Your Brain: Why It's Cool & Creepy
Have you ever seen a movie, watched a show, or read a book where some really smart and a bit narcissistic man creates a machine that can function like a human? We all see what’s coming, right? This machine starts developing a “mind of its own” and functioning outside of the programming, turning against humanity. Think Avengers: Age of Ultron, Westworld, Blade Runner, Terminator, The Matrix, etc. Humans are so curious about creating something that functions like our brains and bodies without understanding how astounding and complicated they really are.
The more I have learned about how our brains and bodies work, the more amazed and a bit creeped out I become, just like I’m a bit creeped out by self-driving cars and my smart speaker. One of the first things I do with my clients is go over the functioning of our brains so we can see we aren’t crazy and know that we can help ourselves heal. So, I thought a series on the brain would be a good place to start my blog.
Today’s post will just focus on some basics and hopefully encourage you to give your brain some respect for its awesomeness!
The Basics of Your Brain
I want you to think of your brain, like a computer. There is a basic foundation of how things need to work for us to survive and then there is more complicated programming that gets written as we grow to make us more advanced. Basic foundation is the goal for this post.
Your brain weighs around three pounds (like an average pineapple) and is the consistency of soft butter or Jell-O. Much squishier than I imagined it would be. It’s made up of 75% water and has about 100 billion neurons.
Neurons are nerve cells in your brain that pass along the electric signals encouraging you to move, think, save memories, feel, and have sensations. Neurons have two ends, one that sends (dendrite) and one that receives (axon) these electric signals. Check out this photo for a visual.
Remember, there are 100 billion neurons in your brain and they talk to each other. How?
They connect through synapses, the small space between an axon and another cell. When the electric signal reaches the axon, the axon releases something in the synapses you may have heard of: NEUROTRANSMITTERS! These are chemicals that carry messages to either increase or decrease electrical activity in your brain by attaching to receptors on the next cell. There’s more cool info about Neurotransmitters, but that’ll be saved for another blog.
By the time your brain is fully developed in your mid-to-late twenties, you have 100-500 trillion synapses in your individual brain. That’s more synapses in your brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.
Like the game of telephone you may have played in elementary school, neurons connected together keep passing these electrical signals to the next cell until the message reaches its destination. For example, telling your feet, arms, eyes, etc what direction to drive home from work. However, your brain is a lot better at this than six-year-olds playing telephone. Each neuron in your brain fires an electric signal about 200 times per second and each is connected to about 1,000 other neurons. All working towards your brains main purpose: to keep you alive.
Let the Creepiness Begin
The Basics are cool, right? Our brains and our bodies are really intricate and kind of magical. There are so many small things that happen just for me to make my coffee in the morning. But why don’t we do a quick sneak peak into the moment in the movies where the machine takes on a mind of its own.
Let’s go back to the example of driving home from work. Something we do every day at about the same time (or at least we used to until the pandemic). There are certain paths we follow and we may change it up depending on the time of day, traffic, if we have to go by the grocery store on the way home, etc. But most of the time, we go the same way.
Have you ever zoned out and realized you are home and don’t quite remember the drive? Or ended up at home when you knew you needed to stop by the grocery store? Almost ran a red light for no apparent reason? That’s your subconscious brain at work.
When one neuron fires, it sends the signal to another, then another… creating a “neuropathway.” If you make that same decision again, your neurons follow the same pathway. Like erosion, the pathway gets deeper each time it is used and your brain likes following the path of least resistance. It’s more efficient and less energy is needed. This is how we form habits and end up on "auto-pilot."
So, when you zone out on the drive home, your subconscious brain kicks into gear. This part of your brain functions 10 times faster than your conscious brain (50ms vs 500 ms). The same part of your brain in charge of breathing, heart beating, digestion, your immune system… things that just happen without us trying. So your brain will just take over and drive you home. Take your shower for you. Brush your teeth. Pick your nose. Text your ex. Just one little thing at a time, until it’s taken OVER EVERYTHING…. MMUUUAAAHAHAHAHAHA!
Maybe I got a little out of hand there? But so did the house in Smart House (Disney Movie from 1999 where a Smart House takes on a life of its own… if you know… you know).
You Made It Through The Basics
You may be wondering why it even matters to understand how your brain works and how it can help with your healing. For so long mental health was not honored when looking at our well-being and is still very stigmatized. The medical field has taken over a bit now and really compartmentalizes the mind/mental health away a from the body and well-being. With advancement in imaging we know so much more about the brain and how it is connected with our body. One of the most important things learned: The brain can heal itself.
I believe knowing more about how our brains work and why our brain-bodies respond to the world in certain ways can empower us for deeper and more long-term healing.
Stay tuned for more info around your brain including: The Triune Brain, The Brain-Body Connection, Left vs Right Brain, The Brain and Addiction, The Brain and Trauma. Feel free to comment with questions, thoughts for other blogs, or corrections! Follow me on Instagram for more updates!
* Books are linked to a local book store in Waco! BUY LOCAL!*
*Just a heads up! I am not a neuroscientist! This information has come from my resources and training and is just the basics. This blog is also not therapy! I hope it peaks your interest to ask your counselor or seek out more info/counseling. Feel free to schedule a time to meet me for free to see if you'd be interested in counseling!