How Our Brain Works

Greetings, and welcome to Fishing Without Bait, a website and a lifestyle dedicated to assisting individuals in living a life without definitive expectations, where we can certainly set ourselves up for disappointment.  In the previous six (6) podcasts, we’ve explored a number of concepts, a number of ideas – particularly with mindfulness, where we set intentions and dealing with life, changing your brain, changing your thoughts, and changing your actions, having a particular type of psychic change (not a crystal ball type of change but a change in neural pathways).  And, today, what I’d like to talk about is a bit of the science behind mindfulness.

Jim:    We can always ask people to jump rope.  Jump rope is good for you.  So, jump rope.  And, without anything behind that.  So, the message which can interest and hold people must have depth and weight.  There has to be some validity.  There has to be some efficacy, which is, “Does it do what it says it’s going to do?”  Does jumping rope make you feel better?  Is jumping rope good for you?  And, I’m sure that many people have just told you to do it.  Perhaps your parents.  At some point, Mike, in your life, you asked them, “Why do I have to do this?”  And, what to do they say?

Mike:    “Because I said so.”

Jim:    Because I told you so.  And, that works for a while, does it not?

Mike:    You don’t process it.  You’re just like, “That’s a stupid answer.”  And, your mind rejects that, doesn’t it?

Jim:    Sure.  After a while when you get over the fear-based type of reaction, then you pay no attention to it.  “Prove it to me.”  So, I found a nice quote to begin today’s podcast with, that kind of sums up mindfulness, being in the moment, and the idea of action and effort, Mike.  And, it comes from a quote by Nicosia Johnson, and it says, “Do all that you can with all that you have in the time that you have in the place where you are.”  So, going backwards with that – in the place where you are tells me, which what our mantra for Fishing Without Bait is, where are you and what time is it?  You’re right here, and it is right now.  In the place where we are, doing all that we can, marshalling all our focus and our will, paying attention on purpose, doing one (1) thing mindfully at a time, dealing with what is right in front of us effectively.  So, Mike, the adult brain remains open to change throughout the adult lifespan.  It used to be in the past where you would hear someone say, “This is the way I was raised.”  “A tiger can’t change its stripes.”  “I’m stuck in a rut.”  “I’ll never change.”  I’m sure that you’ve heard that many, many, many times from people.  So, what’s been exciting, in the last twenty (20) years, the human race has learned more about the brain in the last twenty (20) years than in the history of mankind – since dust, since two (2) dust molecules collided with another.  And, that concept is called neuroplasticity, which basically means a flexible brain.  So, the plasticity part of it means it is interchangeable.  It can be massaged and moved, and change.  So, what I’m going to ask you to do, Mike, is I’m going to ask you to do an activity now, that perhaps you can describe to our listeners.  So, what I’m going to ask you to do is to pick a sentence out.

Mike:    Just any sentence?

Jim:    Pick a sentence.

Mike:    Alright.  I’m going to go elementary here.  I’m writing it down here, and I’ve got, “See Spot run.”  We’re going very elementary here.

Jim:    Well, we’re going to go a little bit further than that, okay?  Let’s use this sentence, “Jim is in love with the sound of his own voice.”

Mike:    Okay.  I’m familiar with that one.  

Jim:    Yes.  Jim is in love with the sound of his own voice.  So tell me, Mike, are you right-handed or left-handed?

Mike:    Right-handed.

Jim:    You’re right-handed.  So, what I’d like you to do is write that sentence in your non-dominant hand, which would be your left hand.  I’d like you to write it in cursive.

Mike:    Oh no.  Oh no.  That’s a long sentence.  

Jim:    Yes.  Jim is in love with the sound of his own voice.  

Mike:    It’s been so long.  

Jim:    So, tell me what’s going on.

Mike:    One, I’m thinking about it.  Because, I can’t remember the last time I’ve done cursive.  Okay, I remember how an “L” is made.  And, it’s just taking a lot of concentration.  And, it doesn’t look took pretty.

Jim:    Well, we’re not going to be grading penmanship.  

Mike:    Oh good.  Okay, I’m about halfway through the sentence.  But, no.  There’s a little level of frustration.  There’s a little bit of, you know, it’s taking a lot of brain power here to be able to do this.  I’m going to say, some of these letters are complete guesses.  I’m just going to go bank signature for the last couple of these.  

Jim:    So, the idea here, Mike, is, my hunch is that you even had to pick up on how to hold the pen in your left hand.

Mike:    Right.  Just kind of switching that up gets a little weird.  

Jim:    The idea is, it’s unnatural for you to hold a pen in your left hand.

Mike:    Right.  Because, when have I done that, right?  I wasn’t taught that.  I wasn’t grown up to learn it that way.

Jim:    It’s not a pattern of behavior.  So, my thought is that you had to concentrate and think on how to make a “j” in cursive with your left hand.  My hunch also is that you had to actually connect your eye to your hand, and the paper, focusing attention to make that work – to make your hand work.  You were trying to will your hand to make a “j.”  That’s the focus and concentration that it takes to create new neural pathways.  So, if you were writing that sentence with your right hand, Mike, how long would it have taken you to write it?

Mike:    Probably half the time, because I probably still would have had to make a connection.  Because, again, I can’t remember the last time I’ve written in cursive.  

Jim:    It would have taken you moments.  Would you even have had to really concentrate, or look at the sentence?

Mike:    Not a whole bit.  I mean, I had the thing halfway written in regular text before we got going in that spot.

Jim:    You could have talked to me and written that sentence at the same time.

Mike:    Exactly.  And, I was trying to narrate.  That’s the other thing.  I mean, when I’m podcasting, you know I’m doing a lot of things, turning a lot of buttons, especially when you do video versions of the shows down here – so I’m used to doing that kind of multitasking and trying to pay attention to a few things.  As we’ve discussed, always a bad idea, and I always miss stuff.  Obviously.  But then, I’m trying to do that, and talk about it, and illustrate it for our audio audience, and it just took me – obviously as you heard, forever.  

Jim:    Well sure.  And, again, the penmanship is not the issue.  The idea is the focus and concentration that it takes to create neural pathways.  So, let’s talk a little bit about basic brain facts, Mike.  Your brain is basically three (3) pounds in your body, containing approximately a trillion cells – including a hundred billion neurons.  A hundred billion, that’s a lot, isn’t it?  So, how do neurons talk to each other?  They do it by bursts of chemicals which are called neurotransmitters, from other neurons.  And, it’s kind of like a computer, Mike – a switch on, or switch off.

Mike:    So, that’s your “1s and 0s” basically?

Jim:    Yes.  What it tells you is whether it fires it or whether it doesn’t, okay – telling them to fire or not.  So a typical neuron fires five (5) to fifty (50) times a second.  And, keeping in mind how many neurons you have in your brain.  So, your brain is a powerhouse of activity.

Mike:    And, this is electricity that’s happening in your brain, in your head.  So, when you’re thinking you have a very rough day, and you just feel so tired because you’ve been using this a lot up here, that is physically exhausting because you are using more energy, right?

Jim:    Absolutely.  So, each neural signal is like a bit of information, like a computer.  It holds information.  And, all that information that’s floating around inside your head, we define that broadly as a “mide,” all this information.  So you have the hardware, and so what you have is the information, which is basically a mide.  

Mike:    There’s an operating system in there that translates all that from the software to the hardware, basically.

Jim:    Sure.  So, even though the brain is only approximately two (2%) percent of your body weight, it uses twenty (20%) to twenty-five (25%) of the oxygen and the glucose that you take into your body.  And, again, which is why the mind/body connection, food affects your mood – and it’s so important.  Just like, what does a computer say, “Garbage in.  Garbage out.”

Mike:    So everything that goes in here (I’m pointing to my mouth) ends up up here (pointing to my head) in some fashion.  

Jim:    Okay.  So, let’s do a little bit of imagining, some mathematics, here.  So, the number of possible combinations of a hundred billion neurons firing or not is approximately ten (10) to the millionth power.  That’s ten (10), followed by a million zeroes.  To put that into some type of perspective, the number of the atoms in the universe is estimated to be only ten (10) to the eightieth (80th) power.  So, imagine what’s going on inside your brain.  Imagine the activity that’s going on.  So, your brain works as a whole system.  So, these things take place almost instantaneously, which means that there has never been a computer that can even remotely function like the human brain.

Mike:    And, that’s why when we’re talking about artificial intelligence, we’re really grasping at straws when we’re trying to make that equivalency, right?

Jim:    Right.  So, with the activity we just did previously, the brain’s capacity to learn and change is called neuroplasticity.  So, mental activity, like you just did, Mike, helps to shape neural structure.  

Mike:    We often say, “I’ve learned something.  I got a new wrinkle in my brain.”  It’s that kind of concept, right?

Jim:    Well, actually, that’s where the plasticity comes from, because if you’ve actually seen the human brain, it’s full of folds, is it not?  So, the greater number of folds, the greater number of connectivity.

Mike:    Is that a medical fact?

Jim:    Yes.  Absolutely.  

Mike:    Oh, wow.  So, I thought it was just a funny thing we said.

Jim:    No.  Not at all.  So, when our neural networks are busy, by just what you did there.  When the neural networks are active, which means that they require more blood flow, which means that they require more glucose and oxygen.  So, what you’re doing, is you’re placing more of your body’s resources to creating those neural pathways.  So, when neural pathways fire, the more that they fire between gaps between those particular thoughts, you’re strengthening that synapse, which means that those synapses wire more together.  You’re wiring it together.  So, on the contrary, you’ve hears the term, “Use it or lose it.”  So, what happens is actually, when we don’t use those neural pathways, they wither.  

Mike:    So, that’s like, I learned how to play trombone in high school, and I really haven’t touched it for about fifteen (15) years, it’s probably not going to go too well if I pick that thing up.

Jim:    Not at all, because you’ve lost those neural connections – the hand/eye coordination on how to do that.

Mike:    And, this really kind of connects with – if I can make a slight tangent here.  I’ve spoken a lot on some of my other casts, and read a lot about, “Hey, you’re not good at painting just because you were born that way, you’re good at doing it.”  So, basically, when you become a good painter, or become a good graphic designer, or become a good musician, or a good whatever it is, they say it takes that time, it takes that thousand (1,000) hours to get good at it and get all the wrinkles in your brain and connect all those in that skill, I guess?

Jim:    Absolutely.  So, our brain is designed to learn through experience, Mike.  And, again, I’ll refer to the twelve (12) step world where it’s often suggested that it’s difficult to think your way into behavior change.  We have to act our way into thinking right.  We act our way into thinking that way.  So, actually, emotional arousal facilitates learning by increasing this neural firing.  So, imagine some of the most memorable experiences in your life.  Normally, they were surrounded by powerful emotional experiences – let’s say the birth of a child, a wedding.  So, normally, a birth of a child is accompanied by extreme joy, is it not?

Mike:    I hope so.

Jim:    So, the emotional arousal increases neural activity.

Mike:    And, that’s why you remember that so vividly?

Jim:    Absolutely.  So, by what we’re doing with this mindfulness adventure, and when we ask people to increase positive experiences.  When you ask individuals to be kind to themselves.  Those are positive emotions.  And, remember, emotional arousal is the best way to increase and maintain neural connectivity.

Mike:    So, what you’re saying – say you’re having your issues, and you keep thinking about the past.  So, there is something to getting yourself out there, making new experiences, making things happen.  We talked about a few casts ago, live out loud.  And, we’ve been putting that on the Facebook, too.  That becomes bigger in our brain, more vivid on our brain, and that overshadows all the bad stuff?

Jim:    Certainly.  So, let’s look at adolescents.  We’ve often talked about the beginner’s mind, and having the fascination of a three (3) and a four (4) year old.  So, actually, a youngster, Mike, has three (3) times the synapses that you and I have in our brains.  And, as we grow into adolescence we can lose up to ten thousand of those neural connections per second.  Remember, we have plenty of them.  However, we lose them, which is why – look at young children.  If you’ve been to the zoo.  If you’ve been to a place like the aviary.  A conservatory with lots of flowers.  People bring their children there, do they not?  In Kindergartens, children are constantly being stimulated, are they not?  Have you been in a lower grade classroom?  A Kindergarten classroom?  

Mike:    Not recently.

Jim:    Well, at times you have.

Mike:    There’s a lot of stuff.  There’s a lot of colors on the wall.  There are a lot of things.  I can vividly remember sitting in Kindergarten and not caring what was happening up there, and looking at this thing over here, and the color wheel, and this and that.  

Jim:    So they understand that you need stimulation.  See, we need to stimulate our brains.  So, the idea here today is, what we tried to present, is a few basic brain facts.  And, on our next podcast, we’ll be getting deeper and further into becoming the observer behind this thinker.  So, Mike, I’m so glad that you were able to participate in this activity.  For those of you out there, I would appreciate if some of you would try this, try writing a sentence in cursive with a non-dominant hand, perhaps do it with a friend.  And, we’d love to hear the results and hear some of your experiences with that.  And, as usual, any comments, any criticisms can be directed to us, and my friend, Mike, will let you know how.  

Please check out our website at FishingWithoutBait.com where you can listen to the show, comment on our discussions and find out where you can subscribe to our podcast.  Fishing Without Bait is a production of Namaste Holistic Counseling, P.C.