The Neuroconversations

Eric P. Wiertelak,
Psychology and Neuroscience Studies, Macalester College

Author Profile


The Neuroconversations brings together advanced neuroscience majors with advanced majors from other disciplines for a one-session seminar meeting focused on exploring the intersection of neuroscience with the other discipline. Through guided conversation inspired by shared readings of select primary literature from both neuroscience and the invited discipline, the students develop a greater appreciation of the topics discussed, and ultimately, each others' disciplined inquiry processes and path to completing a liberal arts education. For the 2012 Neuroconversation, Scott Legge (Anthropology, Macalester College) and I led the conversation among students from anthropology and neuroscience. Andrew Billing (French and Francophone Studies, Macalester College), Scott Legge and I had comprised the Macalester College "team" for the 2012 ACM SAIL Seminar, Considering Animals, and our team elected to use a focused conversation concerning animals (here, comparative brain cortical mass evolution) across disciplinary boundaries in this course module for our follow-up Fall semester project for the Considering Animals Seminar.

Learning Goals

The content and concept goals for the Neuroconversation vary with the invited discipline to interact with neuroscience that year. In the case of this year, our concept and content goals were focused on the consideration of research and information regarding non-human animals in comparison or in relation to human beings. Students were explicitly required to read two journal articles focusing on major theories concerned with the evolution of increased brain cortical mass across species. To prepare for the conversation, students were asked to generate a question they had for the assembled group, based on their reading and previous experience in their major field.

Implicit in the assignments given to prepare for the session, critical thinking and analysis were required. The goals for activities within the session were to make use of the emergent properties of the conversation to bring relevant information forward for use by the entire group. Being able to express that information across disparate educational preparations was required.

The nature of the Neuroconversation is a context that strongly encourages multidisciplinary analysis. Students must refer to their respective knowledge bases-- across biology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, computing, mathematics, and more-- and they must grapple with all the forms that their particular knowledge base derives from-- empirical studies, theoretical work, surveys, longitudinal data, etc. The goal in this regard for the session is to provide the explicit context in which students consciously engage in such activities.

The Neuroconversation also provides experience in oral communication that may not be as well exercised in all students as instructors would like. While not an exercise in argumentation, delivering a message in a respectful and easily-understood manner is a goal for each student's contribution.

Context for Use

This module comprises one class session of the neuroscience senior seminar at Macalester College. The senior seminar is intended to accomplish a wide variety of goals for seniors-- ultimately to prepare them for their exit from undergraduate training and entry into the next phase of their lives, be it further training, employment or other activities. Reflection on the education and accomplishments of their liberal arts experience is a major goal for the course.

All students are expected to be in the final courses of completing their college majors to participate in the Neuroconversation. Skill sets will therefore vary from major to major.

This session is a stand-alone exercise in many ways, but is part of a year-long series of events that are aimed at review and reflection as part of the seminar series.

Description and Teaching Materials

The supporting materials include a copy of the evaluation form used for assessment of the Neuroconversation, and a summary of the responses to each item.

Neuroconversation Evaluation Form (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 39kB Nov27 12)
2012 Neuroconversation Evalaution Results (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 42kB Nov27 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

One particular note of interest is that both an instructor from neuroscience and the invited discipline co-lead the discussion, inserting questions and clarifications as needed. Gentle steering of the conversation may be required, as the relevance of some discussion may clear to only one of the groups. Further, in such situations, other students may be uncomfortable with attempting to truncate interesting, but tangential conversation to return to the intended topic.


Students completed an evaluation form at the completion of the Neuroconversation. A copy of that instrument is attached in the supporting materials, as well as a summary of the responses.

References and Resources

No additional materials are needed for the Neuroconversation beyond a small set of readings assigned by the instructors for all participants to read prior to the event.