How Does The Brain Works? How To Master Your Brain?
How can you master your brain? How does the brain works? If you were to buy a car, a computer, a game console, or even a toy of some kind, then in all probability it would come with an instruction manual of some kind, so that you can figure out how to use it. This is important because it allows you to get the most out of it and allows you to avoid making mistakes that could damage it.
But unfortunately, the most important and complex things in the world come without instruction manual. Any new parents will tell you how shocked they were when they realized there wasn’t manual that could tell them how to be an effective parent.
And then there’s the biggest one: our own brain. These are the most complex supercomputers in the entire world. They create all of our subjective feelings, sensations, and experiences, and yet our brains come without instructions or guidance.
So, the question is how can you master your brain?
Fortunately, neuroscientists and psychologists are discovering more secrets of the brain every day. We know more about ourselves and much of this information can be used to help us become happier, smarter, and more effective versions of ourselves.
How your brain works
Neuroscience is a subject that can take decades to learn and even then, it will be necessary to specialize in one area, as I said, it is a complex piece of machinery. So, there is much more than can be explain here, but nonetheless, I am going to give you a brief overview so that you have a basic understanding of some important clues on how the brain essentially works .
So, what do we know?
First, the brain is made up of neurons. These neurons are cells that have long tendrils called axons and dendrites. These extend almost to touch each other and that in turn means that they will be close enough for small signals to jump through space. This, in turn, creates a huge map made up of billions of neurons with incredibly intricate connections. This network is called the ‘connectome’ and it is slightly different on everyone. These individual differences are what give us our different abilities and our different personalities.
Each experience you have can be assigned to one or more of these neurons. Each neuron represents a sensation, a memory, an experience, a feeling, or something else. His vision is assigned to a wide variety of neurons that represent what you are seeing, and, in the same way, your memory consists of many interconnected neurons that reflect your thoughts and ideas.
These neurons are grouped around different regions of the function of your brain. In the occipital lobe, for example, we have all the neurons responsible for our sight. In the motor cortex we have neurons that correspond to movements and sensations throughout our body. Our prefrontal cortex is where we handle things like planning and motivation. Our brainstem handles respiration. And our hippocampus stores many of our memories. This is why damage to a specific area of the brain can result in the loss of a specific function and this organization is so extreme that there have even been cases in which a head injury has led a patient to lose memory of vegetables and nothing else.
Interactions between neurons occur through “action potentials.”
These are electrical impulses that occur once a neuron has received sufficient stimulation. That stimulation is usually the result of many nearby neurons firing enough to overcome a certain threshold of excitability. When an action potential occurs, this can also result in the release of neurotransmitters. These are chemicals released by vesicles (sacs) that alter the way neurons function, perhaps making them prone to skyrocket, or perhaps making the event seem important, sad, happy, or memorable.
Another factor that influences our individual differences is our balance of neurotransmitters and hormones. If you have a lot of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, you will often be in a good mood and relaxed. If you have a lot of cortisol and glutamate, then you will be a more connected and panicky person.
Neurotransmitters and external influences
What is important to recognize here is that the neurotransmitters are not only the result of what happens in the brain but can also be the result of biological signals of our body. For example, if you have a low sugar level in blood, then your brain produces more cortisol, the stress hormone. This is an evolutionary response that is meant to make us look for more food, but it’s also why we tend to feel anxious and angry when we haven’t eaten for a while. This is where the experience of being ‘hungry’ comes from.
On the contrary, serotonin can be released when we eat something and our blood sugar level rises. For what so we feel good when we finished eating. However, that serotonin is eventually converted to melatonin, which is the neurotransmitter for sleep that suppresses neuronal activity. For what so often we feel tired and groggy after a big meal.
Countless other things also influence our balance of brain chemicals. Bright light, for example, can reduce the production of melatonin and increase the production of cortisol and nitric oxide to wake us up. Remember: there were no artificial lights in nature, so our brain could rely solely on this signal to know what time it was.
While there is much more to it than that, it generally describes the shape and function of the brain and how it gives rise to our individual experiences.
Another aspect of the brain that is especially important to become familiar with is plasticity. Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and grow.
People believe for a long time that brain only form new neurons and connections during childhood, and from then on it was set in stone. However, we now know that this process continues until we die and is a crucial aspect of how our brain works. It slows down slightly in adults, but it is still what gives us the ability to learn, change our minds, and acquire new skills.
Neural plasticity occurs through practice, repetition, and events that we believe are especially important. The saying among neuroscientists goes: “What lights up together, connects together.” In other words, if you experience something, a neuron will fire. If you experience that thing at the same time as another, it is possible that two neurons (or more likely, two groups of thousands of neurons) fire.
If you keep re-experiencing those two things together, a connection will begin to form between them. Later, that connection will be strengthen through a process call myelination during which dendrites and axons isolate themselves to better conduct the flow of electricity. Eventually, a firing neuron will cause the other neuron to fire. This is how you can learn a complex series of movements when performing a dance, or how you can remember words in a new language.
So how to hack your brain and take control of your performance?
This may seem a lot to learn, but hopefully you learned the basic with respect to various functions of your brain. Hopefully you may have found some of this quite interesting as well. After all, it is relevant to all of us!
So now the question is how can you use this information productively?
One way to hack your brain to achieve higher productivity, happiness, or anything else is to influence neurotransmitter production. These influence our mood and our ability to learn. Therefore, many people are interesting in the idea of ‘ nootropics. The nootropics are smart drugs: supplements and medications that may influence the production of neurotransmitters dopamine, so we have goal – oriented cortisol inducing fear. Modafinil alters the production of orexin, which can completely change our cycle sleep wakefulness, so we feel more awake most of the time. This is also what caffeine does, by removing the inhibitory neurotransmitter adenosine (or neutralizing it, to be more precise).
The problem with this strategy is that sets the brain on a specific and unnatural state and prevents you from being able to easily ‘change your mode. No brain state is superior to all others. For example, creativity requires relaxation, not stimulation. The brain can adapt to these changes by creating more or less “receptor sites” (the points where neurotransmitters work). This make us sensitive to the neurotransmitters in question. This can eventually lead to addiction. Some neurotransmitters work better by focusing more on neuroplasticity or more on energy production, but for the most part this is not the solution.
What is a much more useful solution is to look at those factors that naturally influence the release of neurotransmitters? If you want to hack any system, the answer is to look at what the inputs are.
Bright light can boost energy and make us less sleepy, so why not consider investing in a daylight lamp designed to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder), by simulating the rays of the sun. We know that cold can also increase concentration, while heat can help us feel more relaxed and happier. The sun and exercise can improve our mood by producing serotonin.
We also know that our brain is subject to certain natural cycles, those related to sleep and hunger. For example, by timing our productivity around those things, we can work more efficiently and free from distractions.
When you feel stressed or depressed, it might be useful to consider some of the biological factors that may be causing that. Maybe you are hungry? Or maybe you’re a little sick and the pro-inflammatory cytokines are causing mental confusion? Once you know that the problem is temporary and biological, it can be much easier to let it go.
Most importantly, it is critical that you learn to create the moods and feelings by changing the way you think and use your brain.
What makes humans unique is our ability to visualize, internalize events, and imagine future scenarios or possibilities. This is our working memory at stake. And it is what allows us to think about long-term goals and invent new ideas. If you believe in the theory of ‘built-in cognition, you might find that this is what we use to understand plain English.
When we visualize we lighting up the same neurons in the brain as if the event were actually happening. Neurologically, we find ourselves doing something and imagining, doing something almost indistinguishable.
This means that you can use visualization to practice things and develop skills; You can activate brain plasticity as if you were practicing the event! You can also use this as a way to activate the right neurotransmitters and put yourself in the right state of mind.
Ultimately this will lead to the ability to control your own emotions and to activate the best possible state of mind for the task at hand. Your visualization skills and awareness will requires training. And then using those skills to ease your anxiety and motivate yourself to focus and be more alert as needed. This is the neuroscience that underlies psychological approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy and philosophies like Stoicism.
This is why it is so important to avoid bad habits. Bad habits in our thoughts, as reflecting and indulging strengthens the connections that make those habits increasingly difficult to break.
There is much more to getting the most out of your own brain. But I hope this primer has given you a better understanding and a little more control.
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