The brain is an incredibly complex piece of machinery and any attempt to understand it fully is always going to be met with disappointment. Even those who have dedicated their entire lives to neuroscience still don’t know the answers to all the questions we have about the brain, and no attempt to replicate its workings through artificial intelligence have even come close to being successful.
While you can’t hope to fully understand the brain, it can still be very useful to learn about some of the basics of how it works and particularly in light of any problems you might be having. By understanding the fundamentals of how the brain operates, we can get a better idea of what might be going on in our own heads, and of what might be the best way to deal with problems as they arise.
Essentially the brain is made up of hugely abundant cells called ‘neurons’. These are essentially what most of us mean when we say ‘brain cell’ and they are the part of the brain that does the main processing (this occurs in the center called the ‘soma’).
Neurons are all connected by a huge web of ‘synapses’ and there are hundreds of millions of them creating a giant network in this way. When we have an idea, when we recognize a smell, or when we remember something – we will be lighting up specific pathways through these neurons, which appears to be the basis for learning, thinking and for everything else that occurs within our brains.
For these neurons to fire and create those pathways, they use something called an ‘action potential’ which involves a charge travelling from the center of the neuron down the axon (the tail) and to the synapse where they release neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters then get received by the nearby neurons, causing them to fire as well – and it’s the contents of those neurotransmitters that affect how we feel and the content and nature of the firings.
What makes this effective is the fact that the brain is able to learn by strengthening these connections in order to make them easier to follow. This happens through practice – the more a connection is used, the more it will be strengthened. In fact, over time any two neurons firing in close proximity will connect which is how we form associations in our brain.
In extreme cases with enough practice this can actually physically alter the shape of our brains in what is known as ‘brain plasticity’.
When Problems Arise
However, problems arise when an area of the brain becomes damaged, or when the balance of neurotransmitters required for communication throughout the brain gets thrown off. This can occur as a result of injury, illness, the wrong diet, or medication.
This then is when it becomes necessary to use medication in order to try and repair the balance of neurotransmitters with synthetic compounds. Alternatively, you can use therapy in order to strengthen the right connections and thus rebuild damaged areas in a healthy way. This can be used for rehabilitation following an injury, to treat anxiety, or even as part of speech therapy.