Learning the brain


OK folk(s), Synchronised Minds turns a new page, along with me starting a new job. I’ll update the info to the about section etc. as soon as possible, but the news is that I’m now working at the Brain Research Unit of the O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory in the Aalto University. I’m still working on the synchronised minds, although now moving into looking at synchronised brains as well as synchronised bodies, as an evidence of that mindsync. 🙂

I’m working on a project called Brain2Brain, which is an ERC-funded attempt to develop two-person neuroscience (2PN); that is, methods and approaches to study dyads, interacting people, instead of isolated individuals. This is unbelievable exciting and to me a dream job. Although of course it is challenging, as I have not done neuroscientific studies before. I’ve been a participant in many of them, have read many of the papers and even taught my students about the findings, but of course planning and executing a brain study is a different thing. Luckily there is a lot of experienced people around me, so I don’t have to do these alone.

But, I have to learn a lot about the brain and how to study it. I think with the proliferation of neuroscience to all human sciences and also the growing public interest on the topic, it might be of more general interest to figure out how one can learn about the brain. Here are some resources that I’ve found useful in my attempt to gain a better understanding of how the brain works and how it can be studied.

The brain and it’s parts 

As in any specialist field, one hurdle that an aspiring expert needs to overcome is the jargon related to the field. In neuroscience, there’s plenty of jargon, starting with acronyms of methods (fMRI, MEG, EEG, DTI, NIRS, CT, TMS, ERP, MMN…) to the names of the various brain regions (pre-frontal cortex, superior temporal gyrus, anterior cingulate…) and to the names of the various hormones and cells and their parts (dopamine, glial cells, synapses, axons…) that the reader is expected to know the meaning of. This can all be a big mess, but it is relatively easy to get started and learn little by little. An excellent resource for the anatomy of the brain is the BrainVoyager Tutor. You can look at the various lobes, gyrii and sulci, and learn about what functions are associated with which areas. This is a handy resource to keep open when learning articles, it is quick to check where the damn parahippocampal gyrus is again… And actually, Wikipedia is pretty good in terms of the basic concepts and areas nowadays; not for in-depth stuff, but to check where a particular region is and what it does at a very general level.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

The extraordinary demand for neuroscience and the growing public interest in the findings, combined with the proliferation of brain scanning and availability of equipment has lead to a scene where a lot of brain papers are churned out, a lot of books and blogs and podcasts are made, and much of both the academic and the popular “brain stuff” is of low quality. The problem for a beginner is of course to tell which stuff is good and which isn’t. The old principle that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, applies. But for me the problem is that most neuroscience sounds too good to be true! 😀 Anyway, here are some blogs and podcasts that I’ve found to be informative and while genuinely enthusiastic about scientific progress, also sceptical about overreaching conclusions or interpretations that are not based on data.


Neuroskeptic is taking a skeptic look on talked-about papers. His analyses are valuable for anyone planning their own studies.


Awesome blog that often dissects studies so that you can learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of doing a study. Also, look for the Friday Weird Science editions…

Brain Science Podcast 

These podcasts by  are very interesting in-depth interviews of brain researchers, usually authors of recent books. So, before buying a new book on the brain, it might be a good idea to swing by the archive of these monthly podcasts and listen to the interview of the author. The website has all the transcripts of the episodes, as well, if you like reading instead of listening. This is what I listen to while I cycle to work and back. 🙂

Naked Scientists Podcast

Naked Scientists is my favourite science podcast franchise. They produce high quality programming on a wide variety of sciences and topics, from environmental science and biology to nuclear physics to neuroscience. For example, the recent episode The Brain Uncovered, was an excellent smorgasbord of brain stuff.

Courses and textbooks 

Of course, for anyone actually planning to do brain research, more systematic studying is needed. Luckily nowadays there are lots of great textbooks and online lectures and courses to get started. Of textbooks, I’m currently reading a recent one by my new colleague Iiro Jääskeläinen, Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience. (Google can help you find a free, ad-supported version of it, but you can get the Kindle version through that link.)

Coursera is a brilliant hub for online courses. There are many that might be useful for a budding neuroscientist, for example if you think you might need to brush up your physics or maths skills, computation, data analysis or stats, there are courses you can take. Of course, you can attend them in full, do the homework and all the assignments, or just sign up and enjoy the lectures. Also, check the edX site where you can find lectures and courses from MIT, Harvard and Berkeley.

What are your favourite resources? Which books, blogs or podcasts would you recommend for someone looking to develop specialist knowledge in this field, or for someone simply interested in learning more about how the brain works?

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