Neurophysiology for the Uninitiated
Our brain is a wonderful machine, the most fascinating part of the entire human body. Sir Charles Sherrington, the “grandfather” of neurophysiology and a poet, used to say:
It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.
Our entire nervous system consists of nearly 100 billion neurons, the specialized, electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information. While there are many different types of neurons, they typically consist of three sections: a soma, or cell body; the soma’s tentacle-like dendrites, which receive messages from other neurons; and a long-branched axon, which ultimately passes those signals to other neurons. While the signals within each neuron are electrical, communication between neurons is wireless, in the form of dozens of different chemicals that represent the messengers of thinking.
Every time a thought is born in our mind, thousands of these neurons trigger a very articulated sequence of actions and electric discharges: each neuron acts as a tiny yet extremely powerful data processing and transmission center that can manage a wide and complex flow of information. The path each thought takes through the brain creates a series of memories tracks – actual maps of our mind.
The Learning Process
The mechansm behind learning have physiological roots: it’s like the Colorado River carving out the Grand Canyon, where the rifts become deeper and deeper with the time passing. They are shortcuts that make our life easier. The same kind of mechanism also comes into play in much simpler situations, making us do things without thinking. How many times have we found ourselves accidentally walking or driving to work or school on a day off, without realizing it? However, this is only a minor drawback when compared to the great advantage of using our autopilot to carry out everyday tasks by just following the mental models that we developed through experience.
The efficient system also has an unwanted side effect: innovating, or simply changing, is hard. That is, it is hard to get out of the canyons that our thoughts have dug, because the resistance of known paths is much lower. Mental models are very useful, but they unfortunately limit our creativity.
Even something as simple as driving a bicycle can become extremely frustrating and almost impossibile if we just change a little detail. Find out what Destin found out in this mind boggling video: The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day 133 – YouTube.