Our brain is a fascinating and complex living machine. Understanding how it works and how it can change can offer insight into who we are and how we can live with vibrancy and health.
Even after years of research, we’re still discovering new characteristics and functions of the brain every day. Some of these discoveries have drastically rewritten what we believed was possible for ourselves and our communities.
We can empower ourselves to utilize the information that’s available now, while remaining open to what new discoveries may come — to help us along our shared journey toward deeper self-understanding and wellness.
Our brain and how it functions
To help breakdown the different parts of the brain and their unique functions, think about the brain as a three-story house:
The top floor or “The Projector”
The top floor, which is represented by the cerebral cortex, is split into two structurally identical halves, and is represented by the left and right sides.
This floor is focused on regulation of voluntary actions (like deciding to click on this article), sensory processing, learning, and memory.
This floor is also responsible for constructing our perception of sensory reality. The brain regions represented here accept information directly from real time sensory inputs — the eyes, nose, skin, mouth, ears, muscles, organs — but they can also be modulated by the memory and emotional centers of the brain.
Therefore our perception of “reality” is significantly influenced by what we’ve experienced in the past and this allows us each to experience our own versions of reality all the time.
This phenomenon can help explain why eye-witness accounts can vary so much from person to person and why your friends are so much better at helping you find your keys when they’re right in front of your face.
The cerebral cortex is split into four different sections:
- Frontal lobe or “The Decision Maker.” Think of this as the front room of the top floor. The frontal lobe has a role in planning, decision making, and movement, including speech.
- Parietal lobe or “The Feels.” This is one of two side rooms, and is responsible for somatic sensory processing.
- Temporal lobe or “The Microphone.” This is the second of the two side rooms, and is responsible for auditory sensory processing (feeling and hearing).
- Occipital lobe or “The Scopes.” Finally there’s the back room, or the occipital lobe. This is responsible for the processing of visual information (seeing).
The middle floor or “The First Responder”
The middle floor helps us to utilize memory and emotions in our experience of reality and how we choose to respond to our reality.
Storing memories, as well as forming habits and patterns, helps us to complete repeated tasks without expending significant mental energy.
Consider how much more tired you are after learning something for the first time versus doing something that you’re incredibly familiar with. We’d be exhausted constantly if we weren’t able to learn and store memories.
Similarly, memories and emotions help us to make choices based on the outcome of previous experiences. Research has shown that the more negative the experience, the more stable the memory becomes, and the more influence it can have on decision-making.
These circuits play a role in enjoyable experiences, reward, and addiction.
The “middle floor” is split into the following sections:
- Basal ganglia or “The Habit Former.” This group of structures are known to play a role in the control of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotion.
- Amygdala or “The Processor.” This is involved in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional responses, including fear, anxiety, and aggression.
- Hippocampus or “The Navigator.” This part of the middle floor is known for its role in consolidation of information, from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory, which enables navigation.
The bottom floor or “The Survivor”
This section of your brain will affect your overall feelings of physical wellness and balance and is split into two “main rooms.”
The back of the house: Cerebellum or “The Athlete”
This is involved in the coordination of motor and some mental processes.
Some have described the cerebellum as the source of body- or motion-based intelligence. For example, some studies suggest that people skilled in dance or athletics would have larger cerebellar regions.
Moreover, a recent study utilized a brain-training software program called Interactive Metronome to improve subjects’ overall rhythm and timing. Use of this software improved user’s golf performance and increased connectivity to the cerebellum.
The front of the house: Brain stem or “The Survivor”
Think of the brain stem like the front door. It connects the brain to the outside world and all the sensory inputs coming in and motor commands going out.
Moreover, the brain stem contains many distinct structures and is essential to our basic survival.
Regions here control such functions as breathing, eating, heart rate, and sleeping. As a result, brain injuries to this area are usually fatal.
Within the brain stem, there are two further areas:
- The hypothalamus or “The Fundamental.” This is involved in regulating hormones and controls experiences like hunger and thirst, body temperature, bonding, and sleep.
- The pineal gland or “The Third Eye.” This is involved in hormone regulation. It produces melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in sleep, and modulating our daily and seasonal rhythms. The pineal gland receives information about the amount of light in the environment from the eye, as the production of melatonin is light-sensitive. This may explain why some have considered it to be the “third eye.” There have been a number of stories about possible roles the pineal gland plays in mystical experiences. Modern science, however, has yet to validate such claims.
How can I use what’s known about the brain to improve my well-being?
As we continue to learn more about the brain, new products and services are being developed as potential ways to enhance brain performance.
Humans have a long history and fascination with psychoactive inputs. These range from natural psychoactives, like the betel nut, nicotine-containing plants, and coca, to psychoactive processes like rhythmic drumming and meditation.
Recent advances offer new products and services that claim to help modulate consciousness, perception, mood, and cognition.
A nootropic is a substance that’s thought to improve cognitive functioning. The most commonly used nootropics are caffeine and nicotine, though recently developed pharmaceuticals are being used to treat ADHD.
These developments have spurred an interest in natural nootropics, known as adaptogens. Some people report these to be helpful in improving focus, reducing stress, and improving mood.
Some of the most popular adaptogens being used today are:
There are a number of new electronic devices on the market that tout the use of the electrical and magnetic aspects of brain signaling to either read the brain’s functioning or to apply external signals to modify the brain.
Although further research will be needed to validate their claims, electronic devices include:
This device by Fisher Wallace applies patterns of electrical pulses to the brain using electrodes placed on the temples.
The patterns applied have been shown to assist with generating a relaxed state of mind, and have been linked to treating anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Apps and videos
Some of these include:
- Headspace. This CBT app offers an array of guided meditations, which many people find easier to follow than meditating without a guide.
- Insight Timer. For those that prefer silent meditation, Insight Timer offers a timer that plays the sound of a meditation bowl at the beginning, end, and at chosen intervals during meditation. The interval bells assist with bringing focus back to the present moment throughout the meditation.
- Heartfulness Meditation. Use this short video if you want to learn to how to relax anytime, anywhere.
A number of courses exist that claim to help enhance memory and skill.
- Interactive Metronome. Mentioned above, the Interactive Metronome is a learning-based therapy that claims to improve cognitive and motor skills.
- MindValley Superbrain course. This is also a learning-based platform that claims to improve memory, focus, and productivity.
Though there’s little to no definitive research showing that supplements can directly affect brain health, some people still swear by them.
There are a number of supplements to choose from. These include:
- Banyan Botanicals: Focus. This herbal blend of Brahmi leaf, bacopa herb, and gingko claims to help promote calmness and concentration.
- Qualia Mind. This product claims to help you focus, increase creativity, and give you more energy and mental clarity.
- Bulletproof: NeuroMaster Brain & Memory. This supplement claims to support memory and contains extracts from Arabica coffee fruit.
Resources and organizations
There are a number of online resources and organizations that promote brain research. These include:
- Brain Research Foundation. This is a nonprofit private organization that promotes and supports scientific research concerning the brain.
- International Brain Research Organization. The IBRO is a learned society that improves communication and collaboration among brain researchers across the world.
- American Brain Foundation. This is an organization that focuses on curing brain disease through linking researchers, donors, patients, and caregivers.
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Sarah Wilson has her doctorate in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work there focused on touch, itch, and pain. She’s also authored several primary research publications in this field. Her interest is now focused on healing modalities for trauma and self-hatred, ranging from body/somatic work to intuitive readings to group retreats. In her private practice she works with individuals and groups to design healing plans for these widespread human experiences.