How The Human Brain Works, In 8 Keys

A practical summary to understand some basic principles of our brain.

Understanding well how the brain works  requires years of learning, and despite that the level of understanding that we can have about this set of organs will always be very limited; not in vain the human brain is one of the most complex systems that exist. 

On the other hand, there are some ideas to help you get started understanding better the tangle of concept s used to explain what this part of the nervous system. These are some of these keys.

Basic ideas about how the brain works

This is a list of ideas that I think help you understand the fundamental ideas about how the brain works. I recommend reading them in order, because they are ordered from micro to macro.

1. Glia and neurons

A brain is, fundamentally,  a set of neurons and glial cells. The latter are less well known outside of universities, but in reality they are much more numerous than neurons (which is quite impressive, considering that an adult human brain has about 80,000,000,000 neurons).

What does each of these types of cells do? Neurons are the ones that create the electrochemical signal flows that make up mental processes; basically, everything that studies psychology is reflected in the way in which neurons communicate with each other.

Glial cells, for their part, fulfill very diverse functions, and until recently it was believed that they were basically responsible for protecting neurons and facilitating their movement. However, in recent years there has been research showing how glial cells have their own communication network and can influence how neurons relate to each other. In other words, we are only just beginning to fully understand its importance.

2. The role of synapses

When it comes to understanding how the brain works, knowing how the communication networks between neurons work matters as much or more than knowing how each neuron works individually, and that means that the points at which these nerve cells send information to each other among them they are of crucial importance for neuroscientists and psychologists. The name given to these areas is “synaptic space”, which in the vast majority of cases is a small gap that opens between the cell membranes of the nerve terminals of two neurons : one of them is presynaptic and the other is the postsynaptic.

At synapses, the electrical signal that runs through a neuron is transformed into a chemical signal, that is, a torrent of substances that we call neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. These microscopic particles reach the nerve terminal of the other neuron and there, they are captured by structures called receptors. From that point on, the torrent of chemicals received by the postpsynaptic neuron has an effect on the frequency with which this nerve cell will emit electrical impulses that may have effects on other neurons.

This mechanism seems simple, but it really is not, because  there are many types of neurotransmitters and structures that interact with them, and at the same time each neuron is usually connected to many others at the same time: information is not usually passed in a linear way, as in the phone game.

3. Software and hardware are indistinguishable

It is common to try to understand the brain as if it were a conventional computer, but this comparison is only justified in certain contexts, because it does not serve to capture the real functioning of the brain. And one of the main reasons why a brain is distinguished from a computer is the fact that in the first it does not make sense to distinguish between software and hardware. All the processes that are taking place in a brain materially modify the brain, and the structure of the brain itself is what makes neurons send nerve signals to each other : it does not depend on programming codes.

That is why, among other things, that the brain does not work with content that can be stored on a USB, as it happens with computers. You can play at interpreting what happens in a brain in real time, and have this interpretation structured as a code that is understandable to us, but we will have invented that code; it does not arise from the brain. This does not mean that it is impossible to know approximately what certain parts of the torrent of information that travels through a brain consist of.

4. Brain plasticity

From what has been said above, this other idea is derived: that the brain is changing all the time, whatever we do. Everything that we perceive and do leaves a more or less intense mark on our brain, and this mark, in turn, will make all those that occur from that moment on in one way or another. In other words, our mental life is an accumulation of modifications, of neurons that tighten their ties and then loosen them according to everything that happens to us.

This ability (or, rather, need) of our brain to constantly change depending on circumstances is called brain plasticity.

5. The role of attention

As much as the human brain seems like a prodigy of nature capable of doing some pretty impressive things, the truth is that the data set it works with is always full of gaps. In fact, it is not even capable of properly processing all the information that is coming to it in real time through the senses, and let’s not talk about remembering everything, something that only happens in incredibly exceptional cases.

What the human brain does is obey the principle of survival : what matters is not knowing everything, but knowing just enough to survive. Attention is the mechanism by which certain parts of the available information are selected and others are ignored. In this way, the nervous system is capable of locating elements of information that are relevant to focus attention on them and not on others, all depending on what our objective is. This mechanism gives a lot of play, because in certain circumstances it makes us seem to be blind to things that happen in front of our noses.

6. The brain makes up things

This point is derived from the previous section. Because the brain has a limited amount of “actionable” information, there are some information gaps that it has to fill without constantly being forced to search for the missing information. For this, there are some automatic mechanisms that cover these gaps in a discreet way.

An example is what happens to the part of the retina that leads to the beginning of the optic nerve. This is an area in which the eye is unable to transform light signals into nerve impulses, and therefore it is as if we have a hole in the middle of our visual field. However, we do not realize that.

7. The parts of the brain always work together

Although the brain is made up of different anatomical areas more or less specialized in some processes, all of them need to be well connected to each other to do their job well. This does not mean that all of them have to communicate directly with all the others, but that in order to function they must be wired with the “general network” of information that is circulating through the brain.

8. The rational and the emotional go hand in hand

Although it is very useful to distinguish between the rational and the emotional in theoretical terms , in our brain all the mental processes that we can link to one domain or another work together.  

For example, the parts of the brain most related to the appearance of emotions (a set of structures known as the limbic system) are those that set the objectives that are tried to be achieved effectively through action plans based on logic and that, of all In any case, they will not stop being influenced by emotional factors that will make the rational of these strategies quite relative, even if we do not realize it.

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