How to learn neuroscience: An introductory guide

Hello, my name is Daichi Konno.
I’m a medical doctor and a Ph.D. student majoring in neuroscience and artificial intelligence at the University of Tokyo, Japan.

I first became interested in neuroscience about 10 years ago (the first year of university), and it was four years ago that I decided to become a researcher.

This note summarizes information that I wished I had known before I entered graduate school: what steps those who are interested in neuroscience should take.

The flowchart for learning neuroscience is as follows:

  1. Get interested in neuroscience
  2. Read neuroscience books
  3. Read textbooks
  4. Read academic papers
  5. Enter the laboratory
  6. Go ahead…

I will explain each of these below.

1. Get interested in neuroscience

As youve arrived at this note, you should have an interest in neuroscience.
We’ll look at how to develop that interest in the following sections.

2. Read neuroscience books

The first place to start would be neuroscience books.
(Or perhaps many people get interested in neuroscience through these.)

Personally, I’d recommend the following three books to everyone.

The Brain: The Story of You (David Eagleman)

“Who am I?” The book starts with this question, then it sheds light on the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, and finally expands to talk about the connection between the brain and the computer.

This is a gem of a book that illuminates the flexibility and potential of the brain and should be read first by anyone interested in neuroscience.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (Giulio Tononi)

“Integrated Information Theory” is a new paradigm that attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in science: consciousness.
Dr. Tononi, a proponent of the theory, explains the theory in a light-hearted tone.
This book will definitely give you great intellectual excitement.
(For a while after reading this book, I was thinking of doing consciousness research. 😁)

The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God (David J. Linden)

The book is slightly more specialized than the previous two books.
The first half of this book is textbook-like, so it may be a bit difficult to read through without neuroscience knowledge.

The book consistently argues that the brain is “accidental”.
“Accidental” means that the brain has evolved in a haphazard way and that randomness is essential to its activity.

It’s interesting to note that such imperfections shape humanity, and I think this is an important perspective on how “biological” intelligence differs from “artificial” intelligence.

3. Read textbooks

Once you have read the above books, it’s time to try textbooks.

Textbooks are the best way to learn knowledge efficiently because they systematically summarize the knowledge that has been accumulated by predecessors over hundreds of years.

However, it’s not easy to read textbooks alone, so it might be better to invite some friends who are interested in neuroscience and make a reading circle.

Here are four textbooks (plus one app) that I’d like to share with you.

Kandel Neuroscience (Eric Kandel)

The bible in neuroscience; it’s nearly 1,700 pages and can be used as a pillow or a blunt instrument when the need arises. 😁

I spent about six months going through it during my second year of residency, and I think it’s good to think of it as “a dictionary to look up things you don’t understand”.

Stanford Neurobiology (Likun Luo)

Along with Kandel Neuroscience, this textbook can be recommended to everyone; at just over 700 pages, it is more compact than Kandel Neuroscience, but it is a well-rounded book that covers a wide range of neuroscience.

Myers Psychology (David Myers)

Although the book is named “Psychology”, there is quite a lot of content related to neuroscience, such as “memory” and “mental illness”.

This is a much easier book to read than Kandel’s Neuroscience, so I think this is a good place to start.

Human Anatomy Atlas

It’s an app, not a textbook, but it’s so useful that I’m going to share it here.
With this app, you can dissect a 3D brain at will.

This app is a must-have, especially for medical students, because you can learn about the whole body, not just the brain.

4. Read academic papers

Once you’ve reached this point, it’s time to start reading the research paper.

However, there are various types of academic papers, and my personal recommendation is the following route.

Review article → Research article

Review article: A comprehensive review of a specific theme with historical context. By starting to read it, you can get a general understanding of the field.

Research article: An article on individual research. It’s essential if you want to start your research because a research article is the latest information in the field.

When I first started reading academic papers, it took me several hours to read one review or research article, but nowadays, even non-native English speakers can read academic papers half the time because of the rich resources such as DeepL. Once you get used to reading academic papers, you should be able to read it in ~30 minutes.

The standard way to find articles is to use PubMed or Google Scholar.
However, when I know the title and the author, I don’t use those sites but use Google directly.

5. Enter the laboratory

There is a big gap between “being able to read academic papers” and “actually being involved in the research”.
If you’re just reading textbooks and academic papers, you may think:
‘There are too many things to point out in this paper.’
‘Isn’t it taking too long to publish one paper?’

However, when you begin your research, you will definitely be overwhelmed to find out how many vast experiments were hidden behind a single paper.

I think you will only get that feeling by actually starting your research, so I recommend that you attend a laboratory once you are able to read academic papers.

6. Go ahead…

After you start your research, you’d develop many interests:
‘I love this field.’
‘I want to learn this technique.’

From here on out, I urge you to follow your own passion and blaze a trail!
(Maybe you think I’m a great guy, but I’m in the middle of training myself.)

Plus: Things you should do before you join the lab

Exposure to programming

Programming is becoming the liberal arts of today’s scientists.
I think it is advisable to become familiar with programming before you enter the laboratory that you don’t reject it. I have taken several online Python courses (ex. Coursera).

Develop information gathering skills

Information gathering skills are also very important for research.
I use the following two main information sources.

1. Academic papers.

Journals ‘CNS’ (Cell, Nature, Science) & Nature Neuroscience, Neuron are essential for neuroscience.
I use an RSS reader (such as Feedly) to get notifications whenever a new paper comes out.
Also, many researchers are submitting to bioRxiv first, so it may be a good idea to sign up for alerts on words you are interested in.

2. Twitter

Twitter is a great tool for information gathering. I also tweet about the latest research in neuroscience and artificial intelligence on my Twitter!

Conclusion

Thank you for reading this long article to the end.
I’d be more than happy to help even one more person aspire to pursue neuroscience!

M.D., Ph.D. candidate (neuroscience) at the University of Tokyo, Japan. I love the moment when learning new knowledge makes the world seem more ordered.

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