The Brain Explained: 6 Scientific Terms Demystified

While “brain” is a term many are familiar with, the specific scientific ideas and Greek words associated with brain science can feel unnecessarily overwhelming. To clarify the common confusion and demystify the befuddling details, here are a half a dozen terms with explanations and descriptions that I hope will not only be educational, but also interesting and empowering.

 

Brain =

A collection of basic bodily cells, including neurons, which are interconnected via synaptic linkages in a spider-web-like fashion.

Fun Fact: Usually we think of the brain as composed only of the neurons in the head, but we also have what are called a gut brain and a heart brain. These are networks of information processing neurons in our internal organs that some feel are the source of “bodily wisdom.”

 

Neuron =

The basic cell of the nervous system that has a long sending axon that reaches out to other neurons at their receiving ends, called the dendrites and the cell body.

Fun Fact: There are about 100 billion neurons in the head’s brain.

 

Action Potential =

The flow of charged particles, or ions, in and out of the neurons’ membranes that is like a flow of electricity leading to the release of a chemical called a neurotransmitter at the far end. Activating neurotransmitters lead to neural firing which is the initiation of an action potential in the “post-synaptic” downstream neuron.

Fun Fact: When an insulating sheath of myelin is laid down, the action potential moves 100 times faster, and the resting period between neural firings is 30 times faster. That’s how we develop skills—we lay down myelin and have 100 X 30 = 3,000 times more coordination and speed of our action potential firings!

 

Synapse =

The linkage between one neuron and another, a gap that allows neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine to be released and picked up by the receptors on the downstream post-synaptic neuron’s membrane.

Fun Fact: The average neuron in the head has 10,000 synaptic connections to other neurons.

 

Neuroplasticity =

This is how the brain’s connections change in response to experience. We have neuroplastic changes before we are born, and they continue to shape the structural connections of the brain throughout the lifespan. There are four basic ways to change a brain with experience:

  1. Make new neurons
  2. Modify or create new synapses
  3. Lay down myelin
  4. Alter the “epigenetic” control of gene expression, or the non-DNA molecules that regulate how the DNA will be turned into proteins and shape brain growth

Fun Fact: We can intentionally use our minds with the focus of attention within awareness to strengthen our brain’s connections—that’s what meditation in its many forms basically is, strengthening the brain in specific ways that are unique to a particular form of training the mind.  With repeated states created with meditation, we develop specific traits through changes in the brain’s architecture.

 

Integration =

The linkage of differentiated parts of a system, like the left and right sides or upper and lower regions of the brain for neural integration, or between two people, among several people in groups, or in our relationships with one another. When integrated, we are coordinated and balanced. When we are not in integration, we move toward chaos or rigidity. Neural integration can be viewed as the basis of health as it permits harmony to develop, enabling the coordination and balance of the nervous system as a whole.

Fun Fact: As integration creates harmony—and impaired integration leads to chaos and rigidity—it’s not surprising that healthy relationships in which we honor differences and promote compassionate communication promote the growth of integrative fibers of the brain. And integration in the brain—the linkage of differentiated regions to each other—leads to the wide array of aspects of self-regulation, including the positive regulation of attention, emotion, thought, behavior, and relatedness. Integration in our relationships stimulates the growth of integration in our nervous system.

With all of these brain basics in mind, we can simply say that mindfulness meditation promotes internal and interpersonal integration. Amazingly, the research findings for mindfulness meditation and secure attachment both reveal the same set of positive findings about our capacity for attunement, flexibility, soothing fear, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition. That’s the power of integration—internal or interpersonal—to promote wellbeing in our lives.

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About the Author
Daniel Siegel, M.D.
Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is currently clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and the founding co-director of the...Read more