8 minute read  written by  . Published on July 21, 2015

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Review by Margaret O’Doherty. Margaret lives in Donegal, the most beautiful part of Ireland. She is married with two children in college and with a little more time on her hands enjoys reading, writing and the wonderful world of online learning. Took the course? Write your own review hereRead all reviews.

The title was an immediate draw because it asks a question we assume we already know the answer to. We all have a mind so we must know what it is but in fact, as Professor Solms explains in his blog introducing the course, it is one of the great mysteries of our time. He asks ‘What are you, if not your mind?’ and so if you don’t know what your mind is then you can’t know what you are.
As a pharmacist, my initial interest in this topic was in the pharmacology of how drugs, be they legal or illegal, work in the brain and the effect they have on the mind. Even the most basic observation indicates that more is going on in the brain than happens in other organs like the liver or the kidneys. There are physical disorders, like epilepsy or tumours, that affect our behaviour but there are also mental illnesses, like depression or anxiety. Are these distinctions real or artificial? What about dementia? It is a disease of the brain but it affects the mind of the sufferer. There are so many competing and sometimes contradictory fields, like neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, neurology and psychoanalysis. It seems more than any one person can understand.

PROFESSOR MARK SOLMS

One person who does understand these fields is the lead educator on the course, Professor Mark Solms, who has blended them together in the new interdisciplinary field of neuropsychoanalysis. He is a leader in the field and anybody can check out his credentials and achievements but he carries his learning lightly. He begins by explaining the very personal reasons he became involved in this field so you immediately connect with him as a person, not a professor. He delivers almost all the content in straight to-camera talks, which can be a boring means of delivery but not in this case. Despite the often complex content these talks aren’t like lectures. It is more like as if you met him socially, asked what he did for a living and when you say, “Oh, that sounds interesting. Tell me more,” he does.

He explains his theories of the mind in a structured manner over the six weeks in a way that is truly engaging, never speaking down or dumbing down, but with an almost boyish enthusiasm for his subject. It is clear he is fascinated by it and wants everybody else to be too.

Mark Solms

He explains his theories of the mind in a structured manner over the six weeks in a way that is truly engaging, never speaking down or dumbing down, but with an almost boyish enthusiasm for his subject 

BACKGROUND

To a large extent medicine is tinkering with body parts while the mind is in the control room, determining the final outcome.  

The course states that it is aimed at anyone with an interest in psychology and the mind and that it will also appeal to practitioners, students and researchers from a range of disciplines, whose work directly or indirectly looks at the mind and the brain. This includes, but is not limited to neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, psychiatry and neurology. My own profession of pharmacy isn’t included in the list but in my practice I quickly came to realise that the mind has a huge impact on the body. It can make any part of your body sick and it can make it well again. When you take a painkiller it works by imitating the far more powerful natural painkillers our body can produce if our mind orders it to. To a large extent medicine is tinkering with body parts while the mind is in the control room, determining the final outcome. When we try to affect the mind, either with drugs or with psychotherapy, the results are variable and unpredictable and I wanted to try to understand why.

I wasn’t expecting such comprehensive coverage of a huge topic in a short, condensed course. 

I have a good basic knowledge of biology and neurology and a general understanding of topics like psychology and psychoanalysis although I have never formally studied them. I have done the ‘Good Brain, Bad Brain’ series of courses on FutureLearn, which provides a good background to the biology side of things but their focus is on the brain, not the mind. Later I read the book ‘In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind’ by the Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. It isn’t an easy read for the non-specialist but it piqued my interest in the whole area of Mind, as distinct from brain. When I saw this course I immediately knew I wanted to do it but I wasn’t expecting such comprehensive coverage of a huge topic in a short, condensed course.

I believe anybody with an interest in the topic can complete this course successfully. While some background knowledge is useful it isn’t essential. The most important thing to bring is interest and curiosity. You can pick up anything else you need to know along the way. There are good links provided for those who want more detail and there is constant support from the mentors. I found the other learners were generous in providing explanations, links and resources to help those with less previous knowledge of the fairly diverse topics.

THE COURSE

The course itself consists of six weeks which build up the theory presented in a structured, easy to follow manner. The first week is an introduction and then one week is devoted to each of the four defining properties of the mind – subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency. The final week looks at some disorders of the mind, notably depression and addiction, tying them in with the properties previously explained.

There are short assignments to do in weeks two and five which are quite challenging and force you to really think about the concepts presented. These are peer-reviewed which, given the number and diversity of participants on a free course, can be a bit hit and miss. However the feedback I got and the assignments I reviewed all showed a high level of engagement and understanding. The comments on the reviews were generally positive with few of the complaints about quality of feedback that I have seen on other MOOCs. I’m not sure if that is a reflection on the high quality of the course or of the quality of the participants it attracted -probably both!

A welcome and unique feature of the course was the weekly ‘Ask Mark’ section where learners could pose questions and Mark recorded responses to a selection of them. 

A welcome and unique feature of the course was the weekly ‘Ask Mark’ section where learners could pose questions and Mark recorded responses to a selection of them. This provides a direct link between the educator and learner, akin to the tutorials provided in traditional colleges, that is usually missing from online courses. It also served to clarify difficult concepts and cleared up any misconceptions.
It is suggested that you spend three hours a week on the course and it should be possible to complete it in that time. Listening to Mark’s answers adds about another hour a week that is well spent. It is possible to spend much longer, reading comments and exploring background material, and I would say I averaged four to five hours a week but the time passes quickly, almost unnoticed. That is another little trick our mind can play on us, distorting time, speeding it up or slowing it down depending on how enjoyable an activity is.

CONCLUSION

Overall this was one of the most adsorbing courses I have taken and it was exceptional in the amount and variety of the knowledge it imparted in such a short time. It left me and many other participants eager for more. Each of the four properties of the mind that were discussed is worthy of a course on its own while the practical applications to mental illnesses and disorders is an area that deserves much more time and detail.

What is a Mind? is an extensive subject and many people have devoted their lives to this question without coming up with the answer. You won’t have all the answers after doing this course but at least you will understand the question.

What is a Mind?
FutureLearn
University of Cape Town
6 weeks
5 hours/week
Easy

Anyone with an interest in the topics of neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, neurology or psychoanalysis can complete this course successfully. While some background knowledge is useful it isn’t essential. What is a Mind? is exceptional in the amount and variety of knowledge imparted in such a short time and will leave you eager for more.

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