The brain is fiendishly complex with billions of neurons and many trillions of connections. Trying to find out what’s going on in there is the goal of the entire field of neuroscience. Let’s simplify it a little bit.
What is a Brain?
A brain is an important organ in animals that, along with the spinal column, makes up the bulk of the ‘Central Nervous System’, or CNS. This is the part of the nervous system that takes a load of inputs from sensory neurones, makes some decisions based on how it is wired up, and sends out loads of outputs to move muscles, release hormones or do nothing at all. In this sense, it works much like a ‘natural computer’; man-made computers do something very similar, although their parts are obviously different and they cannot change themselves to the same extent as our brains can. Almost all animals have a brain of some kind and, at its most basic level, it is just a handful of nerve cells that carry out a few basic processes to make an animal’s chance of staying alive just a bit higher.
Can the Brain Change?
The brain can most definitely change, and obviously it needs to do so in order for learning and development to take place. The brain is very ‘plastic’ which means it can be changed by outside events and stay that way (at least for a while).
The changes that occur in the brain can profoundly affect how it works in future. As far as we can tell, these changes involve the building, strengthening, weakening or destroying the connections between nerve cells.
What is in the Brain?
The brain is so complex and almost everything is named in Latin. This probably doesn’t help, so the description offered below is a major simplification of three of the main systems working in the brain.
The brain has a very basic core which carries out the most primitive physiological processes that all animals need to survive. This is the part that, amongst other things, looks after heart rate, breathing, digestion and emotions (which we are actually conscious of). This can been termed the ‘Chimp Brain’. Other terms include ‘brain stem’, ‘monkey/ ape brain’ or ‘lizard brain’ and although these terms don’t all precisely overlap, it’s close enough for our purposes.
Other parts of the brain seem exceptionally well developed and mostly for conscious thought, voluntary action and logical reasoning. We can call this the ‘Owl Brain’. If you have ever heard of the ‘forebrain’ or ‘neocortex’ or ‘human brain’, then that is what we are talking about here. Most animals don’t have anywhere near as much development in these regions as humans do, with a few notable exceptions (such as dolphins and some other primates).
Lastly, there are parts of our brain that store processes we have learned – these processes could be good or bad and we know them as habits. Let’s call these parts of the brain the ‘Computer’ because they can be programmed and can work very quickly. In actual fact, this system overlaps a great deal with the other two, but we will treat it as separate to demonstrate a point. If you have a masters degree in neuroscience then you’ll be quick to point out that this is not its own distinct part of the brain but we can imagine habits as being separate because they are very different from the ‘Chimp’ and ‘Owl’.
Next week we’ll be delving deeper into what the ‘Chimp Brain’ is and how it affects us. See you then!
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