How does the brain think?

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How does the brain think? – Tom, 16 years old, San Diego, California

Have you ever wondered how your brain creates thoughts or why something random pops into your head? It may seem like magic, but the brain is actually like a supercomputer in your head that helps you think, learn and make decisions.

Imagine your brain as a busy city with many streets and buildings. Each part of the brain has a specific job, just as certain parts of a city or certain buildings serve different purposes. When you have a thought, it is like a message traveling through the city, going from one area to another.

As a professor of psychology and neuroscience, I have studied the brain for almost twenty years. Neurologists, neuroscientists and neurosurgeons work every day to better understand the brain. And there is still a lot to learn.

Practice and repetition create skills

The neuron plays a key role in the brain: these are small cells that send and receive signals and messages so that they can communicate with each other.

Your brain has somewhere between 80 billion and 100 billion neurons. Neurons tend to group together to form neural channels, which would be like the analogy of city streets and highways. When you have a thought, the neurons in your brain activate and create electrical impulses. These impulses tend to travel along similar routes, releasing small chemicals called neurotransmitters along the way.

These neurotransmitters are like the construction crew building the roads, making it easier to deliver the messages. You can imagine it as a dirt road, but as more traffic – that is, neuron signals – travels along the dirt road, the road is upgraded to a paved street. If the traffic continues, it will be upgraded to a highway.

As you learn new things and experience the world around you, these connections become stronger. For example, when learning to ride a bike, you may be unsteady and find it difficult to coordinate all the different muscles and your ability to balance. But the more you practice, the more the neurons control your muscles and your ability to balance fire, making it much easier when you practice. Neurons connect with each other to form neural networks.

That’s why practice and repetition are important to improve your skills, whether you’re playing the piano or learning a language. Neural networks are created and then strengthened the more they communicate with each other. Scientists have a saying in this area: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Certain thought or behavior patterns can be attributed to this type of repetitive, synchronized activity.

Developing creativity

You are only aware of a very small part of the information your brain takes in. They receive constant input from your senses: sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touches. When you see a cute puppy or hear your favorite song, your senses send signals to the brain, creating a chain reaction of thoughts and emotions.

The brain also stores memories, which are like files on a computer that you can access when you need them. Memories help shape your thoughts and influence how you see the world.

When you remember a fun day at the beach, you may feel happy and relaxed. When you smell an apple pie, it might remind you of your grandmother’s baking. These thoughts are activated because these pleasant associations have been formed in your brain and strengthened through repetition over time.

Creativity is another superpower of the brain. When you let your imagination run wild, your brain can come up with new ideas, stories and inventions. Artists, writers and scientists all use their creative minds to explore new possibilities and solve problems.

Have you ever experienced a ‘eureka’ moment when a brilliant idea pops into your head out of nowhere? That’s your brain’s way of connecting the dots and coming up with a solution.

Keeping your brain healthy

Most scientists agree that sleep is very important for your brain to process information from the day and allow it to rest and form new connections. Many people find that after a good night’s sleep they have new ideas or thoughts. The opposite is also true: Without enough sleep, you may feel like you can’t think clearly.

In addition to getting enough sleep, eat healthy foods and exercise. Just as a car needs fuel to run smoothly, your brain needs nutrients and oxygen to function optimally and increase your thinking skills.

Activities that challenge you are also great: reading, doing puzzles, making music, making art, doing math, writing essays and book reports, and keeping a journal. Positive thinking also helps. Keep in mind that whatever you consume – what you eat or what you watch, listen to or read – has the power to influence your brain.

Conversely, smoking cigarettes, vaping, drinking alcohol and using drugs kill brain cells. This includes head injuries that can occur when playing sports such as football, soccer and cycling – but wearing a helmet can make a big difference.

The brain is a fascinating organ that works tirelessly to create thoughts, memories and ideas. As technology continues to improve, scientists will learn more and more about how biological processes give rise to our conscious experiences. The challenges of learning about the brain are like a neuroscientific moonshot: we still have a long way to go before we fully understand how it works.

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This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Jennifer Robinson, Auburn University

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Dr. Jennifer L. Robinson is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Auburn University. She also serves as a paid consultant for VDF FutureCeuticals, Inc. and has received funding from the company to conduct clinical trials.

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