Brain Basics

Let’s talk about the three pounds of jelly under your hair that separates you from a starfish.  You use it every minute of every day, and it’s a crucial part of your being and functioning in this world, but most of us never give it a second thought.  We take its miraculous and still somewhat mysterious workings completely for granted. I know I did until I had a brain injury.

Not until I sustained a serious global brain injury, encephalopathy resulting from a pill-popping suicide attempt, did I realize just how integral the brain is to everything a person does. When garbled sounds and mangled words spewed out of my mouth; when my arms and legs would get all tangled up when trying to run, when I couldn’t remember my children’s’ ages, I understood just how much I’d taken my brain for granted.

If you take your hand and make a fist with your thumb folded cozily inside, this is a “handy” model of your brain.  Your thumb represents the brain stem, connected to the spinal cord (your forearm), which is the most primitive section of the brain and sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain.  This part of the brain is primarily concerned with survival, controlling automatic bodily functions, such as respiration and heartbeat, and houses the fight or flight response.

The back of your hand is the cerebellum which primarily controls coordination and balance while also being involved in some known language and attention functions.

Your fingers are the cerebrum or mammalian brain whose back area largely processes the external world, and generally, as you move forward toward the fingernails, functioning becomes distinctly more human and complex in the frontal lobe.  Unlike our primate relatives, the human head has extended out to accommodate our massive brains.  The grey matter behind our foreheads is essentially our “humanness” allowing for complex thoughts, emotions, imaginations, and problem-solving skills.

The cerebrum is divided into two halves and it used to be believed that the left side housed the more analytical functions like math and writing skills while the right was more abstract creative functioning, but this right/left brain theory has been proven untrue. Although the brain does exhibit pockets of activity correlating with specific functioning, both sides of the brain are fairly equal in activity, neural networks, and connectivity and work together to create a thought, feeling or sensation. Except on the head itself, the opposite side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body.

Your brain is extremely complex and more sophisticated than the most expensive computer with all the latest upgrades.  With about 100 billion nerve cells branching out and connecting at more than 100 trillion points called synapses, the adult brain contains more information than Google.

Signals travel across the nerves and synapses of the brain as electric impulses carried by neurotransmitters which manifest as brain waves.  Brain waves exist within voltage ranges, called amplitude, which varies for different points in the brain.  For optimal brain function, signals have to be able to travel through the neuronal maze quickly and efficiently with no roadblocks, an aspect is known as connectivity.

After my brain injury, I lost more functionality typically attributed to the left brain (probably because there was more to damage), but my injury was global.   For example, I didn’t know how many nickels were in a dollar or the multiplication table.  A quantitative EEG (electroencephalogram) showed my brainwave amplitudes to be alarmingly low overall with poor connectivity, like a crackly cell phone call.

After the injury, being forced to rely on what is typically thought of as right brain for a while was actually beneficial because it made me rely more on intuitive intelligence while quieting the pessimistic voices that had told me my whole life “You can’t!”  The brain injury allowed me to be more open and positive because all of my old limiting beliefs were wiped away.  The voice inside my head now asked “Why not? Anything is possible.”

Because the brain is delicate, it’s protected by the thick bones of the skull, but is still susceptible to damage and must maintain an intricately balanced environment for optimal functioning. Closed head injuries, such as a blow to the head, stroke, or exposure to neurotoxic chemicals constitute the most common physical damage to the brain.  Other conditions, such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or autism involve malfunctioning of the brain processes while a number of psychiatric conditions are also thought to be physically based in the brain.

Neurologists estimate that a person is aware of about 2,000 bits of information per minute.  As impressive as this is, your brain is actually processing 400 billion bits of information per minute.  Miraculously, the brain remains in control of each one of these and filters out what isn’t required to function in the present moment.

So, even when you think you aren’t doing anything, your brain is hard at work!

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