Finding simple ways to explain neural functioning is no easy task - especially because our understanding of how it works is always evolving.
Unfortunately, just about anything in a popular book on this topic is outdated or outright wrong. For example, the popular “triune” brain model (reptilian, old mammalian/limbic, new mammalian/neocortex) was pure hypothesis and never supported by research. The left/right brain was never a valid model.
The hindbrain/midbrain/forebrain model is more accurate and useful. But even those terms are receding behind the words neuroplasticity and interconnectivity.
Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that brain structure and function is in constant changing. Interconnectivity eliminates our propensity to divide the brain into separate areas. Almost every region sends connections to every other region. So the amygdala has connections as widespread as the thalamus, the visual cortex, and the frontal lobes. Some neurons are almost stagnant. Others connect and disconnect from other neurons in rapidity. Meanwhile 80 billion glial cells swim in your brain repairing neurons and recycling neurotransmitters.
So what else are we left with?
Here are 3 useful ways to think about this living mass of creatures in your head:
Principle 1: Your brain basically seeks pleasure and avoids pain.
Principle 2: It helps you achieve goals relying on three general processes: perceptual, emotional, and cognitive.
Principle 3: There are two general ways in which we (our brain) make decisions: Bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up (behavioral neuroscience) :
Information comes in through our senses (perceptual), we emotionally react, and then our cognitive processes (including our consciousness) helps us to best respond to the incoming information.
Top-down (cognitive neuroscience):
Our conscious and unconscious thoughts can influence the functioning of nearly every part of the brain. The brain responds to thoughts as if they were another perceptual sense coming in from the outside world. This top/bottom model solves the “hard” problem of consciousness: our brain creates the mind, but the mind then influences and even reshapes the brain.
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