How to Use Your Brain
It’s often said that the brain is the “computer” of the human body. We know it controls our thought processes, our actions, and even our perception of the world around us, yet despite each of us having one of our own most of us aren’t terribly knowledgeable about how they work. A lot of things have to happen in order for your body and mind to harmonize, and most of it all happens beneath our notice. In this guide we’ll be taking a look at the basic anatomy of the human brain, going over each area’s function and how it does its job.
The brain is, as could be expected, a very complex organ. Different portions of the brain take on different tasks and responsibilities, sharing the workload and keeping everything in sync. In this way, the brain is like an organism all its own.
- Brain stem – The brain stem is located at the base of the skull, the posterior portion of the brain. It connects the brain to the network of nerves running into the spinal column and regulates the body’s most basic and necessary functions, such as heartbeat and breathing.
- Midbrain – The midbrain is the smallest region of the brain located atop (and sometimes considered part of) the brain stem. It acts as a sort of relay station for audiovisual information.
- Limbic system – The limbic system lies within the brain, forming the inner lining of the cortex. Its primary associations are emotion, behavior, long-term memory, and olfaction.
- Cerebrum – The cerebrum is the portion of the brain most people picture when the topic arises. It is the most developed portion, located above the brain stem and surrounding the limbic area. This area supports the highest levels of cognitive function for humans, such as planning or problem-solving.
- Cerebral cortex – The cerebral cortex is the outermost covering of the brain, next to the blood-brain barrier. This thin layer of neural tissue plays a key role in memory, attention, and basic consciousness. Its gray color has lent it the moniker “gray matter.”
~THE THOUGHT PROCESS~
The body can be seen as a vehicle for the brain, replete with countless nerve endings all constantly seeking stimuli. Sensory data is picked up by these nerve endings and transmitted to the brain where it can be analyzed. Sounds simple enough, but different data is analyzed in different ways, and the whole process depends on several different types of neurons to do their job in concert:
- Sensory neurons are responsible for sending sensory data to the brain, such as smell and touch. The rough texture of sandpaper is realized through the efforts of sensory neurons.
- Motor neurons send information from the brain to muscles in the body, inciting movement. These neurons are responsible for reactions to stimuli, such as swatting a bothersome mosquito or covering the nose before a sneeze.
- Mixed neurons aren’t very creatively named, but that makes our definition fairly easy: they can perform the functions of both sensory and motor neurons.
Okay, so the neurons pick up the data for the brain to interpret, and then they carry out the actions the brain decides are satisfactory. Does this all happen by magic? The cells that make up the central nervous system differ from those throughout the rest of the body in a number of ways, primarily in that they contain chemicals that have the power to regulate body function. They are made up of three basic parts:
- Soma – the body or main portion of the cell
- Dendrites – sensory appendages that branch out from the main structure to collect data from the environment
- Axon –connects the neuron to the rest of the central nervous system and is responsible for transmitting data away from the cell
These neurons have developed a highly specialized form of chemical communication passing information from one cell to the next, dendrite to axon. The information passes through junctions called “synapses” via electrical impulse while passing certain chemicals into the brain to regulate function. These chemicals are called “neurotransmitters.” There are many different kinds, but some of the more commonly dealt with types might ring a bell:
- Serotonin – increases the feeling of “calm.” Lowers anxiety. Affects sleep, appetite, and temperature regulation.
- Dopamine – regulates fine motor skills and emotion. Memory is also highly affected by dopamine introduction. An increase in dopamine levels can improve a person’s reaction time and concentration. A good balance is necessary – too much or too little dopamine production in one’s system can cause serious health problems.
- Acetylcholine – associated with muscle action, and, like dopamine, memory, and emotion. It also regulates energy levels and respiration.
- Epinephrine – provides emergency energy to the body in times of dire need or urgency. The introduction of epinephrine into the system elevates heart rate, hastens respiration, and suppresses the digestive and immune systems.
- Endorphins – the group of neurotransmitters that deal with stress and pain levels. During times of high stress or intense pain, a rapid release of endorphins can lessen the impact. Released after physical activity. Induces a euphoric feeling; enjoyable sensation.
As we study we begin to see that the brain is constantly releasing neurotransmitters in an effort to keep brain chemistry at safe and competent levels, so every other part of the machine does its job correctly, all without conscious direction. Imbalances in this delicate chemical stream are responsible for a number of common disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease and Bipolar Disorder, and can prove difficult – or even impossible – to treat.
~THE MODEL AT WORK~
So, let’s illustrate how this comes together. Suppose I am riding a bicycle on a trail in the park. Sensory data from my eyes is collected and transmitted to my brain via sensory neurons, and then motor neurons respond in turn to keep me pedaling and steering in the right direction so I stay on the path I can see before me. Serotonin levels regulate my enjoyment of the experience. Dopamine and acetylcholine are two neurotransmitters that might be released during my ride to help keep me from having a terrible wreck.
Should all this fail and I happen to endure the shame of tumbling from my bike the situation alters somewhat. At this point, my body has suffered tremendous shock from the overload of sense data, and as a result, is likely releasing endorphins to calm me down so I don’t bleed to death due to crazy heart rate. Epinephrine might be released, causing me to experience fear and anxiety. However, thanks to effective communication between the dendrites embedded all throughout my body and the brain that sits in my skull, sense data is accurately analyzed and reacted to, and moments later a blood-crazed, shock-struck and one-footed man is on his barely-conscious overly-hyphenated way to the hospital for medical care, where more endorphins would be dropped into his body to slow it down from all the physical activity. It’s all part of a complex circuit that starts with the body picking up sensory information from the environment, ending with our perception of that sensory information.