Communicative cells called neurons can link to each other and other cells, we call those linkages synapses. A neural path is a chain of linking neurons that all activate to create a “thought.” This is the fundamental mechanism for how the brain works and it’s surprisingly easy to understand.
If you look at this picture of an apple, your visual sensors will pick up on its shape and its color. Maybe you’ll remember the taste of the last apple you ate. Maybe you’ll remember the time you first tried an apple or the apple that hit Newton on the head in that one story.
Simply the image of an apple can trigger a huge amount of possible neural paths within your brain and if you follow one path, you’ll find it might lead very far from this image. You’ve all played the word association game before and you already know what a neural path is; now you just know the name I’ll be using.
Communicative cells are not only present in humans, many other animals have neurons and even brains. Let’s look in on an animal going about its business when it hears a rustle from a nearby bush. The animal now has two choices: investigate or ignore. We’ll observe both possibilities here.
If the sound was caused by a predator, the investigator will be more alert while the ignorer will be surprised. If the rustle were prey, the investigator would eat it while the ignorer went hungry. You can easily see that those individuals who were more inclined to investigate were more likely to survive.
The curious nature of the investigator is due to the pleasure that is released from synapsing new stimuli. The investigator received an audio stimulus from the bushes and synapsed it with new information when it discovered the cause of the sound. The new synapses release pleasure to encourage the Organism to continue that behavior, we call this learning.
Surviving isn’t just about synapsing information for the first time, there is a benefit to experience. The brain only has limited space, so recording the same thing over and over isn’t an efficient method of storage. Instead, when you receive a stimulus that is similar to recorded memory, you will jump onto that neural path.
If the path has already been formed, the synapse will become solidified by the activation. This means that the next time that path is activated, the signals will travel through the path quicker. It’s the reason that repeating something over and over can help you memorize it. It’s also the reason that we don’t freak out when we see metal beasts moving at unreal speeds because the safety of cars has been well solidified. When expectations are solidified, we call them habituated.
With enough solidification, a neural path becomes automated which means it can function without stimulation from the consciousness. You’re familiar with this concept if you’ve ever heard the phrase “it’s like riding a bike.” Many people learn how to ride very early on and the neural paths to the muscles to maintain balance and adjust speed have been solidified to the point where you don’t need to think about it. You can achieve this level of solidification with hours of practice. Whether you’re trying to learn a language, throw a ball, or memorize the digits of pi, practice makes perfect.
When learning about your brain, it is important to realize that it adapts to its environment quickly and will often rely on solidification instead of building new neural paths. In other words, things you learn early in your life stick with you because you used that path to learn more.
Let’s say you learn the color orange when your mom sets you down in a pile of fall leaves. You might enjoy the burnt color as it always brings you back to that peaceful, November afternoon. Alternatively, you may have seen the orange burner on a stove and decided to touch it to gain more information. It hurts. You might not have much affection for the color since your first interaction with it was one of pain and avoidance.What we learn very early on sticks with us whether we want it or not. Sometimes we learn new information in the science community that directly contradicts what was taught before. The original, incorrect, neural path is already formed and has possibly been solidified. I call this a false synapse and it poses a problem for discovery since it often causes the rejection of new information that goes against it.
The earlier a false synapse is formed, the more solidified it is and the harder to undo. This is why people become “set in their ways” especially since the world is changing so quickly between generations. The way that someone grew up in the 1960’s is very, very different than today.
You now know the fundamental mechanism for how your brain works. I hope you will use this knowledge when learning new things or meeting new people. Just remember that empathizing with others requires you to learn how their neural paths were formed and solidified. Nobody said it’ll be easy, but the benefits are unbelievable.