How does the brain think?
The human brain is the most mysterious and complex entity in the known universe.
It’s a computer, a thinking machine, a fatty pink organ, and avast collection of neurons – but how does it actually work? The human brain is amazingly complex – in fact, more complex than anything in the known universe. The human brain effortlessly consumes power, stores memories, processes thoughts, and reacts to danger.
In some ways, the human brain is like a car engine. The fuel – which could be the sandwich you had for lunch or a sugar doughnut for breakfast – causes neurons to fire in a logical sequence and to bond with other neurons. This combination of neurons occurs incredibly fast, but the chain reaction might help you compose a symphony or recall entire passages of a book, help you pedal a bike or write an email to a friend.
Scientists are just beginning to understand how these brain neurons work – they have not figured out how they trigger a reaction when you touch a hot stove, for example, or why you can re-generate brain cells when you work out at the gym.
The connections inside a brain are very similar to the internet – the connections are constantly exchanging information. Yet, even the internet is rather simplistic when compared to neurons.
There are ten to 100 neurons, and each one makes thousands of connections. This is how the brain processes information, or determines how to move an arm and grip a surface. These calculations, perceptions, memories, and reaction occur almost instaneously, and not just a few times per minute, but millions.
According to Jim Olds, research director with George Mason University, if the internet were as complex as our solar system, then the brain would be as complex as our galaxy. In other words, we have lot to learn. Science has not given up trying, and has made recent discoveries about how we adapt, learn new information, and can actually increase brain capability.
In the most basic sense, our brain is the center of all input and outputs in the human body. Dr Paula Tallal, a co-director of neuroscience at Rutgers University, says the brain is constantly processing sensory information – even from infancy. “It’s easiest to think of the brain in terms of inputs and outputs”, says Tallal. “Inputs are sensory information, outputs are how our brain organises that information and controls our motor systems’.
Tallals says one of the primary functions of the brain is in learning to predict what comes next. In her research for Scientific Learning, she has fund that young children enjoy having the same book read to them again and again because that is how the brain registers acoustic cues that form into phonemes (sounds) to become spoken words.
“We learn to put things together so that they become smooth sequences”, she says. These smooth sequences are observable in the brain, interpreting the outside world and making sense of it. The brain is actually a series of interconnected ‘superhighways’ or pathways that move ‘data’ from one part of the body to another.
Tallal says another way to think about the brain is by lower and upper areas. The spinal cord moves information up to the brain stem, then up into the cerebral cortex which controls thoughts and memories. Interestingly, the brain really does work like a powerful computer in determining not only movements but registering memories that can be quickly recalled.
According to Dr Robert Melillo, a neurologist and the founder of the Brain Balance Centers, the brain actually predetermines actions and calculates the results about a half-second before performing them (or even faster in some cases). This means, when you reach out to open a door, your brain has already predetermined how to move your elbow and clasp your hand – maybe even simulated this movement more than once, before you even perform the action.
Another interesting aspect to the brain is that there are some voluntary movements and some involuntary. Some sections of the brain might control a voluntary movement – such as patting your knee to a beat. Another section controls involuntary movements, such as the gait of your walk – which is passed down from your parents, the pain reflex……. they are all controlled by sections in the brain.