The miracle that is the mind
So, what’s going on inside your head? Pretty important stuff, actually, because that’s where all of us are happening.
The facts are almost unbelievable, 100 billion neurons, each connected to 10,000 other neurons, processing one trillion bits per second. There are 100 trillion synaptic connections. A synapse is just that, a connection. For comparative purposes, a home computer with a 4 GHz processor does only four billion clock cycles per second. Remember that a trillion is a million times a million.
We have almost unlimited storage space, but our short-term memory is much more limited, capable of holding only five to nine pieces of information at any one instant. We continue to learn, reshaping parts of our brains with new pathways, benefiting from the body’s redundancies. What we know is that practice does make (almost) perfect, and that our body parts can take on a life of their own. Those pathways fade if we don’t use them.
Fortunately for us, our brains have some ability to repair themselves, completely up to the age of 5 and, to a degree, during our lives, through the growth of new neurons that can take over some of the functions of damaged parts. As babies, we have the same number of neurons we do as adults, but the size of our brains triples in our first year. Brain development continues until about the age of 25.
Most of us don’t realize that our brains, making up about two percent of our weight, use 20% of our energy and are 73% water. Dehydration can affect function. Sweating for 60 minutes shrinks the brain as much as one year of aging, so be sure to drink up!
Our brains are where we find the human capacity for self-awareness (located in the prefrontal cortex), what it is that differentiates us from other animals. While chimps and dolphins also show signs of self-awareness, their brains are entirely different.
What about our feelings? There are all sorts of chemicals sloshing around inside our heads. From here on in, it gets incredibly complicated, and, so, this lecture is over. What’s really on my mind is what happens as a consequence: our exquisite sensitivity to colour, taste, smell, facial expression, emotion, music, beauty, and so much more. What is in our brains, what is on our minds, is the essence of being human.
For example, imagine what is going on in a composer’s head when writing a symphony, the harmonies to be worked out between 10, 12 or more different instruments. Can you imagine how the mind of a musician is working when their fingers are flying so fast you can hardly see them? How about the conductor, who has the whole score in their consciousness as the orchestra players are led through a piece?
Each of us has a brain box where incredible things are happening during the ordinary course of lives. Just running the machine we call our body is the product of eons of evolution and development. All of what we are is centred in our minds. We are only beginning to understand parts of it, but we have a long way to go. The explosive expansion of computing power we are witnessing is helping us roll back the mysteries behind our functioning. But the mind and its workings, repairing things when they go wrong, remain among our greatest challenges. What is marvelous is how many things go right most of the time.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.