Closeup on your brain

The greatest unexplored territory in the world is the space between our ears.

William O'Brien, former President of Hanover Insurance

Now return to the task of unpacking your mind. Put the two halves together again and zoom in on your brain with an imaginary microscope. The grey jelly-like matter that you can see is, on closer inspection, made up of brain cells, some 100 billion of them. Understanding how these cells work offers some important clues about the way we learn and work.

Discovered by Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal a century ago, the cells are also called neurons. Each has the potential to connect with another, reaching out a "tentacle" called an axon. Each neuron has other tentacles called dendrites that it uses to receive incoming signals from another neuron's axon (see Figure 3). The minute gap between axons is called a synapse.

It is at this detailed level that the brain is operating when you learn, have a thought, remember something, feel aroused, or undertake any of the other myriad functions dealt with by your brain. One cell connects chemically and electrically with another and a neural pathway or synaptic connection is made. Your dendrites "learn" from other cells by receiving messages and the cell, in turn, "teaches" other cells by passing on information through its axon. It is the number of connections, not the number of cells, that is important. Just as any electrical appliance has wires bringing the current in and wires

going out to complete the circuit, so your nerve cells are connected. And you don't need to be a rocket scientist to see that there are plenty of potential connections to be made in any one brain.

We learn by experience, by interacting with the world using our senses. Connections or pathways develop between neurons, which become the routes through which we access our experiences. When we think or learn, the neural networking that is taking place is, at a microchemical level, our brain learning from our experiences.

When stimulated, neurons grow many dendrites. These look like twigs from a branch and connect with an axon from another neuron or group of neurons. In fact, the dendrites and axons can connect with each other at various points along their length. When they connect, they are literally exchanging a small electrical charge and also releasing minute amounts of different chemicals, depending on the nature of the experience.

The first time we learn something we are comparatively slow. I picture my dendrites as explorers, beating a path through a jungle. The next time it is easier because there is already a route cut out. Scientists think that this may involve a substance called myelin, which coats and insulates axons, ensuring much faster transmission of impulses. Scientists also tell us that water is essential for the effective movement of the dendrites in your brain, just as it is for the passage of any explorer through unexplored terrain.

We have three different kinds of neuron. One group brings information from our senses, another has a networking role using their dendrites to connect to other neurons in our brain, and the third group conveys messages from our brain to our muscles and gets our bodies to act accordingly. We sense, we process, and then we act in some way, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. What we store in amazingly complex patterns of neural connections is the basis of our learning and our memory and, taken all together, is at the heart of our developing personality.

Put at its most simple, the more you learn, the more you are powering up your brain. You create more connections or synapses when you learn and it is the amount of synapses in your brain that determines your capacity, not the number of neurons or brain cells.

If you are interested in finding out more about the science of what is happening in your brain, books and television programs by Professor Susan Greenfield are an excellent place to start. She manages to convey what we know and what we are still finding out about how our brains work in language that is immediate and vivid.

k A good way of being sure that you have understood something is to be able to teach someone else. See if you can tell someone at work or at home the basics of what is going on in your brain when you learn, using what you have read so far. You might like to see if you could draw a simple picture from memory of the workings of your brain.

How To Accomplish More In A Fraction Of The Time

How To Accomplish More In A Fraction Of The Time

The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave several of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce and check off items on our to-do list by each day’s end seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us.

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