10 Modules

Inline Assessment

Close Captioned

Re-Use Encouraged

The modules are suitable for courses in both cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology and they are informed by rapid advances in the understanding of brain structures and functions in recent decades. We selected ten topics that form the backbone of this type of course and that have the strongest connection to brain mechanisms as they are currently understood. We left out the topic of problem solving as we feel that the topic has not advanced as rapidly in recent years as other topics and it has a comparatively weak grounding in terms of brain structures, processes and networks that are associated with it. We also reluctantly left out the topic of language (both language understanding and language production) because it is a large topic that deserves a course of its own, and it represents a very specialized kind of brain activity. One other topic that we left out because of lack of room was motor control. It too deserves a course of its own to cover the complex interaction between motor cortices, cerebellum, midbrain region, brainstem and spine.

We have taught the psychology for engineers course annually since fall 2010 and we have found that these topics are accessible to industrial engineering students in their first course on psychology even though a course like this would typically be taught to psychology students in their third or fourth year. We believe that topics such as social psychology, consciousness, personality, and abnormal psychology are inadequately informed by brain mechanisms and are not currently suited for an engineering approach to the brain. While these modules represent material that we have experience in covering, we have built these new modules completely from scratch supported by the latest advances in cognitive neuroscience and the latest practices that promote high engagement learning. Our vision is to eventually have a discipline of brain engineering that will take a design and modeling (engineering) view of the brain. With the increasing use of brain implants and techniques such as deep brain stimulation for treatment of conditions like depression and Parkinson’s disease we are likely to see humans slowly evolve into cognitively facilitated beings in the coming decades. Brain engineers are needed to ensure that brain enhancement and reconstruction is done in a thoughtful and appropriate way that respects the properties of neural structures and the way that the brain works. 

Project Components
Brain Architecture

In this module, the structure and functions of neurons are presented, along with the overall structure of the brain. Common methods for visualizing two dimensional slices of the three dimensional brain re also explained. This module begins with a brief review of neuronal transmission and the function of neurons. The module then reviews in detail the structure of the neuron and the concept of an action potential. Axonal transmission is then covered. The neuron is presented as the fundamental building block of the brain. After that the focus moves to the whole brain and to the various regions within the brain.

Perception Action Cycle

In this module, the concepts of the perception and action cycle (PAC) are discussed.  This module aims to situate the notions of perception and cognition within a broad conceptual grounding. The fact that organisms exist within an environment in which they must adapt in order to survive and thrive is the main focus that enables a discussion of some of the implications that follow from this fact. 

Sensation and Perception

In this module, the basic properties of the visual pathway from the interaction between eye and environment to initial processing in the visual cortex are discussed.  This module begins with a brief review of how photons of light reflected from surfaces in the environment are processed in the back of the eye. The concept of the visual pathway is introduced. The concept of retinotopic mapping is discussed and the fact that all representations in the visual pathway refer back to activation in the retina is emphasized.

Object Recognition

In this module, the basic components of visual object recognition are introduced.  This module begins with a brief review of the problem of perception and then focuses on the distinction between the what and where pathways for processing information about visual objects. The basic functions of the what and where pathways are introduced. The location of the pathways is discussed along with the binding problem and the function of the convergence zone in bring back the what and where components of object recognition into a unified representation. 

In this module, the topic of Attention is introduced.  This module begins by using the analogy of choosing a sandwich from a plate of sandwiches to illustrate the kind of choice that the brain is continually making. The role of top down perception and context in interpreting what we see is also described. The dichotic listening task is introduced and described. The role of the dichotic listening task in demonstration the properties of selective attention is reviewed. The long standing central role of attention as an issue in psychology is illustrated with a review of early work done on attention that was done in the 19th century.  
Working Memory

In this module, the topic of working memory is introduced.  This module begins by using the analogy of conductor and orchestra to explain the relationship of working memory to the rest of the brain. The role of executive control is introduced along with the various memory buffers that make up working memory. The episodic buffer is introduced as a component of working memory that supports episodic memory and that supplements the phonological loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad as short-term memory stores.

Executive Control

In this module, the executive control system is introduced.  This module begins by the evolutionary growth in the size and importance of the prefrontal cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The role of executive control is discussed using the driving task as an example. Executive control of eye movements is also discussed along with the connectivity to other brain regions that allows this control to occur. Shifting, updating, and inhibition are introduced as three important components of executive control. 

Long-term Memory
In this module, the temporal lobe memory system is introduced.  This module begins by a classic lesion study that demonstrated the role of the hippocampus in memory formation. The case study of HM, a man whose left and right hippocampi were surgically removed is reviewed. The distinction between declarative and non-declarative memory is demonstrated with HMs ability to learn mirror tracing (a non-declarative skill-based memory), but not declarative facts or episodes. This lesion study also highlights the role of the hippocampus and associated areas in the medial temporal cortex as a declarative memory system. 

This module asks why we have emotions and presents the evidence for a wired in system of basic emotions that has a large impact on our thinking and behavior.  This module begins by discussing the purpose of emotions as a way to guide behavior and learning. The work of Paul Ekman in identifying six basic emotions is reviewed, along with the evidence that supports the idea that we have these basic emotions. The role of facial expressions in conveying emotion is described, and the location of emotions within the brain is discussed.  

Decision Making

This module reviews the basic properties of human decision making.  This module begins by introduces a “rational” model of decision making based on expected utility theory. This module assumes that people assess the utility of an outcome by multiplying its value by its probability. This is the model used by economists and it often applies to human decision making, but there are also many cases where it does not explain what people actually do. In this module we discuss when the expected utility model of decision making fails and why.