The Brain

This week is 'Brain Awareness Week' so lets explore the brain together.

The human brain is like a galaxy condensed into a small space the size of our two hands put together. We have approximately 100 billion neurons in the brain that produce complex functions every second. A neuron is a specialised cell that looks like a tree with branches and these branches line up with other neuronal branches and almost touch. The space between them is called the synaptic gap and it’s the intergalactic world of nerve signals that travel from one neuron to another like a lightening strike. The mechanism that allows this travel across the synaptic gap are chemical messengers called neurotransmitters e.g. serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA. These chemical acts as “boats” to transport the messages across the synaptic gap.

The human brain and body works well when there are just the right amount of “boats” to complete the job. Unfortunately, due to negative stress and/or genetics sometimes there are too many or too little “boats” and thus disruption and disease can be the result. Healthy eating, exercise and good sleep hygiene go along way to keeping the neurons functioning well. At times, medication can be a godsend to bring balance to the way that the neurons communicate with one another. As a society this is an area that we can grow in our understanding. In the same way that we would encourage someone to take medication for diabetes or hypertension, we can support those who need medication to moderate the way the that neurons function.

Another fascinating thing about the brain is how it stores memory. Our brain is like a computer and it has enough storage space to hold up to 100 terabytes of data. Thankfully our brain has clever filter systems so that we don't become overloaded with too much information in our conscious minds at any given time. Our brain works on so many levels to keep us safe and functioning well. For example, could it be that our “gut” feel about something is the brain making many computations from all the data it has stored over time and then intuits the best answer based on those computations? Possibly.

Researchers, Foa and Kozak theorise that memory has three main components i.e. sensory data, emotional data and meaning. The sensory data refers to what was seen, heard, smelt, physically felt and this information is stored in the actual neurons that correspond with that function e.g. if you were rescued from a house fire, the neurons in the olfactory (smell) part of the brain would store the trauma. A “photocopy” of the trauma is also stored in other neurons that we activated during the event e.g. the emotional part of the brain called the amygdala. So when you smell smoke in the future, the brain does a “google” search to ascertain how to respond to the presenting information being received by the olfactory nerves and the brain then jumps to the amygdala to activate the emotional data that is personally associated with the smell of smoke. So neurons that “fire together, wire together”, meaning they now have an association and one triggers the other.

Mostly, this is very good and we need these associations to function well. It’s what tells our fight or flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) to keep us from harm. But can we reverse this neuronal wiring if the association negatively impacts us, like as in PTSD or phobia? The good news is, Yes we can. It takes hard work and repetition but techniques such as exposure therapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) show empirical evidence that the intensity of the negative emotional association can be reduced enough for the individual to get back to normal functioning.

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So lets be kind to the galaxy between our ears and give it all the best nourishment, exercise and protection it needs to keep our complex mind and bodies functioning well.

Written By Janice Dommisse
Clinical Psyhcologist Masters & Co.