[85219] Biological Foundations Of Behavior & Marlene Behrmann

Qianou Ma
7 min readAug 2, 2021

“Cool kids call it BFOB.”

I still remember how Dr. Behrmann introduced this course in the very first class. I was looking forward to this course for a long time because of my friend. She said Dr. Behrmann really knows many things, although sometimes the course may not be best structured for novices because she know too much, she does amazing research and makes BFOB a really fun class. That’s indeed true. We had dissection parties with goats’ eyes and brains, and sometimes the professor invited a patient to our classroom to talk about their experiences and answer our questions, which are all really unique.

Dissection party: “make sure no brain remains in the classroom.” (I like the pun lol)

I’m actually interested in anything relevant to the brain and neuroscience. It’s amazing how we know so few of this 3-pound-structure that sit in everyone’s head. Of course, as brain imaging, biology, and engineering technologies develop, the research methods for neuroscience become more diverse and accurate, and scientists have a deeper investigation into how our brains work. Dr. Behrmann is exactly one of the frontier explorers.

This is one of the few courses in which I carefully read a textbook, take notes during lectures, draw diagrams, and actually review and reorganize my notes after class. Although I may again forget all the brain vocabulary, I still remember how I was tortured and how many students flee in the first two weeks of the class.

The diagrams of the visual system that I drew. The first 2 weeks of BFOB is the hardest where you have to remember all those terminologies and be able to draw these graphs without referring to your notes.

A benefit of BFOB is that you can get a lot of healthy and scientific living tips, such as don’t take drugs, don’t get drunk, cook your sausage thoroughly, and get sleep before the exam. As these tips actually come from the science we learned from the lecture, they become really persuasive and perfectly exemplify how neuroscience can be so helpful in real life. For example, after I learned that I can use light and meals at the right time as exogenous signals to help my brain adjust the circadian rhythm, I helped so many friends beat their jet lags.

Dr. Behrmann effectively and endlessly preaches to us about the awful effects drug/alcohol/football blow can have on one’s brain, and some injuries and damage are irreversible. For example, there was a Penn State student who died in 2017 because of the fraternity’s hazing tradition, where everyone drank way too much alcohol, and the student fell from the stairs and got stepped over but no one noticed.

“I can’t imagine any of you dying, so don’t die and don’t let your friend die.”

I don’t want to ever get drunk in my life, nothing is worthy of risking my brains. The safest level of drinking is none.

Another thing is don’t eat uncooked pork (actually to eat any type of raw meat, make sure you trust the sanitary condition), the brain parasite image is so disgusting…

When we learn about the working mechanisms of our hippocampus, Dr. Behrmann also persuaded us to get sleep before the exam, as sleep gives our brains the opportunity to process and consolidate the information, which is much more effective than pulling an all-nighter toward the start of the exam. So go study and go sleep, a smart review starts from smart sleep!

Another theme of BFOB is to break those myths about brains. We may often hear some variants of “the left brain is the rational and the right brain is emotional,” which is a very dangerous simplification.

The differentiation between the left and right hemispheres is more like relative lateralization, and we know so little about the asymmetry. There are more collaboration and connection between hemispheres comparing to distinctions.

Beautiful designs and illustrations don’t mean the message is correct.

False science often develops from those incorrect simplifications. For example, some parents force their child to use the left hand to write in order to train their left brain and thus improve their logical thinking, which really does more harm than good — regardless of the fact that it’s mostly the right hand that controls left-hand motion, if we believe in the functionality differences in left and right brain, why will we believe that the area for writing and logic will be in the same in the left brain?

Another common public misconception is that humans only use 10% of their brains, and geniuses like Einstein are smarter because they utilize more percentage of their brains. If you take BFOB you’ll know that this is a bald-faced lie and ridiculous. Grey matter, white matter, neurons, and glial cells are all important and fully used. Learn what is myelination before you want to exploit the “unused area” in your brain!

It is difficult and even frustrated to communicate science to the public. In scientific research, there are always limitations, confounders, and specific situations, but when you talk about your work to the public, if you keep those details it will be too complicated, if you simplify it will no longer be accurate. Many journalists couldn’t properly explain or comprehend what the scientists said, some media even exaggerate or distort the findings to get more public attention. In fact, there’s never a complete image: even scientists know very little about many phenomena and mechanisms.

“Sometimes the best answer is we don’t know yet.”

The ability to persuade others is very powerful in science, in both bad and good ways. For example, the notorious frontal lobotomy won the Nobel prize in 1949 and got executed and promoted for decades: this is how wrong science could go when people like Freeman have the voice. Some other instances include “vaccines cause autism,” “stamina stem cell therapy,” and most recently those who keep rejecting to wear masks or get COVID vaccine shots. Science and science communication still has a long way to go.

Besides science communication, Dr. Behrmann also talks about female scientists a lot in class, such as Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel prize in 1986 because of her discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). During WWII, Jews were prohibited from academics, so she studied chicken embryos in her own bedroom, and in the most difficult times, her family had to eat the chicken, which was a “win-win situation” in some regards.

Rita Levi-Montalcini and her twin, Paola Levi-Montalcini, who’s an artist.

I found a documentary in 1995, Death by Design (by Peter Friedman and Jean-François Brunet), which has a cut that talks about her research. Her resilience in facing adversity and her dedication to science was indeed amazing.

I wish I could be half as confident, quick, and charming as her when I become 86!

Our professor is a female scientist role model herself. When I was taking BFOB, I generated a lot of questions during class, and even more when I was doing my assignments and reviewing my notes. I don’t know why did I have time but I managed to schedule a bunch of office hours to meet and chat with her, and she was so cool, confident, and knowledgeable when she talked about her area of expertise.

Dr. Behrmann’s infographic in Baker Hall at CMU

Dr. Behrmann was the first woman at CMU that was elected to NAS (National Academy of Sciences). Dr. Behrmann collaborated with Sophie Hood to design and make a brain dress. She printed the high-resolution structural MRI scan of her brain to the dress and put blue, red, and yellow LED lights controlled by Arduino in corresponding areas that respond to voice tones and represent inhibitory and excitatory stimuli when she speaks.

People may suggest wearing a suit to look professional at the induction ceremony, but Dr. Behrmann said she wanted to wear a dress. Of course, the exploration for gender-neutral clothing is another endeavor in the fashion industry, but her message is clear:

“Professional doesn’t mean man-ish.”

I think this dress literally exemplifies the idea that “brain is the new sexy.”

Left: The Brain Dress (https://thebraindress.weebly.com/)

When the current territory of science is still composed of a majority of male scientists, Dr. Behrmann wore this dress and talked about her research story in lecture. She said to the girls in this class, don’t hesitate and go pursue science if you like it. And I, as a freshman at that time, indeed feel encouraged.

As someone who never thought about doing research, had no one studying science in my family, and who planned to go to the industry directly after graduation, why am I pursuing an academic career now? I think one reason is exactly that I’ve encountered so many female role models at Carnegie Mellon.

From professors, academic advisors, faculty mentors, lab managers, senior research fellows, to my upperclassman friends, they are so passionate about science and devote their hearts to the work they love. Their stories are so relevant that I can see myself fit in this field too, and I gradually changed my conception of science and develop interests and confidence in academia. This is the power of role models, and hope one day I will become a role model for others as well.

Yay female scientists!



Qianou Ma

I go by Christina too, and I’m a Ph.D. student at CMU HCII. Find my Chinese blogs at WeChat 一千只海鸥