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How the human brain works, in 8 keys

How the human brain works, in 8 keys

June 17, 2024

Understanding how the brain works requires years of learning, and yet the level of understanding 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 that help to start understanding that tangle of concept better s which serve to explain what this part of the nervous system is. These are some of these keys.

Basic ideas about how the brain works

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


1. Glia and neurons

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

What is each of these cell types responsible for? The neurons are those that create the flows of electrochemical signals that constitute the mental processes; Basically, everything that psychology studies is embodied in the way in which neurons communicate with each other.

Glial cells, on the other hand, perform very diverse functions, and until recently it was believed that they are basically responsible for protecting neurons and facilitating their movement. However, in recent years there have been investigations in which glial cells have their own communication network and can influence how neurons relate to each other. That is, we are just beginning to fully understand its importance.


2. The role of synapses

When understanding how the brain works, knowing how communication networks work between neurons 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 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 separation that opens between the cell membranes of the nerve terminals of two neurons : one of them is the presynaptic and the other is the postsynaptic.

In the synapses, the electrical signal that a neuron travels becomes 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, the torrent of chemicals received by the post-synaptic neuron have 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 often connected to many others at the same time: they do not usually pass information in a linear way, as in the phone game.

3. Software and hardware are indistinguishable

It is usual 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 actual functioning of the brain. And one of the main reasons why a brain differs from a computer is the fact that in the first it makes no 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 nerve cells send nerve signals : It does not depend on programming codes.

That's why, among other things, the brain does not work with content that can be stored in a USB, just as it happens with computers. You can play interpret what happens in a brain in real time, and make this interpretation structured as a code understandable to us, but that code we will have invented ourselves; it does not come from the brain. Which does not mean that it is impossible to know in an approximate way what certain parts of the torrent of information that travels through a brain consist of.

4. Brain plasticity

Because of what has been said above, this other idea is derived: 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 cause all those produced from that moment to be in one form or another.That is to say, that our mental life is an accumulation of modifications, of neurons that narrow their bonds and that later loosen them according to everything that is happening to us.

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

5. The role of attention

As much as the human brain seems a prodigy of nature capable of doing quite impressive things, the truth is that the data set with which it works is always full of gaps. In fact, it is not even able to properly process all the information that comes to it in real time through the senses, and we do not even 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 able to locate information elements that are relevant to focus attention on them and not on others, all depending on our objective. This mechanism gives a lot of play, because in certain circumstances we seem to be blind to things that happen in front of our noses.

6. The brain invents things

This point is derived from the previous section. As the brain has a quantity of "processable" information that is limited, there are some information gaps that have to be filled without constantly being forced to look for the missing information. For it, there are some automatic mechanisms that cover those holes discreetly .

An example is what happens with the part of the retina that gives way 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 had 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 in brain it is formed by different anatomical areas more or less specialized in some processes, they all need to be well connected to each other to do their job well . That does not mean that everyone has to communicate directly with all the others, but to function they must be wired with the "general network" of information that circulates 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 or the other domain work together .

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


The Brain (June 2024).


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