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YMIAFT Chapter 2 Part 7

Survival of the Connected

“Brain: An apparatus with which we think we think.”

~ Ambrose Bierce

Neurons have no idea in advance which other neurons they need to touch in order to complete networks that could be useful to you. Neurons have no thoughts of their own, and no concept of the overall mind that they facilitate. They're just blindly growing and moving, groping around in the dark, making connections as best they can, only because they like getting electrochemical hits from their friends. That your sense of self arises from all that activity is just a happy result for you, but nothing that your neurons are bothered about.

Current estimates are that within your brain, about a million new synaptic connections are made every second. Presumably, a similar number of synaptic connections are abandoned as well. Since a neuron doesn't know when it forms a new connection whether or not that connection will be a keeper, then to a certain degree, the process of finding new connections is random and arbitrary. The majority of attempted connections probably aren't very useful and get abandoned again pretty soon, but by testing out a million new connections every second, the chances of finding some good ones go up.

Some researchers even suspect this process of filtering the useful from the random is the foundation of even our basic sensory input. The theory is that when babies are born, they experience neonatal synethsesia, which is an inability to make even the simplest distinctions in perception, like the difference between sight and sound, or how to move one's limbs. As babies vocalize, feel around, and look at things, they start to sift through those connections and build more efficient pathways for the activity in their brain. When you think about how a baby's brain has no idea how to walk, and compare that to how an adult can run down stairs while talking on their phone and without spilling their coffee and not even consciously think about the motion of their feet, you can see how the selection of useful connections from random connections takes some time, but ultimately leads to some very sophisticated processing abilities.

When you conceptualize something in a way you haven't done before, somewhere in your brain are some synapses that were weakly connected and are now being lit up as part of a new pattern of activity. Note, though, that a new concept doesn't necessarily mean learning a whole new fact, it could just be a very subtle way of considering a known fact, or even just a new feeling about something well known. The process of developing neuronal networks drives all your ideas and feelings and perceptions, without regard for the kind of thought it is.

At any one time, you have countless synaptic connections on the edge of being either abandoned or strengthened, depending on whether a new pattern of thought comes along to make use of them. It's the availability of all the weak connections in your brain that's going to have an influence on how hard you laugh at something.

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