brains for dummies

Did you know?

The human brain essentially functions by the transmission of electrical and chemical charges. Think of these chemical-electrical transmissions as a communication media (or "messaging") between parts of the brain. The basic, tiny components of the brain - the cells - are called "neurons". Now, there are dozens and dozens of electrical and chemical exchanges (or transfers) which take place between the billions of neurons. These chemicals are called "neurotransmitters"; they quite literally jump from neuron to neuron, activating each neuron it comes into contact with and spreading itself in relevant clusters. Click here for an article on how the brain works.

Under "normal" circumstances, the sending neuron ("pre-synaptic neuron") sends a neurotransmitter across the gap to the next neuron; the receiving neuron ("post-synaptic neuron") simply absorbs and re-transmits the message to the next. So long as the brain functions as it can, there is little else to say about this. But in certain instances, non-trauma damage of one kind or another prohibits "normal" functioning. A typical case gone awry occurs when the neurotransmitters do not cross the "synaptic gap" successfully. The upshot of this is that some neurons are inadequately charged and unable to communicate with other relevant clusters of neurons.

The result of such a non-transmission depends on the particular type of neurotransmitter that is deficient. Each of these neurotransmitters colours a variety of our behavioural and mental processes, either solely or in combination with others. Some of the well known transmitters are epinephrine and norepinephrine. A deficiency of dopamine, for example, is said to affect brain processes that control movement, emotional response and ability to experience pleasure and pain, the matrix of symptoms that culminates as Parkinson's disease. Another of the neurotransmitters is called serotonin; it acts as a "catalyst" for a number of functions: (1) "It is implicated in a variety of physiological tasks, including learning and memory in the central nervous system" (see here); (2) in addition, serotonin is also known to "modulate mood, emotion, sleep and appetite" (see here). Read more about serotonin in this excellent research paper.

One way to contextualize this is to visualise the following spectrum. On the left is pure normality; there is no such thing of course, but it helps for the present exposition. At the other extreme, there is serious mental illness (schizophrenia with psychotic tendencies, for example). Around the centre-left is Bipolar disorder (previously termed manic-depressive), of which a milder version is called "Cyclothymic Disorder", or simply Cyclothymia. It is a form of illness that affects about one percent of us. Here's the full ICD-10 Diagnostic Criteria for Cyclothymic Disorder:

"A persistent instability of mood, involving numerous periods of mild depression and mild elation. This instability usually develops early in adult life and pursues a chronic course, although at times the mood may be normal and stable for months at a time. The mood swings are usually perceived by the individual as being unrelated to life events. The diagnosis is difficult to establish without a prolonged period of observation or an unusually good account of the individual's past behaviour".

Read more about Cyclothymia according to DSM IV criteria.

Learning & writing

There is some truth in this: the relation between depression in general and the so-called Creative impulse. Low periods call forth a disposition which involves inter alia a questioning of the existant. Doubt over the veracity of the extant cannot be maintained indefinately. What we call the creative process is in one sense the joining of dots in a new way. The falling out from despair involves a concordant shift in the meaning constructing subject. This subject builds himself or herself anew as she re-builds the surrounding terrain. These are adventures in interior life. Funnily enough, this is the Hegelian concept of the concept. This is not to impute creativity to darkness, romance to the tears, merely that the primary reason why things are jotted down is for the sake of one's well-being and stability of self-perception, as well as the sanity of relations.

But beyond these subjective conditions, can one really function the same, as a person, as anything, without learning and writing? Writing forms thought, and vice versa. Is it diabolical to state that what cannot be articulated, is not thought? Or would we rather be thoughtless creatures, silent and unengaging?

He walks beside me, the only thing I know.