By Keionna Newton
The brain is an endlessly fascinating organ, but let’s face it – it is also a complete enigma. One quick look into any introductory neuroscience textbook and you are immediately thrown into the middle of a complex and often puzzling world of never-ending molecules with odd sounding names, and an endless list of brain regions and cell types whose functions are often quite mysterious. A didactic landscape like this can prove quite difficult, overwhelming, and even a bit intimidating for those just beginning to learn about neuroscience basics. Thankfully, Dr. Rafael Yuste’s lively Lectures in Neuroscience, published in August 2023, has got you covered.
The perfect beginner’s guide to neuroscience, Yuste’s book is focused on picking apart the brain by grouping neurons together based on their function. The author starts off by emphasizing the importance of understanding how groups of neurons that are active together (called neural ensembles) produce the relevant brain functions necessary for behavior and other processes. The brain is a complicated jungle and, in Yuste’s words, “To understand the jungle, we need to look at it not tree by tree but from above, and observe how groups of trees make up the forest.” In order to parse out this jungle that is the brain, Yuste successfully examines the various groups of neurons one at a time.
In order to parse out this jungle that is the brain, Yuste successfully examines the various groups of neurons one at a time
Based on his lectures as a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Columbia University, Yuste breaks down some of the most fundamental concepts and core principles of neuroscience in 18 chapters, or “lectures.” Each lecture begins with a short overview of key points and ends with a brief summary of what was learned. For the curious-minded who want to do an even deeper dive into the topics, Yuste also includes a list of recommended reading material that includes books and primary literature at the end of each lecture. Complete with ample vibrant pictures and diagrams, each chapter is entertaining to read and makes you excited to investigate the black box that is the brain.
In this book, you’ll learn about everything from how newborn neurons migrate to distant regions of the brain, to how various populations of neurons form connections with one another to carry out complicated brain functions like speech, learning, and memory. In Lecture 5 on Networks, Yuste discusses how computer algorithms called neural networks are built to model dynamic brain activity. From these neural networks we can gain more insight and make predictions about how neural activity gives rise to emergent brain properties such as thoughts and memories. A critical point that the author emphasizes throughout the book is that through investigating the activity of groups of neurons, the field of neuroscience will be able to eventually piece together the puzzle of what it is the brain is doing, and how.
In Lectures in Neuroscience, you’ll also learn about what happens in the brain when neural circuitry becomes dysfunctional. In Lecture 16 on Speech, Yuste describes how the brain generates speech through the introduction of real clinical cases of stroke patients who have communication deficits known as aphasias. From these studies on aphasias, the field of neuroscience has been able to locate where in the brain speech is constructed and decoded. The book also raises interesting questions about how our brain actively constructs and predicts our everyday reality. A common concept within the field of neuroscience that is also illustrated in this book is how the brain is essentially a prediction machine. The brain receives a continuous stream of information from our sensory organs, such as our eyes and ears, and it uses this information to make guesses about what is out there in the environment around us. While most of the time the brain does a pretty good job of constructing a coherent picture of the world at large, it is not without its many quirks when creating our perceptions of the world. Sometimes the brain predicts things incorrectly and these faulty guesses can result in amusing peculiarities in our perceptions of our environment. This concept is beautifully illustrated in Yuste’s lecture on vision, complete with a fun optical illusion you can use to find your retina’s blind spot.
The brain receives a continuous stream of information from our sensory organs, such as our eyes and ears, and it uses this information to make guesses about what is out there in the environment around us
Lectures in Neuroscience also briefly discusses the complicated subjects of thinking and consciousness, using sleep studies as a particular example. This discussion raises many thought-provoking questions such as; are we still considered conscious as we sleep? Where does consciousness arise from? Are there particular brain wave patterns we could use to identify human consciousness?
One thing is for sure: the brain is a fascinating, complicated, and often weird organ to study. If you have ever found yourself wanting to learn more about the neurobiological basis of things like sensory processing or learning and memory but never knew where to start, Yuste’s Lectures in Neuroscience is the book for you. Once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down!
Written by Keionna Newton
Edited by Liza Chartampila, Sarah Wade, and Alli Lindquist