The Human Brain

My wife recently introduced me to a series of CDs by Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD in Communication Pathology specializing in Neuropsychology. In the series, she talks about the development of the human brain. My wife and I had an hour to kill in the car on our way for a weekend jaunt, so she thought I might enjoy listening to it. Boy, was she right.

The Human Brain
The Human Brain

I’m taking a moment for my Freedom Friday series to talk a bit about the human brain. By no means will I pretend to know everything about the human brain—but I’ll mention what I’ve learned.

What interested me was the idea of learning. How does the brain learn? Is there a physical change in the brain when someone decides they want to learn a subject? Or does that knowledge somehow get there because some people are smarter than others?

The brain has two hemispheres, right and left. Both hemispheres work together. Past science once suggested the two hemispheres worked independently—the left dedicated to logic (eg. science, mathematics, etc.) and the right dedicated to creativity (eg. music, art, literature, etc.) . Science has now discovered the brain works as a complete unit with both hemispheres working together. They’ve also discovered an interesting interaction that takes place between the two hemispheres they didn’t understand before.

The right hemisphere processes information from detail to big picture. The left hemisphere processes information from big picture to detail. The brain works best when the information it needs to process has a logic to it. If the information lacks organization, the brain goes into a default mode and shuts down not accepting new information. The only way I can describe this default mode is a person becomes unresponsive to the knowledge and would rather be out surfing with Beach Boys music playing in the background.

Dendrites
Dendrites

The brain also contains what’s called dendrites. Dendrites makes it possible for the brain to remember. Healthy dendrites have an actual physical appearance in the brain that is stalky, thick and branch-like. If you’ve ever seen a head of broccoli, that is what the human brain looks like underneath. Obviously the color of the brain wouldn’t be green, otherwise it would be a) weird, b) make us zombies. The thicker the dendrite, the more powerful a memory.

Short dendrites are known as floppy cells. Floppy cells occur when the brain absorbs a piece of information but then discards it. We all know the condition as short term memory. When the brain needs to remember five minutes’s worth of info, it creates floppy cells.

You must be wondering, what happens to the floppy cells when we don’t need them anymore? Good question. This is where sleep becomes comes to the rescue. When a person sleeps, the brain cleans away the floppy cells and stores them in an inaccessible part of the brain. The storage capacity of the brain is about 300 million years. I’d place a winning bet that we have enough capacity in that noggin of ours to store five minutes worth of garbage in there, don’t you think?

All right, having said that, what is the result of this brief discourse regarding the human brain?

When a student is in the process of learning a new subject, there’s an actual physical change in the brain that takes place in order to retain the new knowledge. As the student learns, dendrites grow thick. Anything not needed, the brain cleans away during sleep. As the student continues to learn, the student becomes smarter. The physical changes in the brain allow that to happen. Barring disease, the brain is the only organ that continues to grow in spite of getting older.

In other words, don’t let anyone say to you that you’re too old to learn. You’re never too old to learn.

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Have you ever studied into the human brain? If so, what do you like about it?

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9 thoughts on “The Human Brain

  1. Great post. I’ve always been fascinated by the brain. The part of this post that speaks most to me is the floppy cells being cleared out by sleep. That explains a lot to me. I dream in great detail, and I can point out the next morning what certain parts of the dream were inspired by in the previous day – a conversation, an email, a book I flipped through, or something said on tv.
    At a previous job, several years back, I was under a lot of stress. I printed out a map of the brain that showed the different regions and their purpose. That helped me to pinpoint activities that caused my headaches. Example: vision processing takes place at the back of the brain. After a long day comparing labels to product sheets, the back of my head ached from all of the visual processing. There were areas for stress and fatigue also. However, in the intervening years, I have lost that brain map. Luckily, my current career and lifestyle are not as stressful. I don’t have nearly as many headaches. I have to keep my brain in the best shape I can – it’s my best tool as a writer.

  2. I studied psychology in 1983 and was engrossed by it. The way the brain handles consciousness is one of the great mysteries of life and anyone who has ever had a real ‘lucid dream’ will start to question what we mean by reality. It’s all a construct thanks to that blob inside our heads.

    I’ve often wondered what the world would look like if we could experience it independently of our brain.

  3. Funny that I revisit your blog a year later and find you talking about neuroscience (that I’m working in now!). Viva les brains! Btw, dendrites are far more ubiquitous in the brain and function as the input arms of all types of neurons (typically) and take all sorts of shapes and structures. Agreed though, ever learning, always (exercise helps though! research says, to create new neurons entirely and interconnect them with established ones).

  4. I was just pondering our species in general… Why did we strive for knowledge. What was that spark in us. Why are we so curious and push ourselves to learn. Why didn’t we just react to impulses. I guess we wouldn’t be sitting here at our keyboards discussing that and lived this long without that drive. What other potential do we have in our brains? They say we haven’t explored all of our oceans….but the real frontier is right here behind our optical nerves! (Cue “Innerspace” soundtrack…)

    • Totally agree. From the same series I learned we’re only using 0.05% capacity of our brains. That’s not 5%, that’s half-a-percent. Einstein apparently had 6% usage of his brain, but I don’t know how we can validate that. Suffice it to say, we’re only using an infinitesimal portion of our brains, and it’s like you said, perhaps: the real frontier is right here behind our optical nerves!

  5. I can’t help but wonder if your interest in this topic is colored by the idea that fine zombie cuisine consists primarily of dendrites and nervous tissue. 😉

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