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YMIAFT Chapter 2 Part 5

Patterns of behaviour

“I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.”

~ Dr Seuss

Image: ymiaft_neuron

The humour network is made up of neurons, the cells that are most responsible for all the thinking that goes on in your mind. Different neurons have different dedicated tasks, and the neurons in your humour network are listening for a specific kind of activity that exists between other neurons. To understand what that activity is and why it is meaningful, we'll need to drill down just a little further and see how neurons work, and how they talk to each other.

The easiest way to envision a neuron is that it's shaped something like a tree. At the top are branches, called dendrites. The trunk of the tree is called the axon. Lower down, the axon splits and branches out into many roots. The tip of each root is called an axon terminal. Much like a tree, the dendrites and the branches of the axon divide and multiply so they can have thousands of tips. Unlike trees, though, neurons have all these branches and tips for the purpose of being in contact with each other, in order to communicate. Signals go one way with neurons, in through anywhere on the surface of the cell, and out through the axon terminals, which are touching other neurons. The point at which axon terminals touch other neurons and send signals to them is called a synapse, because scientists can't ever just let things have a regular name, like “connection”, which is all a synapse is.

Synapses can form anywhere on a neuron's surface, so your brain cells are all squished up together in a big wet and stringy tangled mess. A mess that is constantly tangling itself more and more, because, like all cells in your body, neurons are living entities in their own right, so they're constantly moving. They don't travel from place to place like blood cells do, but their roots and branches, the dendrites and axon terminals, are always groping around in the dark, sliding along the surfaces of nearby neurons looking to make new connections, and reaching beyond their current neighbours in an effort to find new neuron partners.

Neurons, like people, like having lots of friends, and are always looking for more. Also, like people, when neurons get gossip from one friend, they love to tell it to everyone they're in touch with. For neurons, gossip comes in the form of electrical and chemical signals transmitted at their synapses. When a neuron receives an electrochemical signal from any one source, it gets all excited, and it will respond by making its own signal to broadcast to all the other neurons immediately connected to it. In this way, signals flow through the brain, being passed from neuron to neuron, so that at any one time a certain number of cells will be “lit up” with activity. If you used a fancy brain scanner to take a picture, the different degrees to which different areas in your brain were lit up or not form an overall pattern representing your state of mind in that one moment. Just like one still image from a movie wouldn't be enough to know the story, though, it's how that pattern changes and moves over time that really matters. The flow of this pattern over time is the language of your thoughts.

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