The Neural Highway
The human brain may be the most complex and sophisticated object in the universe. Shrouded in mystery for thousands of years the inner workings of the brain are slowly, but steadily being revealed. Think of it as the exploration of ‘inner space’.
Today, advanced imaging technology such as CatScans, MRIs, PetScans and others have allowed scientists to “see” deep into the brain and better understand just how it works.
Here’s are some things we now know: There are 100 billion neurons in the brain. Each one connected to thousand of other neurons This vast network of neurons (nerves) carry chemical and electrical impulses back and forth across all the areas the brain travelling at speeds up to 300 miles per
Information from the world around us is sent through our sensory organs, the skin, eyes, ears, nose and tongue, to an area of the brain known as the limbic system, specifically to the Amygdala.
The amygdala reacts to events outside our body that generate an emotion, such as fear in the face of imminent danger, aggression or any other threat to our safety and wellbeing. That information is then passed along to another part of the brain…
The Cerebral Cortex
This area, specifically the frontal lobe, is where the emotional responses coming in from the amygdala are processed and evaluated. Responses arethen transmitted to other areas of the brain for enactment.
For example, an impulse to fight someone is weighed by the consequences, advantages, and likelihood of solving the issue that initiated the original impulse. The cortex essentially puts the brakes on the raw emotion originally generated by the amygdala.
The hippocampus, located near the amygdala is where long term memories and emotional responses reside/are stored. This is an important link in the neural feedback loop the includes the amygdala and cerebral cortex. Think of this loop as a large emotional processing plant.
Imagine you had previously felt the urge to attack someone for some reason. That sense of anger gets sent to the cortex which assesses that your opponent is younger, stronger and more athletic than you and that assessment is sent back through the hippocampus where there is a memory stored that the last time you were in a similar situation you were soundly thrashed. These assessments, happening in a blink of an eye, make you think it would be better for you to walk away.
But that doesn’t happen quite that neatly. When impulses move along the network of neurons from one area in the to another they encounter what neuroscientists call ‘gateways’, places where many pathways travel through towards their destination. Think of a switch along the rails of a train track that directs trains to different destinations.
In the high speed highway of the brain, this happens with much greater frequency (millions of impulses) moving at extremely fast speeds (300 miles per hour) all at the same time.
Think about a person who is functionally more ‘sensitive’. Their messages from the amygdala to the cortex may be greater in size and move much faster along the neural pathways. That can be more than the cortex can handle efficiently and the return responses to the hippocampus are delayed blurring the memory of past encounters. Ultimately all the various parts of the brain that control the hands mistakenly launch a fist.
When the emotional messages and neuron gateways are out of sync people can become highly reactive, more impulsive, make bad decisions, are disorganized, more inattentive, forgetful and less social. At the extreme these traits and behaviors may meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.
This has been a very simplistic explanation of a very complex process. But you can learn in more detail about emotion management and the limbic/cortex loop in this article.
And for an even deeper and more technical description check out this research paper
The good news is that ongoing advances in neuroscience are bringing about deeper awareness and understanding of how our brains work, what can impact our mental well being and, hopefully, influence the development of new therapies that might improve the lives of millions of people.