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The brain is the most mysterious and highly complex device in the known universe, being composed of over 100 billion neurons, each with 10,000 or more possible connections, forming an astounding 100 trillion connections called synapses. Unlike other body cells, neurons never touch each other; instead, they are separated by gaps only 20-40 nanometers wide (to put this to scale, a piece of paper is roughly 100,000nm wide). Remember, these numbers don't include the neurons that exist within your body, some of which being as long as the distance from your head to your big toe!
How Neurons Work
A neuron is a "brain" or "nerve" cell, which is responsible for receiving, processing, and transferring information. Neurons have four main parts:
- Dendrites: the branch-like processes that receive information from cells and send it to the soma for processing
- Soma: the body of the neuron, responsible for processing the information
- Axon: the long extension from the soma, responsible for sending messages to other cells at synapses
- Synapse: the section between neurons where neurotransmitters are sent across the synaptic cleft (that 20-40nm space) to other cells
Neurons can send information at speeds as slow as 1mph or as fast as 268mph. The average neuron can receive, process, and transfer a signal up to 200 times per second! How does this happen?
- Neurotransmitters are released from the axon of one neuron across the synaptic cleft, such as dopamine, which is responsible for learning, attention, some emotions, and some movements
- The neurotransmitter causes a reaction to occur in the dendrites of the receiving neuron
- The dendrites transfer the message to the soma in the form of "energy", which is produced by changing its chemical composition for processing
- Once a certain energy has been reached, the axon responds, sending the signal to its synapse where more neurotransmitters can be released to other neurons, muscles, or glands
The Subconscious Mind
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic theory, formed a model for the human subconscious, which is commonly known as "the iceberg model." In this model, the mind is divided up into three sections:
- The ID (Subconscious Mind)
The ID is the bottom half of the iceberg, constantly in opposition of the superego. Freud describes the ID as the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. It works off of the pleasure principle, the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification. For example, sexual urges are considered characteristics of the ID, providing us with the desire for immediate gratification. This part of the brain acts as our raw, animal nature.
- Ego (Conscious and Preconscious Mind)
The Ego is the top portion of the iceberg, the organized part of personality that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions. Freud describes the ego as the portion of the mind that works on the reality principle, constantly assessing the pros and cons of falling into the desires of the ID. Therefore, this region is responsible for our judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory. Lastly, this region is what allows us to make sense of the world around us, separating fiction from reality. We are aware of these actions on a conscious level, but the filtration is so automatic that it often occurs in our preconscious mind.
- Superego (Conscious and Subconscious Mind)
The superego works in contradiction to the ID, as explained previously, striving to act in a socially appropriate manner. In other words, the superego attempts to seek perfection in the eyes of others based upon our social and cultural standards. The super-ego controls our sense of right and wrong and guilt through what is known as cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of anxiety we have when we have done something "wrong." For example, if you decide to have a few drinks before driving your friends home from the bar one night, you may have a stomach-wrenching feeling inside you. This anxiety is cognitive dissonance for doing something life-threatening and against the law. Another example could be something less extreme, such as using a phone during an exam or test. The opposite end of the spectrum us cognitive consistency, which is when our actions successfully match our beliefs and standards.
The subconscious mind is responsible for filtering through the reality and perceptions offered by the ego without our constant awareness. It is responsible for our habits, desires, emotions, bodily processes, etc. When you feel as if you are on autopilot, such as when scanning items at your till for customers on an eight-hour shift, you are using your subconscious mind to avoid having to think of every action. Your subconscious mind has already determined which items need to be scanned, how fast you should move your arms to grab the items, the required muscle movements and tension to hold the items, the expressions on the customer's face, their body chemistry and odors, their appearance, and their words all before you are even aware of it.
Scientists think that humans only have access to about 4-5% of their brain, as the other 95-96% is all subconscious, raw data, loaded in memories and knowledge that our brain has obtained throughout every second of our lives. Now, this does not have ANYTHING to do with the 10% theory of our brain's capacity; it simply means that our brains act before we are aware of it because it is less laggy, more efficient, and more accurate than we ever could be on a conscious level. Take a handful of change for example; as you look at it, you begin to count it on a conscious level, but your brain has already determined the amount for you, including the number of coins, their shape, depths, colors, writing, illustrations, etc.
We Are the Chemical Mind
I remember once in anatomy class we were holding the brain of someone who donated their body to science. All I could think of was the power in the machine I was holding. Between my two hands was every memory, experience, emotion, skill, belief, and idea of the person that once lived this life.
I then began to think about the beautiful mystery of the brain, and how it is so afraid to die that it takes control of us more often than we want it to, just to keep us alive. This thought reminded me of sleep, dreams, imagination, thought, desire, memory.... Where do they come from? Are they simply chemical reactions that somehow paint a picture in our minds as if they were downloadable films created by our brain's hardware.
In modern language, we tend to separate ourselves from our brain and our consciousness. For example, after an eight-hour study session for tomorrow's exam, you may catch yourself saying, "my brain is fried." Perhaps you just woke up and a friend calls you to tell you about their crazy dream; half asleep, you tell them "my brain isn't awake yet."
We also become caught up in the separation of the brain and the mind, as if they were separate entities. I explained in my last article, The Consciousness Paradox, that our brains are the heart of our consciousness, which is either real or illusory. When we attempt to separate the body from our brain, we are lying to ourselves. The mind and the brain are one, just as the body and brain are one.
Everything that happens in our bodies is for the brain. You eat to provide the brain with energy. You drink to provide the brain with hydration. You learn to provide the brain with activity. You exercise to provide the brain with ample blood supply. You love to provide the brain with happiness and belonging. You feel to provide the brain with sense. You see and hear to provide the brain with understanding. You believe to provide the brain with relaxation. You breathe to provide the brain with oxygen. Our bodies are, essentially, the brain's vessel, its connections running between almost every cell to keep us alive.
The good news is that we can change our subconscious mind by changing our habits and the way we think and react to different situations. If you read my article on "Expectations," you can better understand just how to do this!
Keep your brain safe and healthy, for without it, none of us would exist.
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2009). Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding (2nd Ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.