The Neuroscience of HappYness – Part 4
The Amazing Human Brain!
(Saturday, 4th May 2019)
Reading time: Approximately 5 minutes
HappYness is a slightly dicey subject - it means different things to people. HappYness is very personal. And most likely that the manner in which one perceives and experiences events in their lives might have a bearing on their level of HappYness.
We make sense of the world, through our experiences - within the brain. Our consciousness of ourselves is experienced in the brain. It might therefore make sense to understand the mechanics and the operating tenets of the brain a little more. Yes – the irony is not lost on me – that the subject matter of this article, the brain, is something that multiple books have been written on barely scratching the surface of understanding it.
The average human brain is only about 3 pounds or about 2 per cent of body weight. Yet, nearly 20% to 30% of sugar, 15-20% of the blood oxygen and almost 30% of the fat, that is used by the body is used by the brain; and 25% of the blood flow in the body is to the brain. The brain is between 65% and 85% water! It is estimated that the brain has 100 billion nerve cells and more connections in it than there are stars in the universe. There are also trillions of supportive cells in the brain called glia. Each neuron is connected to between 10,000 and 40,000 other neurons through individual connections (called synapses.) On average each neuron is connected to at least 20,000 others. A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses, all “talking” to one another. Information in your brain travels at about 268 miles per hour. The brain is never ever not working – it is working all the time, like other “vital” organs of the body. It also controls all that happens in the body, through the autonomous nervous system.
With all this activity the brain is extremely energy hungry - and hence energy efficient. It tries to reduce the extra work of thinking and is always focused on creating patterns and habits so that the brain does not have to use much energy thinking afresh. So, it works to make as much of the work that is needed to be least energy draining. So, the brain aims to reduce the process of thinking, and moving all processes as “unthinking and unconscious.”
Thinking simply is the activation of a certain sequence of neurons. The activation comprises a biochemical and electrical process. Whenever a thought occurs, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, building a bridge over which an electric signal crosses carrying along its charge the relevant information being thought about. Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. The brain is smart and rewires its own circuitry, physically changing itself, to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together – In essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger. And use up less energy in the process. And thus the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together!” And with all this activity in the brain, it is extremely energy hungry - and hence energy efficient. It tries to reduce the extra work of thinking and is always focused on creating patterns and habits so that the brain does not have to use much energy.
And yes, if you don’t take care of your brain, you lose on average 85,000 brain cells a day. And that is what causes ageing. Improper nutrition, abuse through drugs, alcohol and all that have a bearing on how much the brain is taxed and “damaged” regularly. The thoughts one thinks, and actively re-wiring the “plastic” brain to help you, is most beneficial. The more the brain is exercised properly, the stronger and healthier it is. And so, with appropriate forethought, you can reverse that trend and dramatically slow the ageing process and increase your mental agility. Yes, proper nutrition, hydration, exercise, rest, relaxation, meditation/mindfulness, and the like go a long way in keeping the brain healthy and making it possible to enhance the potential for happYness. If the brain is unhealthy, then chances are that the internalisation of experiences could go awry. And if that is not appropriate, chances are that perceptions could be further away from reality, leading to greater chances of unhappiness. So, the first step in being happy, is to take care of one's brain, and learn to manage and harness stress and other aspects appropriately.