The other day while I was walking to school my mind was wandering between the uncertain future and reflections on my undergraduate education. As I find myself more and more drawn toward an interest in robotics and computational models of intelligence with my neuroscience background serving in a more supplementary role, I was thinking about how the neuroscience courses I have taken have served my educational development. At a university there tends to be a few aspects of a subject which are more popular with the majority of professors, and this tends to be reflected in the available courses. Here at the University of Toronto (U of T), there are approximately three ways to study the brain: behavioural psychology, microbiology and genetics, and systems neurophysiology. Of those three, I find I prefer the systems approach despite the fact that it tends to be less research-oriented than the microbiology approach (as one may guess, behavioural psychology I have the least time for). The reason I prefer the systems approach is that it tends to take a more global look at the brain and understand how it performs (though it tends to come at this from a more clinical diagnostic perspective than a theoretical modeling one), while the microbiology approach I find frustrating in its excessive detail. Thus, while the microbiology approach tends to be more research oriented, it is in avenues of research which I find to themselves be far more clinically oriented (not that clinically oriented biomedical research is a bad thing - in fact, I am expecting it at some point to likely save my life. It is simply I find the research itself mostly tedious and uninteresting).
I have gotten myself off on a tangent, however. What I intended to do was outline a course which does not exist (as far as I know) but which I would have found fascinating to take. As I mentioned, I find the systems approach to be the most appealing, but most of that approach is done at U of T with a clinical mind. When non-human animals are discussed, it is almost always in the case of a specific study with a mind to extrapolate the information to that which is applicable to understanding and diagnosing deficits in the human brain (despite the fact that we understand many of the widely used model organisms' nervous systems far better than our own). What I would find fascinating would be a course on comparative neurophysiology. For example, our cerebral cortex is, as I understand it, a mammalian novelty (and this is where most of our higher brain functions are found). Despite the avian lack of a neocortex, many birds have an odd similarity to primates in terms of cognitive function (with many extremely visual and social species). A course that examined in detail how the visual system, for example, of predatory birds compared to that of primates might be extremely illuminating in understanding visual processing techniques. Likewise, there are many non-humans which show remarkable manual dexterity and spatial reasoning (elephants with their trunks and confounding cephalopods come to mind). While I would guess that the elephant motor cortex would likely closely resemble our own due to our shared mammality, looking at the motor control mechanisms of invertebrates as dexterous as an octopus could be quite fascinating. So, if any professors happen to be reading this and know someone who might be interested in setting up a course like that, I think it would be quite worthwhile ( I just hope there are other students out there who would find the same thing if someone goes through the trouble of setting it up).
Note: I made the word mammality up. Is there an actual word that means what I was trying to say? Mammalianity?