Brian Sullivan


How does your brain work? How does learning change the brain? What about memory? How can you enhance your memory or improve your thinking, learning, and creativity? Explore this section to find the answer to these and other questions.

Your brain is made up of hundreds of billions of cells. You might think of each of these cells as a musician in an orchestra. Each person in the orchestra plays notes that—in harmony with all of the sections in the orchestra—results in elaborate music.

The complex concerto that the orchestra's musicians play is—in this case—your own behavior patterns.

Your thoughts, actions, and senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing) affect distinct sets of nerve cells and brain chemicals.

How It Works
Patterns of chemical and electrical signals travel between the nerve cells in your brain.

Nerve cells (neurons) are the workhorses of the brain. Their fibers (axons and dendrites) form connections (synapses) with other nerve cells.

When a nerve cell is activated, it sends a low-level electrical current down its axon. This releases brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that reach across the gaps between nerve cells and latch onto receptors.

Nerve cells that receive neurotransmitters then pass the signal along, like runners in a relay race. When we repeat experiences (for example, practicing a musical score), we reactivate the same nerve cell connections (synapses) over and over again.

After many repetitions, the synapse changes physically, making the connections more efficient and storing the experience or behavior in our long-term memory. Scientists believe that your long-term memories are actually stored—or "encoded"—in specific synapse patterns in your brain's folds and ridges.

How Parts of Our Brains Relate to Function
The part of our brains called the "frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex"—especially the so-called "prefrontal cortex"—is where important functions like reasoning and planning take place.

Other areas of our brains (the hippocampus, the amygdala, and neighboring structures in the temporal lobe) are connected to the cortex by complex nerve cell connections, which form the core of your brain's memory-processing system.

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