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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 8, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 6
JHU Course Catalog: Brain Myths & Folk Psychology

Amy Lynne Shelton with a rodent drawing that students copied more successfully when it was upside-down than right-side-up. Changing the image to make it less familiar removed obstacles to the brain, she said.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Amy Lunday

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's nine academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: An interactive, multimedia lecture course offered by Psychological and Brain Sciences and cross-listed with Public Health and Film and Media Studies, all in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. About 50 students meet in the Krieger Hall Auditorium. 3 credits.

Meeting time: Thursdays from 1 to 3:30 p.m., fall 2007

The instructor: Amy Lynne Shelton, who joined the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences as an assistant professor in January 2002 and has been director of its undergraduate studies since 2004. She also has a joint appointment in the School of Medicine's Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience. A graduate of Illinois State University with a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Vanderbilt University, Shelton studies how information about spatial layout is acquired and represented in the brain. In particular, she's interested in how differences in spatial experiences affect the representation of spatial information. In addition to her research, teaching and advising duties, Shelton is in her second year as the university's inaugural Charles Commons Faculty Fellow, residing in the new Homewood campus upperclassman housing facility with her husband and son. Her teaching assistant is Arnold Bakker, a graduate student in Psychological and Brain Sciences who works in Craig Stark's lab, studying the cognitive neuroscience of learning and memory.

Syllabus and course work: Separating fact from fiction is the mission behind Brain Myths & Folk Psychology. Crime-scene investigators on television dramas throw around scientific terms with such frequency and conviction that the average viewer of all three Law & Order shows might walk away feeling like he or she had earned an advanced degree between commercial breaks. In addition, action- movie heroes often rely on scientific "facts" to determine who the bad guys are. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson's character in The Negotiator proclaims to know that a man is lying by watching where his eyes drift when he responds to questioning. If he looks up and to the right during an interrogation, indicating that he's accessing his brain's "creative centers," the man is fibbing; if he looks up and to the left, he is accessing the visual cortex and telling the truth, Jackson's character smugly says. Too bad the science is all wrong — the visual cortex is actually located in the back of the brain, not in the front and to the left, Shelton says. That's just one example of how the media often skewers the facts and spins misconceptions about how the brain works.

To that end, the primary goal of the course is "to explore popular notions about the brain and psychology and to discuss what science has actually revealed about them," Shelton wrote in the syllabus. Along the way, students learn major concepts, ask questions and research techniques in cognitive and systems neuroscience. Although the course might burst a few Hollywood bubbles, it doesn't spoil the fun — Shelton illustrates her points with TV and movie clips on the big screen in Krieger Hall's auditorium and prepares interactive demos for students to perform.

There is no textbook for the class, but there are two required novels — Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, and The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers — and readings for each topic covered. Shelton also has assigned six "thought papers," each of them two or three pages, in response to the books read or movies screened for the class. There are also 11 quizzes and in-class demos, all of which are given unannounced, adding extra incentive for students to show up on time and prepared. In addition, students have the opportunity to earn 20 extra points by participating in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department's experiments or by finding an ad in any popular medium, such as a Web page or magazine, that perpetuates a myth and then debunking it.

Amy Shelton says: "I love movies, and I have always been fascinated by popular media portrayals of science — those that claim to be presenting fact and those that use the facts to extrapolate creatively. The course uses these media accounts as the springboard for talking about psychology and neuroscience. It is a way to show students that science is out there and all around them, and it puts rigorous scientific issues into a fun context. The course actually originated as an intersession course designed by a former graduate student, Brock Kirwan. In talking with Brock about his course, I realized that it could be a really fun way to do some serious scientific exploration. My goal with the full-semester course is to teach students not only about the topics that we cover but also about how to evaluate the scientific information that is out there in our everyday lives."

A student says: "Amy Shelton's Brain Myths is a unique course here at Hopkins. Not only is Professor Shelton committed to her field and her research, but she is committed to teaching. I think she has figured out a way to use technology — films, PowerPoint, graphics and projections — to enhance her teaching but not to do that teaching for her. We watch a Hollywood movie and then read journal articles about the science in the movie to test out the science of the movie. As an English and international relations major, I haven't had much background in the mechanics of the brain, so watching movies is a perfect way in."
— Mike Levin, 22, senior, Baltimore


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