Magazine On-line [spring 2013]
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Around Campus

Transylvania to add neuroscience major

What does it mean to be human?

At the heart of this key liberal arts question lies another puzzle: How does the brain make us who we are?

Meg Upchurch
 Professor of psychology and
program director Meg Upchurch

Transylvania students will wade into these gray areas by studying gray matter. Beginning this fall, the college will offer a neuroscience major.

Students have requested special majors in that field and biopsychology for years, psychology professor and program director Meg Upchurch said. The university expects the new major will appeal not only to current students but also to those considering Transylvania.

Neuroscience is a growing discipline—and it’s a hot topic. The field tackles issues such as athletes’ head injuries in contact sports and how to interpret brain scans of criminals who say they couldn’t help committing a crime because their frontal cortex wasn’t properly functioning.

The new program also dovetails with Transylvania 2020, the university’s new strategic plan, which calls for expanded multidisciplinary initiatives.

Neuroscience majors will choose an emphasis of either psychology, biology, or computer science, and the academic connections won’t end there. Courses will include Mental Organs, co-taught with philosophy, and a possible elective will be Music Cognition, which poses questions such as: Why do we react emotionally to music? and: Why does music matter to us?

This mix will lead to fruitful interdisciplinary interactions in both conversation and research, Upchurch said. “It adds to the intellectual discussion on campus.”

As for the other liberal arts link, “to a pretty substantial extent, how we picture ourselves as humans is really arising from our brains,” Upchurch said.

Studying and using computers adds to this picture. Transylvania’s neuroscience program will be unlike many similar ones at other colleges because it will require all of its students to take a computer class. This could give them an edge when they apply to graduate or medical schools.

The study of brains and computers merges in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. For instance, computer scientists look at living neural networks to learn how to create more effective machines. A robot, after all, is a computer that can move around and interact with its environment. So if you study how to make a computer do that, in a sense, you’re also asking questions about how an organism with a nervous system does that, Upchurch said.

While the new major will pull from many different areas, the discipline of neuroscience stands on its own these days. Upchurch compared it to the development of her field, psychology, which originally didn’t exist as a separate discipline but was a combination of two others: philosophy and physiology. It eventually took on a life of its own, though.

Senior Daniel Ficker, a psychology major and biology minor, said the fusion of psychology, biology, computer science, and chemistry will give students a better understanding of the basis behind neurological functions. “Through the integration of these fields of study, students will be capable of entering into and exploring the multitude of opportunities that neuroscience has to offer.”

Junior Roshni Desai, who created her own neuroscience major, said the field’s multi-focus approach reflects Transylvania’s value of interdisciplinary study. For example, her behavioral pharmacology class—an elective for the official neuroscience major—covered not only pure science but also the social impact of drug use.

Desai also said it’s interesting to learn how the brain works and makes people who they are—“how personality develops, how that is related to the actual structure of your brain.”

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