If you walked into room 343 in the science building on the right day, you would find a lot of brains. And not all of them would be inside skulls.
Science at Calvin tries to be hands-on, even when it means taking a firsthand peek inside the most sophisticated biological organ known to humans. Calvin’s new neuroscience concentration (an area of study within a major) gives students the opportunity to examine the brain inside and out and discover astonishing answers to some of the most basic aspects of being a human person: How do we store our experiences as memories? Why are some people shy and others outgoing? Why is it so hard to rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time?
Calvin’s new neuroscience concentration takes a combined approach from a number of disciplines in order to get at difficult questions like the relationship between mind and brain, or brain and behavior, or the sometimes surreal and dramatic symptoms of brain trauma.
Biology professor Ryan Bebej said that even before this opportunity arose, he was noticing increased interest from students in this way of doing research. “More and more, things are becoming interdisciplinary,” said Bebej, “and now we’re making it easier for students to figure out how to do that well.”
That’s why this program splits up into three unique neuroscience concentrations in three different departments, each with its own approach: psychology, biology and chemistry/biochemistry, with course options in philosophy, computer science, mathematics and physics, too. According to Stan Haan, academic dean and professor of physics, the program is about investigating the brain from all angles. “How does the brain as a physical instrument fit into the entire person?” Haan asks. That is the question animating the new concentration.
It was actually interest from Calvin students that drove this effort forward. After noticing growing interest and enrollment in courses related to the brain, Calvin’s faculty decided to investigate the possibility of a new program. A 2013 survey showed 76 percent of students agreeing or strongly agreeing that a neuroscience concentration was a good idea. Perhaps even more telling, 140 students strongly agreed that they would be interested in taking neuroscience courses as electives even if Calvin did not add the concentration itself.
The science of hilarity
Students taking part in the neuroscience concentration have the opportunity to work with Calvin’s faculty on exciting and groundbreaking brain research.
Psychology professor Paul Moes is one of the originators of Calvin’s neuroscience concentration. Moes researches how the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate when it comes to language and emotion. The bridge between these hemispheres is called the corpus callosum, and Moes has been investigating how this interaction contributes to nonliteral language like metaphors, proverbs and jokes.
To gather data, test subjects are hooked up to an EEG machine with electrodes placed at intervals all around the head. Then they’re shown a quick, one-sentence joke (“The mechanic couldn’t fix the man’s brakes so he fixed his horn.”), and a computer records the reaction time from each hemisphere, allowing the researcher to time the communication between them. Moes has hopes that data gathered here could have applications for understanding autism, agenesis or severance of the corpus callosum, and emotional regulation.
A lasting imprint
Another of the program’s progenitors is psychology professor Emily Helder. Helder’s main research focus has been the development of children who have been adopted internationally, usually after spending time in an orphanage. Along with her student assistants, Helder has been filling in gaps in the literature and discovering some remarkable things.
For example, children who have experienced deprivations and neglect in their early experiences are at increased risk for displaying challenges in behavioral and neurological development. While there can be significant hurdles for any adoptive family, Helder’s research examines how time in a stable family can actually improve and normalize brain functioning. In her recent article, published in the journal Child Neuropsychology, Helder’s research team found evidence of different practices and environments that could help or hinder a child’s progress. For example, when parents encouraged age-appropriate behaviors for their child (as opposed to taking an approach that encouraged regression), it led to improvements in the child’s cognitive abilities.
Participating in this kind of research as a student can be an asset for medical school, and the program is certainly meant to benefit and prepare students for vocations related to brain research and medicine. But in an environment of Christian faith, the questions can go still deeper.
Neuroscience at Calvin
The new program expands the current course on brain and behavior into two new courses, splitting the behavioral from the cognitive and clinical aspects of neuroscience. This doubles the amount of time professors would have to lay the foundations for the study of neuroscience. It provides core requirements for each of the three departmental versions of the concentration. It also adds a capstone philosophy course (available to all three departments) called “Minds, Brains and Persons.”
Kevin Corcoran, who teaches “Minds, Brains and Persons,” says the idea of the capstone course is to try to do a more global reflection. When you’re studying behavioral psychology, brain chemistry and anatomy, you find yourself “swimming in detail,” as Corcoran put it. The capstone course brings all of this together by relating it to the human person—the person who listens to music, laughs at jokes, stays up too late, can’t think of a word, prays.
In Corcoran’s course, students ask profound questionsow does my conscious experience relate to my pinkish, wrinkly gray matter? How do you think about it in reductive or non-reductive ways? What are materialist and non-materialist ways of talking about minds? By facing these questions head-on, students are able to articulate a peculiarly Christian perspective on these fundamental problems while doing justice to their complexity.
The course also addresses questions that have to do with neuroscience as a Christian vocation—for students entering psychology, psychiatry, neurology or any number of fields in academics and medicine. There are always theological bridges to cross in any vocation, but, according to Corcoran, in work involving experimentation, there are unique moral responsibilities. The question is how you think about the subjects’ brains. “You’re not experimenting on a brain, you’re experimenting on a person with a brain,” said Corcoran. By finishing their study with this course, neuroscience students at Calvin will leave better equipped to handle the real-world ethical issues that arise in their line of work, he said.
Calvin has already graduated a number of students working in neuroscience and related fields. By responding to student interest and stepping up the academic offerings related to this vocation, Calvin is sending Christians into a growing and increasingly relevant field of study—Christians who are equipped to think deeply and ethically, for the common good and to the glory of God.
Jacob Thielman is Calvin’s web coordinator for the academic division.