Introduction to the Brain
Our brain is at the heart of all our being. Everything we perceive, think about and the way we act is controlled by the brain. As the Noble Prize-winning neuroscientist, Eric Kandel declared ‘if it’s not the brain then what is it’? It is through the brain we interpret the world and our self within that world.
Simplistically, we have a body that needs to survive in the environment in which it resides. Another way of understanding what the brain Is all about is articulated in Richard Dawkin’s thesis ‘The Selfish Gene’. That we exist to sustain a genetic code and our bodies only exist to support that gene. When our bodies cease to function, the genes have expected us to reproduce to provide another host. The conclusion is we exist to live and reproduce. During these Newsletters I will not place much emphasis on our need to reproduce but those who have dealt with adolescents understand this is a complex area for teens to navigate!
So, if the purpose of our existence is to survive and reproduce why is the understanding of behaviour so difficult? It is the complexity, both of the individual and their brain, the environment in which they developed and the conditions they face in their contemporary world which creates this complexity.
In our known universe, there is nothing more complicated than the brain. This small organ contains 86 billion neurons which have the potential to create 500 trillion connections which can process 70,000 thoughts each day. It weighs about 1,200 grams, about 2% of the body weight. It generates 23 watts of power, enough to power a light bulb and makes up a quarter of our total energy budget. I hope that when you think about why your students act the way they do you consider the complexity that drives their behaviour! However, much is known about how the brain operates and this will help you understand, in broad terms why kids choose to act the way they do.
Each brain evolves throughout the life of each individual. Human brains follow an inherited genetic scaffold for the first 38 weeks of gestation prior to birth. Although during this time the environment within the womb can effect the development of the brain the main focus of this period is on developing those reflexive behaviours that maintain our physical wellbeing. Things like breathing, heart-beat, blood clotting, all these physical adjustments we make every moment of every day. At the time of birth another process dominates the developmental journey. This is when we start to ‘learn’ how to behave to survive in an increasingly more complex manner.
Because the process of why we behave the way we do is circular, how to best describe it is awkward. I’ll start with the principle of homeostasis.
In all biology, being in homeostasis is being in a steady state of physical existence. For humans it is when our body is in its ideal condition. Things like blood pressure, oxygen supply, body temperature in fact every organ in out body is sustained in an optimal condition; it is in homeostatic equilibrium.
To maintain this ‘equilibrium’ requires us to interact with the external environment. For example, if we are exhausting our oxygen supply we fall into a state of homeostatic disequilibrium. This creates a drive to rectify this deficiency by accessing the supply of oxygen from the environment; we breathe and return to equilibrium. This drive is manifested as stress which will be a subject we will examine in detail at a later date it is important to understand that homeostasis in not limited to our physical world exclusively.
Our access to the external world to gain what we require very often requires we interact with others which generates a social equilibrium or we have to think about a solution which involves an intellectual search! These three parts of our existence, our body, the need to interact with others to get our needs met and the access to memories to either recall previously successful behaviours or to contemplate novel solutions to problems are catered for in the three levels of our brain!
Our brain, a cross section of which is shown below is often referred to as being tri-part or triune with the three levels being both evolutionary for our species and for each individual. As a species humans reached the top of the evolutionary tree by exploiting the benefits of living in social groups and using our cognitive ability to make tools to enhance our efficiency on meeting our needs.
The three areas are described below at a very simplistic level:
- The brain stem and mid brain which generally controls the behaviours that allow us to maintain of physical presence in the world. Things like breathing, blood flow, balance, motor skills are maintained in response to deficits or threats.
- Limbic System, this section of the brain which sits above the mid brain controls our social interactions. It facilitates memories of previous experiences which can be retrieved when needed as well as controls our emotional response to the situations in which we find ourselves. Two major components are the amygdala, which controls our responses particularly when under threat and the hippocampus which facilitates the storage of our memories.
- Cerebral Cortex, this is the last part of the brain to mature in our species and in each individual. The cerebral cortex resides above the brain and not only stores our memories it also facilitates our decision making. It consists of four lobes:
- Frontal which controls consciousness, communication, memory, attention and is referred to as the executive of the brain.
- Parietal which processes sensory information it receives for our receptors, things like touch, taste, and temperature.
- Temporal which is associated with processing our auditory information.
- Occipital which as the name suggests is involved in the visual processing of our world.
This essay may not be relative to improving our classroom management but understanding how the student’s behaviour is driven will help you understand why they act the way they do. In the next Newsletter we will discuss how the evolution of an individual’s brain is influenced by the environment in which it exists.