you never think the same again
Perceiving the world is complex. It requires us to understand, pay attention, feel, remember, plan, choose, judge, act, but most of all learn. Heraclitus pointed out that “No man steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Day by day, event by event, we not only perceive and respond to everything that surrounds us but also integrate the consequences of sensory events and actions to adapt to environmental changes. The integration of newly encountered thoughts, emotions, and actions into already existent neural pathways leads to a permanent rewiring, and allows us to retrieve information, interpret it, and act upon it in a way we have not experienced before. Thus, how you perceive the world depends on two ever-changing systems: your mental state and your own particular surroundings. This complex dynamic rewiring of neural pathways, mainly done by neural branches, the dendrites, is known as neural plasticity.
Now, what about habits, rigid behavioral routines that propel us to repeatedly think and act the same way? How is this in line with our understanding of neural plasticity and an ever-changing functional system? Habitual behavior bolsters only specific neural pathways, allowing them to grow stronger while other connections weaken. Both your behavior and your underlying neural pathways become more and more habitualized. Your brain requires you to actively and consciously react and rethink in order to rewire neural pathways, weaken those strong and very communicative connections, and transform habits. While this is easier at younger age, neural plasticity happens throughout a lifetime, enabling even a mature brain to actively encounter and integrate new ideas, memories, and behaviors.
your brain makes you happy
Your brain has got what it takes to make you happy. An essential role here is played by the neurotransmitter dopamine. This motivating messenger substance is chiefly formed in a region of the brain stem called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). From here, via tube-like cellular extensions, it reaches other regions of your brain, for example the nucleus accumbens, your brain’s very own motivation and reward hotspot.
Whenever you do something right, make an effort to achieve something, gain experience, or learn, your think tank rewards you with an additional release of dopamine, telling you “Well done! Do it again! Way to go!” Without this motivator in your brain you would lie on the sofa lethargically day in, day out, like a donkey without a carrot.
It’s not entirely altruistic, though. If you challenge the over 100 billion nerve cells in your brain, by learning a new language or juggling, for instance, new networks arise that code the new information. Your brain adapts itself to requirements, and is constantly reorganizing itself. So it isn’t just your brain that makes you happy; you can also make your brain sparkle too. Give yourself and your fascinating thinking organ the dopamine kick, and take up new challenges. Your brain will reward you!
your synapses await arousal
Imagine you are a neuron. Now imagine you are at a crowded cocktail party called “the brain.” You are constantly hearing the background noise and talking with your pals. In an average conversation, you first receive a message through the “space” you share with another neuron (let’s call this space synapse). More specifically, your “ears” (dendrites) are activated by this message, and if its content is interesting enough you might get “active” and generate a message yourself (action potential).
But the timing between what one neuron says and what its neighbor receives (and responds to) plays an important role in how “interesting” the conversation is perceived to be. So, if your timing fits mine, I might assume that what you’re telling me is important. Let’s look at a conversation that occurs with intervals of a few milliseconds between sentences:
Neuron 1 – How are you doing?
Neuron 2 – Fine! And you?
Neuron 1 – Fine too, thanks!
Sounds okay, doesn’t it? Somehow, what Neuron 1 says is playing a role in (or “causing”) what Neuron 2 says. There seems to be an input–output correlation, and if the conversation carries on like this, Neuron 2 will probably conclude that talking with Neuron 1 is worth it, enhancing the probability of continuing. Now let’s look at a reversed conversation:
Neuron 2 – I’m doing fine, thanks! You?
Neuron 1 – How are you doing?
Neuron 2 – Great! Tell me more!
In this conversation, Neuron 2 is probably not paying much attention to Neuron 1, since Neuron 1 always seems to arrive “too late” at whatever Neuron 2 is talking about. If the interchange continues like this, the probability of Neuron 1 and Neuron 2 engaging in further conversations will be lower.
The role that timing plays in neuron-to-neuron interactions has been termed spike timing-dependent plasticity, in which “spikes” refer to the sentences (or activation as an “action potential”) a neuron says. The term plasticity refers to the capability of the connection between neurons (how probable it is that if Neuron 1 says something, Neuron 2 will reply) to change according to their interaction history. Thus, billions of neurons are waiting to be activated at the right time, in order to differentiate between “valuable” interactions (which are reinforced) and interactions that are better off “removed” (which are weakened).
But of course, as at any cocktail party, timing isn’t everything. Some neurons are going to feel better in conversation over a beer, while others will prefer wine or juice. In your brain, the molecules that engage some neurons but not others are termed neurotransmitters (i.e. dopamine, glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid, etc.), and the concentration of these neurotransmitters (how much beer or wine there is) modulates the conversations between neurons.
So … ready to enjoy this brainy cocktail party?
your memories are unreal
Memories create a person’s self image. Personality, thought, and action only come about through memories—the good and the bad. But, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “What we get to keep from our experiences is a story.” The memory doesn’t work like a video recorder. We are storytellers who store the individual parts of experiences and link them to parts of other experiences, often spinning yarns in the process.
When two friends have quite different memories of a shared experience, something has happened that psychologists could also show in experiments. Elizabeth Loftus coined the term ‘false memories’ as a result of her findings. It is easy to alter memories in experimental situations, claims this controversially discussed psychologist. Children, above all, are open to suggestions of all kinds. They told her in rich detail about a wonderful trip in a hot-air balloon. Only this had never taken place. The children believed in it because they had seen manipulated photographs of themselves in a balloon.
your ego is an imaginary bighead
It is a puzzling mental exercise to reflect upon the processes behind your own thoughts. Philosophers have been struggling with the problem of consciousness and the self for ages, and neuroscientists have recently begun to look for its neural correlates. Despite the efforts of many great minds, our knowledge of the mechanisms underlying human activities such as speech, vision, problem solving, compassion, or even love is still far from complete.
Although our knowledge is still limited, one thing is certain: whoever we are, whatever we do and whatever we feel originates in our brains. In fact, we are our brains—they define us. It should not be a surprise that more and more well known behavioral phenomena are being mapped in the brain. After all, there is nothing more to what we are: there is no little homunculus hiding in our skulls watching all the sensory inputs and pressing buttons to make our limbs move. Some call it the illusion of self: a conceptual disassociation between the physical body and seemingly unchangeable person steering it. However, if we were able to copy a physical body molecule by molecule, the duplicate would express the same personality as the original. There is no meaning in saying: “My brain made me do it,” since you and your brain are indistinguishable. Of course the brain is constantly changed by experience and environment, but it is still you that changes, not a separate magic box responsible for free will and consciousness.
In time, we will be able to explain how biochemical processes translate into complex behavior, such as emotions, and even the self. But there is nothing to fear from disentangling the intricacies of the human brain; understanding the complicated mechanism behind these mental processes won’t make your feelings less genuine. Even though you are your brain—around 1,300 grams of grayish tissue—it doesn’t make you in any way less special.
your gut thinks along with you
We listen to our gut instinct, have butterflies in the stomach, and from time to time get a queasy feeling in the belly. In our language usage the signals our abdomen sends the brain are taken for granted—we rarely stop to think about them.
Yet this “second brain” in the intestines has remarkable abilities: it sends information via the digestive functions, influences our emotions and decisions, and can even make us susceptible to certain illnesses. In an adult the intestines are about eight meters (26 feet) long, and because of their fine villi they have a surface area roughly a hundred times larger than the skin. The intestinal wall also contains a similar number of nerve cells as the spinal chord. In their entirety they form the enteric nervous system (ENS).
Sometimes one brain isn’t enough, which is why we like to listen inside ourselves when making important decisions: the gut feeling, the intuition, can give us the necessary confidence in our chosen option and strengthen our judgement. Even the simple decision as to what to have for dinner is determined by our gut feeling. Here the ENS signals to our brain what kind of food to look for: if we’re under great stress, we tend to go for the chips and mayo and disdain the salad. The digestion of such high-fat food has the effect of improving our mood. Our food also influences which bacteria colonize the intestinal flora, which is primarily responsible for our digestion. Recent studies show that these bacteria are in continual contact with the brain from the moment of birth and probably have an influence on how susceptible we are to illnesses such as diabetes, excessive weight, eating disorders, depression or anxiety. Never mind “it’s all in the head”—your gut thinks along with you!
Lina Schaare and Henning Grabow
your brain is looking for friends
For a long time, scientists looked at individual brains. We assumed that to a great extent every brain develops independently of those of other people. Of course we knew that the human being is a social animal and lives in groups, and we at least assumed that an individual brain communicates with other brains, like a computer with other computers, for example.
But more and more we are coming to see that a brain presupposes the existence of other people, and thus other brains, in essential aspects of its structure and function: there are specialized structures for the recognition of faces or linguistic interchange, and areas that enable empathy. These functions, along with others, define a human being. Additionally, some of these brain areas can only develop fully in contact with other people. So a brain is only capable of full development, and can only fulfill its essential functions, when it comes into contact with other brains.
This knowledge is reflected in neuroscience, in which the new discipline of social neuroscience has developed in recent years. This investigates the processes in our brain that manifest its capacity for social contact.
your ideas alter your brain
We know that all our thoughts, ideas, memories come from our brain. No matter how fleeting, no matter how intangible, they are all the results of millions of neurons stimulating and signaling one another through synaptic connections; manifestations of actual physical events that go on in the brain.
We are not born with all the neurons and synapses that we have as adults. During childhood we go through a long period of establishing new connections and losing the ones that are not used much. The experiences we are exposed to during this period, the kind of thinking and behavior we engage in, have a large role in deciding how many and what kinds of connections are brought into play. The more stimulating and challenging the environment is, the more there is for the brain to take in and adapt to. That is how we pick up and develop a lot of things while growing up. But this process does not stop here. It goes on throughout life, because these intricate webs of synapses are essentially how the brain encodes everything. The connections that are employed more are made stronger; the ones that are not employed frequently become weaker, and often new information or experiences need new connections to be established.
Think about learning to play the piano. When someone who doesn’t know anything about playing the piano starts to learn a piece, they start by playing one key after another—following a pattern of movement their fingers have never followed before. As the person plays the same piece over and over again, and then plays many different kinds of pieces, his/her movements from one key to another become more automatic, more efficient, more effortless. Similarly, when certain connections or sets of connections between neurons are activated repeatedly, they also become stronger and more efficient. In fact, one could argue that it is because this communication between the parts of the brain involved in playing the piano gets better that the person gets better at playing the piano.
Recent developments in neuroimaging have revealed how acquiring and mastering a skill can introduce a change in the “structure” of parts of the brain and also the “workings” of the neurons that form those structures. It is perhaps easier to imagine this idea of change in the context of an observable skill (like playing the piano or juggling), but it also holds true for more abstract concepts like how we think or feel. Engaging in any kind of mental activity repeatedly over a long period of time will alter parts of your brain—not only in terms of strength of neural pathways but also in terms of complexity. Persistently participating in intellectually challenging contemplation or creative thinking, and moreover observing and regulating these thought processes, requires a great deal of complexity from the respective neuronal networks. These networks may in turn change as a result of this constant need for complex connectivity. And the results of some of these changes might not be limited to the activity that caused the change, but might also transfer to some other process that engages some of the same networks. In this way, playing around with ideas could equip you better for developing or dealing with new ideas.
It is wonderful to know that our minds are not slaves to some biological pre-set that was installed into us at birth; that what we choose to do and how we choose to think actually matters. But in the time we live in—when so many people claim to hold some magic formula that will train your brain to make it perfect—it is also important to remember that recognizing this remarkable effect of our thoughts on our brain is not just about training our brain to become more intelligent, more rational, more focused, more happy, or more—or indeed less—anything. We are still a long way from knowing enough about the brain to be doing this. For every conscious mental process we might actively trigger, there are countless others going on without us even noticing.
Knowing that your ideas can alter your brain is about understanding and acknowledging these beautiful and complex physical processes, which might hold the key for us to get a real glimpse into the abstract and elusive thing we call the mind.
you get on other people’s nerves
Imagine you have to imitate an activity or a movement that another person is carrying out. This is always the case when we learn something new—for example, riding a bike as a child or dancing as an adult.
For a long time, what goes on in the brain when this happened was thought to be like this: at first those areas of the brain that take up information and stimuli are active—sensory areas like the centers for seeing or hearing. Only when imitation itself takes place do the motoric areas responsible for action and movement come into action.
A discovery by research scientists around the Italian neurologist Giacomo Rizzolatti has fundamentally questioned this view of things. In the so-called premotor cortex of an ape, that is to say in an area responsible for action, the researchers described particular nerve cells that also became active when the animal was in a passive state—namely when it was observing an action. When the ape carried out the action itself, these nerve cells were also active. So the same nerve cells are involved in both the observation and the carrying out of an activity. Our brain imitates even while observing. The findings were soon confirmed and generalized into a new conception of the possible role of mirror neurons, as they were called. Could it be that we experience within our own brains what we observe other people doing? This could be particularly important for the phenomenon of empathy, our ability to understand other people’s feelings, for example. In the concept of the mirror neurons we wouldn’t simply observe other people’s feelings but actually create them ourselves in our brain. So what other people do could literally get on our nerves.
your brain is making sense
Sometimes, things you don’t understand give you a headache. At least, that’s what people say. It’s a figure of speech that suggests what is actually behind the confusion: the brain in your head. It organizes your thoughts, orders new things in the cosmos of your experiences, and complains when something doesn’t fit together. Then you feel that something isn’t right, and for a while it doesn’t let you go, because the brain wants to know. It makes sense for itself.
Today, many neuroscientists believe that your brain constructs a large model of your world in your head. This model is the result of your experiences, and represents everything you know about your world. Your brain uses the model to predict what goes on around you. If a prediction is incorrect, even though it is important to you, your brain has to adjust the model and put things straight. It learns. But when this is really hard, you say you have a headache.