The Brain and Space

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About this course: This course is about how the brain creates our sense of spatial location from a variety of sensory and motor sources, and how this spatial sense in turn shapes our cognitive abilities. Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cog…

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When you enroll for courses through Coursera you get to choose for a paid plan or for a free plan

  • Free plan: No certicification and/or audit only. You will have access to all course materials except graded items.
  • Paid plan: Commit to earning a Certificate—it's a trusted, shareable way to showcase your new skills.

About this course: This course is about how the brain creates our sense of spatial location from a variety of sensory and motor sources, and how this spatial sense in turn shapes our cognitive abilities. Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember. The material in this course is based on a book I've written for a general audience. The book is called "Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are", and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or directly from Harvard University Press. The course material overlaps with classes on perception or systems neuroscience, and can be taken either before or after such classes. Dr. Jennifer M. Groh, Ph.D. Professor Psychology & Neuroscience; Neurobiology Duke University www.duke.edu/~jmgroh Jennifer M. Groh is interested in how the brain process spatial information in different sensory systems, and how the brain's spatial codes influence other aspects of cognition. She is the author of a recent book entitled "Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are" (Harvard University Press, fall 2014). Much of her research concerns differences in how the visual and auditory systems encode location, and how vision influences hearing. Her laboratory has demonstrated that neurons in auditory brain regions are sometimes responsive not just to what we hear but also to what direction we are looking and what visual stimuli we can see. These surprising findings challenge the prevailing assumption that the brain’s sensory pathways remain separate and distinct from each other at early stages, and suggest a mechanism for such multi-sensory interactions as lip-reading and ventriloquism (the capture of perceived sound location by a plausible nearby visual stimulus). Dr. Groh has been a professor at Duke University since 2006. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from Princeton University in 1988 before studying neuroscience at the University of Michigan (Master’s, 1990), the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D., 1993), and Stanford University (postdoctoral, 1994-1997). Dr. Groh has been teaching undergraduate classes on the neural basis of perception and memory for over fifteen years. She is presently a faculty member at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences at Duke University. She also holds appointments in the Departments of Neurobiology and Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke. Dr. Groh’s research has been supported by a variety of sources including the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program, the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, the John Merck Scholars Program, the EJLB Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Whitehall Foundation, and the National Organization for Hearing Research.

Created by:  Duke University
  • Taught by:  Dr. Jennifer M. Groh, Ph.D., Professor

    Psychology & Neuroscience; Neurobiology
Level Beginner Language English, Subtitles: Italian How To Pass Pass all graded assignments to complete the course. User Ratings 4.7 stars Average User Rating 4.7See what learners said Coursework

Each course is like an interactive textbook, featuring pre-recorded videos, quizzes and projects.

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Syllabus


WEEK 1


Course Introduction and Vision (Part 1)



This module contains an introduction to the course as a whole (Video 1.1) and an exploration of how our eyes detect light and deduce the location light is coming from (Videos 1.2-1.6). You'll also learn about how scientists from Democritus to Alhazen to Kepler figured this out. The final video for the module involves an experiment to test what happens when special goggles turn the world upside down (Video 1.7). I'll show experiments frequently throughout this course -- they are how we know what we know. This module’s quiz is ungraded and available to both auditors and certificate students. Consider it a sample of the style of question in the quizzes for the remaining modules, and an opportunity to determine if you’d like to pursue a certificate for this course.


7 videos, 5 readings, 1 practice quiz expand


  1. Reading: Getting Started
  2. Reading: Syllabus
  3. Reading: Grading and Logistics
  4. Reading: Philosophy
  5. Reading: Readings
  6. Video: Lecture 1.1 - (S) Introduction to the Course
  7. Video: Lecture 1.2 - (S) Vision: What Do We See?
  8. Video: Lecture 1.3 - (S) Vision: How Light is Sensed by Neurons, Part 1
  9. Video: Lecture 1.4 - (S) Vision: How Light is Sensed by Neurons, Part 2
  10. Video: Lecture 1.5 - (S) Vision: How the Eye Forms an Image, Part 1
  11. Video: Lecture 1.6 - (S) Vision: How the Eye Forms an Image, Part 2
  12. Video: Lecture 1.7 - (E) Vision: Movie Interlude - Turning the World Upside-Down
  13. Practice Quiz: Module 1 Quiz


WEEK 2


Vision (Part 2), the Body, and Neural Signals



In this unit, we cover the visual scene in 3D - the many clues to depth. We then turn to body senses (position and touch) and how our brains detect the configuration of our own bodies. Along the way, we cover the resting membrane potential, the action potential, and how they arise. Finally, we bring vision and the body together, and throw some beanbags at a visual target while wearing prisms! This material is covered in Making Space, chapters 2 and 3.


9 videos expand


  1. Video: Lecture 2.1 - (S) Vision: Binocular Cues for Depth Perception
  2. Video: Lecture 2.2 - (S) Vision: Monocular Cues for Depth Perception
  3. Video: Lecture 2.3 - (S) Introduction to Body Position Sensing
  4. Video: Lecture 2.4 - (S) Body Position Sensory Receptors
  5. Video: Lecture 2.5 - (G) Neural Signals: The Resting Membrane Potential
  6. Video: Lecture 2.6 - (G) Neural Signals: The Action Potential
  7. Video: Lecture 2.7 - (S) Converting the Mechanical to the Electrical
  8. Video: Lecture 2.8 - (E) Body Position Illusions and Experiments I: Pinocchio and Crossed Hands
  9. Video: Lecture 2.9 - (E) Body Position Illusions and Experiments II: Prisms

Graded: Module 2 Quiz

WEEK 3


Brain Maps



In this unit, we turn to the brain and how it uses the spatial position of neurons within the brain to organize information about the spatial position of stimuli in the world (Making Space chapter 4). You'll learn about how we identify where one object ends and another begins, what a receptive field is, and how some neurons are sensitive to edges and the boundaries of objects. Maps occur in both visual cortex and body (somatosensory) cortex, and these maps may be responsible for various "phantom" sensations (examples from normal vision, patients with body part amputations, and electrical stimulation experiments).


6 videos expand


  1. Video: Lecture 3.1 - (S) Introduction: Figures and Backgrounds
  2. Video: Lecture 3.2 - (S, G, E) Synapses and Center-Surround Organization
  3. Video: Lecture 3.3 - (S) Maps of Visual Space
  4. Video: Lecture 3.4 - (S) Orientation and Border Ownership
  5. Video: Lecture 3.5 - (S, E) Phantom Limb and the Blind Spot
  6. Video: Lecture 3.6 - (S, E) Motion Vision

Graded: Module 3 Quiz

WEEK 4


Sound and Brain Representations



In module 4, we turn to the fascinating puzzle of how we deduce sound location--a process that requires quite a bit of detective work. Our brains piece together multiple types of clues, including subtle differences in timing, loudness, frequency content, and how sounds appear to change as we turn our heads. Because our ears don't form images of sounds, our brains don't have to use maps to encode sound location. The second half of the videos this module concern alternative forms of brain representation, how the brain translates between different types of representation, and what we know about brain representations for sound location. The material is covered in chapter 5, "Sherlock Ears" and chapter 6, "Moving with Maps and Meters", in Making Space. Be forewarned, there are about 70 minutes of video this module, as compared to previous modules' 50-60 minutes. After watching the full set, you'll see why these videos are grouped together as a unit. To make things more manageable, we've broken the quiz into two parts; that way, you can get feedback on one part before moving on to the next, if you like.


12 videos expand


  1. Video: Lecture 4.1 - (S) What is sound and how is it sensed?
  2. Video: Lecture 4.2 - (S) Deducing the Location of Sounds
  3. Video: Lecture 4.3 - (S) Movements and the "Cone of Confusion"
  4. Video: Lecture 4.4 - (S) Spectral Cues and the "Cone of Confusion"
  5. Video: Lecture 4.5 - (S) Learning to Find Sounds
  6. Video: Lecture 4.6 - (S, E) Ventriloquism and Finding Sounds
  7. Video: Lecture 4.7 - (S) Determining the Distance of Sounds
  8. Video: Lecture 4.8 - (S) Brain Maps as Representations
  9. Video: Lecture 4.9 - (S) Brain Meters as Representations
  10. Video: Lecture 4.10 -(S) Brain Meters and Movements
  11. Video: Lecture 4.11 -(S, E) Translating Maps to Meters
  12. Video: Lecture 4.12 - (S, E) Brain Representations for Sound

Graded: Module 4 Quiz - Part I
Graded: Module 4 Quiz - Part II

WEEK 5


Reference Frames and Navigation



This module we turn to how spatial locations are defined, and discuss the concept of a reference frame. Initially, reference frames are quite different for visual, auditory, and somatosensory information. Visual location is defined with respect to the eyes, whereas sound locations are detected with respect to the head and ears, and tactile locations are detected based on body surface position. As you'll see, the brain transforms these signals into new reference frames to facilitate interactions between these sensory systems. We then consider space on a larger scale, and ask how we know where we are and how we navigate from one place to another. Knowledge of self-motion relies in part on the vestibular system, our sense of balance. The vestibular system works in concert with vision and motor systems to update our sense of position and keep us from getting lost. This module's material is covered in chapters 7, "Your Sunglasses Are in the Milky Way", and 8, "Going Places" of Making Space.


8 videos expand


  1. Video: Lecture 5.1 - (S) Defining Spatial Locations
  2. Video: Lecture 5.2 - (S) Visual Space is Synthesized Across Eye Movements
  3. Video: Lecture 5.3 - (S, E) Sensing Eye Position via Motor Commands
  4. Video: Lecture 5.4 - (S, E) Coordinating Between Vision and Touch
  5. Video: Lecture 5.5 - (S, E) Coordinating Between Vision and Hearing
  6. Video: Lecture 5.6 - (S, E) Translating Auditory Information into Visual Coordinates
  7. Video: Lecture 5.7 - (S) Going Places I: The Vestibular System
  8. Video: Lecture 5.8 - (S) Going Places II: Vision and Movement

Graded: Module 5 Quiz

WEEK 6


Memory and Cognition



In this final module of the course, we build several important links between the sense of space and other kinds of cognition. Videos 6.1-6.5 concern the relationship between space and memory. Memory is reflected in multiple different kinds of neural mechanisms and involves multiple brain regions. The memory and spatial functions of these mechanisms and brain regions overlap. Video 6.5 in particular features work by John O'Keefe concerning response patterns known as "place fields" in the hippocampus, and work by May-Britt and Edvard Moser concerning grid cells. This seminal work was recognized by the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Videos 6.6-6.9 turn to thought more generally, and present a series of theories and experiments that suggest that the brain is actually using sensory and motor structures to think and reason. Thus, our brain systems for space may be engaged in a wide set of mental functions, which are shaped by the multiple purposes of this neural infrastructure. This module's material is covered in chapters 9, "Space and Memory", and 10, "Thinking about Thinking" of Making Space. I hope you enjoy this synthesis of all you have learned and what it means!


9 videos expand


  1. Video: Lecture 6.1 - (S) Memory and Space: A Two-Way Street
  2. Video: Lecture 6.2 - (S) Memory in Neural Activity
  3. Video: Lecture 6.3 - (S) Memory in Synapses
  4. Video: Lecture 6.4 - (S, E) Memory and Parietal Cortex
  5. Video: Lecture 6.5 - (S, E) Memory, Navigation and the Hippocampus
  6. Video: Lecture 6.6 - (S) Space and Thinking
  7. Video: Lecture 6.7 - (S, E) Behavioral Ties Between Space and Thought
  8. Video: Lecture 6.8 - (S, E) Brain Evidence Connecting Space and Thought
  9. Video: Lecture 6.9 - (S) Space and Abstract Thought

Graded: Module 6 Quiz
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