It was as black as pitch and I was hacking through the densest part of a dense forest with nothing but a small plastic knife to help me slash my way ahead. I tripped and stumbled. Gaining my footing I suddenly became unsure of which direction I was to head. Blindly, I crashed on through the growth, hoping to find what I wanted.
This is a description of the brain. Truly.
Actually, it’s not that bad. Our brain cells, called neurons, are quirkily shaped little guys with a whole bunch of appendages, some at one end and some at the other. These appendages are called dendrites, which comes from the Greek for “tree”, because they look like branches. Neurons look like fallen over trees, where the roots are dendrites and the branches are called terminal buttons. Except in the forest of branches in your brain, no root or branch touches any other tree. They get really close to each other, but there’s always a gap. The gap’s important though, and we call it the synapse. To get neurons to communicate with each other, there must be a way of information passing along one neuron, across the gap, and then onto the next neuron.
So let’s head back to the jungle.
Imagine a monkey in one of your trees. Then imagine that at the end of every branch is a cluster of fruit: some bananas, some apples, some plums and so on, but definitely a fruit salad for each tree. In this forest, here’s what happens. A monkey catches fruit at the roots, eats it, then races along the trunk and out to a branch, picking up the fruit there and throwing it across the gap to a nearby root where another monkey catches it.
The new monkey will eat the fruit, giving him enough energy to race along his tree to his branches until he comes to some fruit. He’ll throw this across any one of a number of gaps he has, where yet another monkey will catch it, eat it, race along his roots, up the tree and along the branches…
There are 100 billion trees, each of which has hundreds or thousands of branches, loads of roots and so billions of gaps (synapses) between branches, roots and trees. The fruit is the only thing that gets between branches. Oh, and only one monkey per tree.
Now the biology
The tree of course is a neuron. Your monkey is an electrical charge and the fruit is brain chemicals, neurotransmitters. The roots are dendrites, the trunk is an axon and the branches are known as terminal buttons.
With enough stimulation a neuron will be activated, setting off an electrical impulse (the monkey) within the neuron that runs the length of the axon (the trunk) where it gets to the terminal buttons (branches). At the end of the branches are neurotransmitters (fruit) which are released across the synapse (gap) to nearby dendrites (roots). If there are enough neurotransmitters (fruit), the next neuron generates an electrical impulse (the monkey gets enough energy from the fruit) and the impulse (monkey) travels the length of the new axon, to the terminal buttons, and so on.
It’s pretty cool
Now imagine a million monkeys doing this at the same time, each one catching the fruit from one, or a hundred or a thousand or more monkeys at the same time. This, but in spectacular scale, is what your brain does.
When we think about the work that it does then, think about it like this…
To perform a task, your brain needs to know where it’s going. Well practiced skills and robust memories, are like eight lane highways that the brain navigates easily. They’ve been used hundreds or thousands of times, the connections between neurons are tough, and they’re easy to use. These are your subroutines, habits, and so on.
But the hazy memory? The new skill? The new learning or understanding? Well that’s like trying to find your way through a dense forest at night with a small plastic knife to slash your way through. It’s the mental equivalent of a dirt track through a jungle, not a paved highway.
Remember how awkward driving a car felt when you began, and how automatic it is now? You’ve gone from a dirt track to a highway. New skill = dirt track. Mastery = highway. Same for memories, understanding, perceptions and so forth.
So here’s the take home bit
Like we said last post, change is hard. It’s like cutting a new path through a forest, or driving a cart along a track and trying not to fall into the well-worn ruts that are already there… Naturally, the path of least resistance is the easiest, which is what your brain most naturally wants to do.
Remember then, when you’re learning something new to stick with it. You have to give your brain enough of a chance to grow connections, cut a road, and build a highway that is strong enough to compete with any subroutines you already have.
But lack of progress on the surface doesn’t mean lack of progress in your brain.
And along with practice, repetition, perseverance and determination, use visualization. It’s never as good as the real thing, but visualizing yourself performing a skill, engaged in a new behaviour, or watching your hands practice a new skill in mid-air, has neuronal benefits.
While you visualize, your brain builds connections, cuts a bigger path, builds a bigger road, making the change a little easier.
You can practice this with school kids or your own kids if they’re struggling, build it into stories, and help them practice, even if it’s just in the mind.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Dendrites, terminal buttons, axons, synapse
What have you noticed?
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