and watched this. It far exceeds any other course or book that I've read on the brain and Jeanette Norden is a brilliant lecturer who can put across complex ideas in an understandable manner. The breadth of the course is amazing, touching on just about everything important about the brain, from its anatomy to its malfunctioning. I was truly sorry when I reached the end of the last lecture. I'm sure there have been advances in our understanding of the brain since this course was made, but it is still thoroughly worth watching.
Date published: 2024-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Course Super informational and, despite the complex topic, the speaker makes it easy to follow. Love it
Date published: 2024-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The best course here This is the most insightful course from the most passionate professor you can have. This course has stimulated my hippocampus and cortex, strengthened my synapses, triggered my dopamine and serotonin, and what not!
Date published: 2023-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An ambassador of the brain! As I have said elsewhere, neuroscience is an important, developing subject. Dr. Norden is a very good presenter, an ambassador of the brain. Neuroscience is not well known to most people, and it must be challenging to put into understandable language. But here it is, carried out with great success. It was a pleasure to follow this course, and to pick up the nuggets of insight that the instructor provides. I particularly liked the lectures on vision: you see with your brain. Your eyes are simply an array of specialized photon detectors, and the brain is where the image is formed. This is so obvious that I must have realized it at some intuitive level, but Dr. Norden made it all very clear. There is another course on neuroscience, by Dr Sam Wang, which is an excellent complement to this one. The two instructors have different approaches and emphasize different aspects, so following both courses provided me with a nuanced view of the subject. I am grateful for the opportunity. These courses were prepared over a dozen years ago. They are still superb introductions to the brain, but there must have been many new discoveries in the interim. As is true of many biological subjects, the foundations are still maturing and what was accepted as true yesterday may not be so today. I challenge the great courses to update their introduction to the brain, and I look forward to the results!
Date published: 2023-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My best brain education This instructor makes things so easily understandable and memorable!!!
Date published: 2023-07-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another very good course Dr Norden has a genius of being able to present very complex information in a matter understandable to an average person. The course gave me a keen appreciation for how the brain works at the neurological level. Surely, I have missed some points and know that there is much more to learn, however i am amazed.
Date published: 2023-06-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Challenging but Worthwhile This is a challenging study of the brain. If you are looking for some pop science, look elsewhere. This course is strongly technical. The Great Courses (TGC) has a number of offerings related to the brain such as The Intelligent Brain, Disorders of the Brain, The Learning Brain, How We Learn, and The Aging Brain among others. I took this course near the end of all these and that may have been a mistake. It may have been better to take this one first, although it is so technical that it may have scared me away from taking the others. This course is divided into four sections. The first section is a general overview of the central nervous system, which includes the brain, the brainstem, and the spinal column. (I say “general overview” because the emphasis is how all the components work together. Even so, the material is deep including cellular and even molecular analyses.) The first section ends with a discussion of what is a stroke; this ties together the material addressed in the section. The second section examines sensory input (primarily visual and audible) input and how perception is formed. This section ends with a discussion of Parkinson’s Disease, which ties together the material addressed in the second section. The third section examines how the brain processes language including the topic of cognition. This section ends with a discussion of how the brain processes music. The fourth and final section is a collection of lectures on topics of general interest. Topics include how the brain differs between males and females and sleeping. This section ends with a discussion of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is clear that Dr. Norden thoroughly enjoys her subject. Her glee spills over from time to time. However, she is so into the subject that sometimes she overestimates how much the listener knows and may be interested. There is a *lot* of technical language in this course. If you have not had college biology or perhaps a few years of high school Latin, it may be difficult to follow. The course guide is important for understanding the material. It is written in paragraph form (as opposed to outline or bullet form), which makes it easier to follow. It has many important graphics in the discussions. It averages only about 4 pages per lecture, which is light by TGC standards. It has 24 pages devoted to the glossary, which suggests how technical is the language throughout the course. It also has biographical notes and a bibliography that includes a short description of how that reference is useful. Sometimes I try to listen to a course while jogging or commuting. That just does not work with this course. The listener must pay full attention to the course or perhaps divide one’s attention between the course and the course guide in order to follow the material. The many graphics are essential to understanding the material. The course was published in 2007.
Date published: 2023-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding For an overview of brain anatomy and functional subsystems, this is an excellent lecture series. Coincidentally, just as we were watching Lecture #20 (Language), news reports of actor Bruce Willis’s diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia were being broadcast. There had been reports back in March 2022 that he was suffering from aphasia. This is a very sobering course when one considers the number of ways this immensely complex organ can malfunction. How the human brain develops and self-organizes from conception is nothing short of a miracle. A very worthwhile course. HWF & ISF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2023-03-04
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Understanding the Brain takes you inside the astonishingly complex brain and shows you how it works, from the gross level of its organization to the molecular level of how cells communicate. With its combination of neurology, biology, and psychology, this course helps you understand how we perceive the world through our senses, how we move, how we learn and remember, and how emotions affect our thoughts and actions.


Jeanette Norden

One of the things that I think is so exciting about neuroscience is that no matter how much you learn, no matter how much you know, there will always be more to know and more to understand.


Vanderbilt University
Dr. Jeanette Norden is a neuroscientist, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine, and Professor of Neurosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology, with training in Neurobiology and Clinical Neurology, from Vanderbilt University. She completed postdoctoral training at Duke University, the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Professor Norden is also the Director of Medical Education in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Her innovative approach in integrating 'humanity' into basic science courses has been recognized at Vanderbilt and nationally. Dr. Norden has twice won the Shovel Award, given by the graduating class to the faculty member who has had the most positive influence on them in their four years of medical school. She has received several other teaching awards, including the Jack Davies Award for teaching excellence in the basic sciences, the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and the Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award from the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society and the Association of American Medical Colleges. She was the first recipient of both the Teaching Excellence Award given by the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the University Chair of Teaching Excellence at Vanderbilt.

By This Professor

Historical Underpinnings of Neuroscience

01: Historical Underpinnings of Neuroscience

Our picture of the brain has changed markedly since antiquity, when it was considered an organ of minor importance. This lecture traces the major paradigm shifts in our understanding of the brain and the contributions of such pioneers as Leonardo da Vinci, René Descartes, and Thomas Willis, the "father of neurology."

33 min
Central Nervous System-Gross Organization

02: Central Nervous System-Gross Organization

This lecture covers the overall organization of the brain and spinal cord and defines important terms and concepts, focusing on areas of the central nervous system that can be viewed from the outside. Neuroanatomists divide the brain into five major regions from rostral (front) to caudal (back).

32 min
Central Nervous System-Internal Organization

03: Central Nervous System-Internal Organization

We examine how the central nervous system is organized internally, starting with the basic unit: the nerve cell or neuron. The brain and spinal cord are made up of concentrations of neuronal cell bodies called nuclei (gray matter) and bundles of axons coursing between them (white matter).

32 min
Central Nervous System-Subdivisions

04: Central Nervous System-Subdivisions

The hundreds of nuclei in the brain can be grouped into specialized systems for sensation, learning, memory, and other functions. Regions of white matter can also be subdivided into functional types; for example, projection pathways connect different areas, like the motor cortex and the spinal cord.

31 min
Cortex-Lobes and Areas

05: Cortex-Lobes and Areas

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neurons or "bark" covering the brain. Considered the seat of the mind, it is where cognition and other higher-order functions such as language, intellect, and memory take place. The cortex can be divided into four lobes, each comprised of areas that are associated with specific functions.

30 min
Cortex-Sensory, Motor, and Association Areas

06: Cortex-Sensory, Motor, and Association Areas

This lecture introduces the traditional and modern classification of sensory, motor, and association cortex. One of the crucial discoveries of the past 40 years is that much of what was previously called association cortex is actually sensory in function. For example, there are many more cortical areas devoted to vision than previously thought.

31 min
Central Nervous System-Development

07: Central Nervous System-Development

We investigate how the brain's subdivisions and different cell types are generated during the remarkable process of development. From a few cells, a human brain forms that is capable of regulating the function of all the other organs as well as producing a theory of relativity or appreciating Bach.

32 min
Central Nervous System-Cellular Organization

08: Central Nervous System-Cellular Organization

This lecture focuses on the structural and functional differences between the two main types of cells in the central nervous system: neurons and glial cells. The name glia ("glue") derives from the historical view that glia simply hold the brain together, but modern neuroscience has revealed that these cells have many other functions. There are about 100 billion neurons and 10 to 100 tim...

31 min
Pathways and Synapses

09: Pathways and Synapses

Unlike most cells in the body, neurons are designed to receive and transmit information. How do they do it? The critical factor is the internal and external environment of neurons, where changes in the distribution of ions (charged atoms) act as a signaling mechanism for encoding and transmitting information.

30 min

10: Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are specialized chemical messengers that signal activity from one neuron to another. More than 60 neurotransmitters/neuromodulators have been identified, including simple amino acids like glutamate; enkephalins and endorphins, which are involved in the processing of pain; and dopamine, which plays a role in reward and addiction.

30 min

11: Stroke

This lecture uses the damage caused by stroke to review material covered up to this point in the course. By understanding the organization of the brain and its blood supply, we can predict which functions will be lost or affected after a stroke impairs the blood flow to specific regions of the brain.

31 min
The Visual System-The Eye

12: The Visual System-The Eye

This lecture investigates how the eye works in concert with the brain. Far from taking a picture of the external world, the eye actually transmits information primarily about edges and contrast to the brain. From this limited input, the brain constructs the visual world we experience in all its complexity and detail.

30 min
The Visual System-The Cortex

13: The Visual System-The Cortex

We trace pathways from the retina of the eye to different areas in the cortex, where functions such as face recognition and color perception take place. Color is a fascinating example of how "seeing" is a mental construct; color is not a property of objects in the world but rather a consequence of brain processes.

30 min
The Auditory System

14: The Auditory System

Like seeing, hearing is a construction of the brain. This lecture discusses how the ear converts pressure waves in the air into electrical signals that travel to the auditory areas of the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. We don't just "hear" sounds; we apply meaning to them, as in our processing of language.

30 min
The Somatosensory System

15: The Somatosensory System

The somatosensory system gives us information not only about the immediate external world but also about our own bodies. From receptors in our skin, joints, and other parts of our bodies, parallel pathways transmit information that we experience as the senses of touch, pain, temperature, and proprioception (awareness of where our limbs are).

32 min

16: Agnosias

Agnosia ("without knowledge") is the inability of individuals to recognize some aspect of their sensory experience because of lesions in the brain. This lecture concentrates on visual agnosias, where an individual who can see loses some specific knowledge related to vision, such as the ability to identify faces or to distinguish between stationary and moving objects.

32 min
The Motor System-Voluntary Movement

17: The Motor System-Voluntary Movement

Not only do we experience the world, we move around in it. This lecture covers the pathways and brain areas that allow us to make voluntary movements of the body. The motor system is divided into pyramidal, extrapyramidal, and cerebellar subsystems, which work together in normal movement.

31 min
The Motor System-Coordinated Movement

18: The Motor System-Coordinated Movement

Coordination of movement, especially learned, skilled motor movement, is largely under the control of the cerebellum. This "little cerebrum" allows for the proper timing and execution of movement and for the correction of errors during ongoing movement. We could not walk, play, or dance without a cerebellum.

33 min
Parkinson's Disease

19: Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease arises when neurons are lost from a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra. This removes a major source of input to forebrain structures involved in regulating movement. This lecture covers signs, symptoms, and treatments of this disorder....

33 min

20: Language

The ability to communicate symbolically through language is thought to be unique to our species. Language involves both higher-order sensory and motor areas of the cerebral cortex. Even though written language is an invention, specific areas in the brain underlie this ability as well.

31 min
The Limbic System-Anatomy

21: The Limbic System-Anatomy

The limbic system represents a large number of interconnected nuclei that together allow for learning, memory, emotion, and executive function. Its importance is dramatically illustrated by the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker in the 1840s whose personality was completely altered by a frontal lobe injury involving part of the limbic system.

31 min
The Limbic System-Biochemistry

22: The Limbic System-Biochemistry

This lecture discusses some of the neurotransmitters that are critical in the normal functioning of the limbic system circuits. Damage to this system can cause the delicate balance of excitation and inhibition to be disrupted. Such imbalances are believed to underlie many mental disorders such as depression.

31 min

23: Depression

Depression is a scourge of modern societies. This lecture focuses on unipolar depression, a central nervous system disorder that has known anatomical and biochemical correlates. We also investigate how the three major classes of antidepressants work and what led to the development of designer antidepressant drugs, such as Prozac.

31 min
The Reward System-Anatomy

24: The Reward System-Anatomy

All humans seek experiences that are rewarding or pleasurable. This lecture covers the brain structures and neurotransmitters involved in reward-in functions as diverse as slaking thirst or enjoying a sunset. The endogenous reward system allows us to tap into the joy of life and engage in the world.

31 min
The Reward System-Drugs

25: The Reward System-Drugs

Psychoactive drugs that produce euphoria or a "high" do so by altering the biochemistry of the endogenous reward system. Such drugs can be both physiologically and psychologically addicting. Using cocaine and marijuana as examples, we investigate how drugs can hijack this system and even produce permanent changes in the brain.

31 min
Brain Plasticity

26: Brain Plasticity

Far from being static structures, synapses are highly dynamic and can be modified by experience. This synaptic plasticity underlies learning and memory. We look at several ways synapses can be modified and the neurobiological basis of why memories change with time.

31 min
Emotion and Executive Function

27: Emotion and Executive Function

Truly rational behavior is not possible without emotion, as evidenced in humans by the tremendous elaboration and interconnection of structures involved in both emotion and executive function. Emotion, memory, and cognition combine to give meaning to our experiences, which can then be used to influence and guide future behavior.

31 min
Processing of Negative Emotions-Fear

28: Processing of Negative Emotions-Fear

Fear is often considered a negative emotion, but it is critical for survival. This lecture explores the role played by a small almond-shaped structure called the amygdala in the rapid processing of sensory information signaling threat. The amygdala is implicated in a number of disorders, including posttraumatic stress syndrome.

31 min
Music and the Brain

29: Music and the Brain

The ability to write, read, and perform music requires the coordinated activity of the sensory, motor, language, and limbic systems of the brain. Studies of musicians who have suffered strokes have identified specific brain areas involved in both the composition and appreciation of different features of music, such as rhythm.

31 min
Sexual Dimorphism of the Brain

30: Sexual Dimorphism of the Brain

At birth our brains are sexually dimorphic, meaning they are either male or female in pattern. While the most dramatic differences in brain structure involve areas associated with sexual behavior and mating, how we experience and interpret the world may also be influenced by the sex of our brains.

33 min
Sleep and Dreaming

31: Sleep and Dreaming

Why do we sleep? What, if anything, do dreams mean? Far from being a passive event, sleep is actively induced and involves areas of the central nervous system extending from the spinal cord to the forebrain. Researchers have also learned a great deal about the types of dreams that occur during various stages of sleep.

32 min
Consciousness and the Self

32: Consciousness and the Self

Why does consciousness appear to be something that is happening to a "me"? What is the "me"? We explore these and other questions surrounding the nature of consciousness. We also delve more deeply into some of the cases discussed in Lecture 16 on agnosias, re-examining what is actually lost in cortical blindness, prosopagnosia, and contralateral neglect.

32 min
Alzheimer's Disease

33: Alzheimer's Disease

This lecture uses the number one neurological disorder in the United States-Alzheimer's disease-as a clinical example to bring together much of the information given in the course. The signs and symptoms of the disease can be understood by looking at the particular brain areas most affected.

30 min
Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease

34: Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease

We look at what has been learned about factors that appear to increase or decrease the risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease, focusing on a study of Catholic nuns who showed a very low incidence of the disorder. This study and others suggest ways to make positive lifestyle changes that may help ward off this dreaded disease.

30 min
Wellness and the Brain-Effects of Stress

35: Wellness and the Brain-Effects of Stress

Our brain has mechanisms that allow for rapid response to threatening events by preparing us for fight or flight. Unfortunately, in our modern world we respond to everyday stressors as though they were life-threatening events. This lecture reviews evidence that chronic activation of this system has deleterious effects on our health.

30 min
Neuroscience-Looking Back and Looking Ahead

36: Neuroscience-Looking Back and Looking Ahead

We summarize the course, survey present research challenges, and address the question: What does our remarkable understanding of the brain tell us about ourselves? Our ability to reason, feel, or even act morally may be the result of neural processes, but this does not denigrate our experiences or our uniqueness as a species.

32 min