“People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life. And each time one of us is constructed, a different result occurs.”
I would like to start a series of posts on how brain and mind develop from one another. We begin with a description of the basic physiological underpinnings of our mental lives – our neurons – and then proceed to examine how our brain activities, in conjunction with the external environment, contribute to create our mind. In the process, we will better understand what feelings are; why we feel the way we do, and what we can do to live full emotional lives.
Let’s talk about the brain, that 3 lb organ – roughly the size of a very wrinkled cantaloupe – that resides inside our heads. Even though the brain is the place where all our thoughts, emotions, conflicts, impulses and motivations begin, it is also the part of the human body about which we know the least, due to its complexity and difficulty in studying its functions.
Our brain is the physiological site of our mental and emotional life and is like a self-programming computer, whose hardware — the neurons — allows us to feel emotions, our software. Our emotions, in turn, affect our neurons, facilitating the development of new synapses in an endless cycle of interplay between genetics and experience. All the knowledge we possess, both intellectual and emotional, is created by our neurons communicating information to one another. They organize information in ways that allow us to create mental constructs and categories that stand for and reflect everything we experience inside and around us.
When neurons communicate with one another, all kinds of information are being transmitted. New information is then compared to the previous one in order to be evaluated. It is then recorded, catalogued and stored in our memory bank for future reference and use. Each new piece of knowledge is not simply added to what was already there, like a stack of boxes neatly piled on top of each other, but if affects and changes the knowledge that was previously there, providing each of us with the opportunity to modify, revise and solidify our knowledge, by integrating the new with the old.
Our brain processes an average of 70,000 thoughts a day, a huge task that requires organization. At times these thoughts reinforce each other; at times they create conflicts. We have all experienced times when a part of our brain is telling us to do something, like, “You should buy those shoes you like so much” while another is telling us the opposite, “You cannot afford those shoes. You already have too many in your closet. Think about it.”
What we decide to do in the end depends on multiple factors: time and place, circumstances, whether we tend to go with our feelings or with our logic, and whether we are impulsive or we think things through. This determines which part of our brain has a stronger pull and influences our decision the most.