A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It

By on July 9, 2014

When reading about diet, nootropics, supplements, self improvement and memory techniques we will often hear words like ‘dopamine receptor’, ‘plasticity’ and ‘neurons’ come up. But how many of us really know what those things are, or can visualise them working in the brain? I’m guessing not many, and that makes explanations of how things like sleep or supplements work… well really rather useless. You can’t be expected to start getting the most from your brain if you don’t know anything about it, so it pays to do some research.

Looking online there’s a lot of information all over the place, but it’s a bit tricky knowing where to start or putting it altogether. Here then I’ve spent a great deal of time going through the information I could find/remember from my psychology degree in order to create a good ‘jumping on point’ or ‘overview’ of the various bits and pieces of the brain. Below you’ll find a quick description of:

  • Neurons
  • Action potentials
  • Neurotransmitters (and nootropics/medications)
  • The structures of the brain
  • Brain plasticity

I’m not exactly a super expert bear in mind – I’m learning just like you. I think though that this puts me in a good place to explains as we go as I know what it’s like trying to get your head around all this stuff. Over time I’ll be adding to this resource and expanding it, so check back!

Then, in future, every time I discuss a technique to increase noradrenaline in the brain (like cold showers) or talk about how a nootropic works, you can refer back here to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. This will provide you with the initial information you need to know what people are talking about on nootropic and transhumanism forums and to begin your own research.

Yes, it would indeed appear that I have far too much free time…

Neurons and Neurotransmitters Explained

Our brains are comprised of neurons – probably over one hundred billion of them to be precise. These are the ‘spider-web’ like structures we see in drawings of the brain that interconnect to form a network throughout our brain. Remembering drawings is a good way of picturing this, but do bear in mind that illustrations tend to oversimplify the matter rather: in reality a single neuron can be connected to as many as a thousand of its neighbours! Like a computer circuit, each of these neurons can be ‘on’ or ‘off’, depending on the charge going through it (useful for brain imaging). Despite this the brain is not ‘binary’ like a circuit as much more information is passed between the neurons than that (as we’ll see when we get to the neurotransmitters).

It’s the pattern of communication between these neurons that is thought to make up all of our experiences: from our memories, to our thoughts to our ideas. That said, the specifics of how all this information gets coded is not fully understood. While scientists have been partially successful in recreating images by looking at firings in the visual cortex, we have no idea what patterns to look out for across the brain in order to identify a memory, a thought or an emotion.

Anatomy of a Neuron

The neurons of the brain are made up of three parts. The axon, the cell body (or soma) and the dendrites. The cell body is the part that handles the processing and the nucleus of the cell. The dendrites are the ‘tentacles’ that come off from the cell body and allow it to receive transmissions from the surrounding cells. The more it has, the more information the dendrite will be capable of receiving.

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Finally the axons are the ‘tails’ that come off of the neurons and which carry the messages along to the other neurons (or muscles or glands). Think of dendrites as input ports, and axons as output. Sometimes the neuron sending the signal is known as the ‘presynaptic cell’ whereas the one receiving the signal is known as the ‘postsynaptic cell’.

Anatomy of an Action Potential

Neurons begin getting to work when they receive communication from the dendrites. From there the information is processed and then an ‘action potential‘ is fired. This is a brief electrical charge that travels downwards through the axon to the synaptic terminal at the end where it will pass information on to the dendrites of other neurons.

Once the electrical impulse reaches the end of the axon it then has to make the jump from there across a microscopically small space to reach the dendrites of other neurons awaiting input. This gap is known as the synaptic gap. Neurotransmitters (chemicals) are then fired across this gap in order to complete the transfer of information. Neurotransmitters are essentially held in ‘holding tanks’ (neurovesicles) located at the ‘synaptic knobs‘ (at the ends of the axons) until an electrical signal reaches them and frees them allowing them to cross the gap.

At the other end of the synaptic gap are the dendrites of other neurons. Each of these is lined with ‘receptors‘ which are able to receive neurotransmitters from other axons. For instance, dopamine will only be effective if it reaches specific dopamine receptors. Many drugs work by mimicking the roles of these neurotransmitters, or by blocking receptors resulting in a wide range of effects.

Glial Cells

While neurons get all the attention, it’s actually ‘glial’ cells that are the most abundant in our brains. Glial cells make up about 85% of the brain and are useful for supplying the neurons with nutrients and cleaning by-products of action potentials. Recently there is more and more evidence to suggest that glial cells actually have a slightly more active role in enabling action potentials however and in determining which cells fire and when. There are various kinds of glial cells (including oligodendrocytes, astrocytes and microglia) and even some transmitters specific to glial cells called ‘gliotransmitters’ suggesting they do play a role in ‘thinking’. For a starting point though, it’s best to just concentrate on the neurons.

A List of Important Neurotransmitters and Their Roles

There are a large number of different neurotransmitters each with different important roles. No one knows precisely how many of these neurotransmitters exist, but we’re generally pretty much in agreement that there are probably many yet to be discovered. These neurotransmitters can normally be classified as either amino acids (yup, that’s right – the stuff found in protein that bodybuilders love), peptides or monoamines. Neurotransmitters can also be classified as ‘excitatory‘ or ‘inhibitory‘. In other words, some will excite the neurons they come into contact with thus ‘lighting up’ the brain, while others will inhibit neurons thus leading to a more calming effect. GABA and serotonin for instance are inhibitory, while epinephrine and norephineprhine are excitatory. Others such as dopamine can be excitatory or inhibitory and this will depend on the type of receptors they come into contact with.

Here we will look at some examples of the most important neurotransmitters and what they each do.

Gamma-Aminobutryic Acid (GABA): GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter which slows down the neurons to prevent them becoming over excited (leading to anxiety). Thus GABA in including in many anti-anxiety medications. It is a non-essential amino acid meaning it is created in the body from glutamate.

Serotonin: Serotonin is sometimes referred to as a ‘work horse’ neurotransmitter due to its large number of different roles throughout the brain. Its roles include regulating appetite, sleep, memory, leaning, mood, muscle contraction, temperature and more. Serotonin is also often described as a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter and can be increased through exercise.

Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is created from a substance called choline which we get in our diets from eggs among other sources. It plays an important role in learning which is why many people will supplement with it, as well as having an important role in motor control.

Glutamate: Glutamate is the most abundant of the excitatory neurotransmitters throughout the CNS and brain. It regulates many functions including cognition, memory and learning. In particularly, glutamate is used at the majority of ‘fast excitatory synapses’ throughout the brain and spinal cord and particularly at ‘modifiable synapses’ which can increase and decrease in strength. This is thought to be one of the main mechanisms for learning in the brain.

Dopamine: Dopamine is another ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter and is associated with ‘reward’ – it gets released when we do things like eat or have sex and is implicated in impulse control issues. Dopamine is also responsible for voluntary movements of the body. Many drugs such as nicotine, opium and alcohol increase levels of dopamine in the brain, while very low levels are associated with Parkinson’s disease. Excess dopamine levels in the frontal lobes of the brain meanwhile can lead to schizophrenia.

Endorphins: Endorphins are again ‘feel good hormones’ produced in the pituitary gland during exercise, excitement and orgasm. They are largely responsible for what we call the ‘runners’ high’.

Norepinephrine and Epinephrine: Epinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter which is used to control attention, arousal, energy and cognition. It is important for mental focus. On the other hand, norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that regulates mood and physical/mental arousal. Norepinephrine can increase heart rate and blood pressure.

Substance P: Substance P is involved in our perception of pain as well as having a role in regulating our moods.

Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland and also works as a neurotransmitter. As you probably know, this one is responsible for controlling the sleep-wake cycle. What you may not have known is that it also plays a role in sexual behaviour and mood. Its production is dependent on light – light received by the retina will inhibit the production of melatonin, while darkness has the opposite effect.

Nitric Oxide: Nitric Oxide is a gas that is at once a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Among its roles it can cause blood vessels (veins and arteries) to dilate (getting wider) to increase circulation. This in turn helps oxygen to get around the body to where it is needed, which improves learning, alertness and concentration.

Controlling the Brain Through Neurotransmitters

As mentioned a number of different drugs, supplements and medications work by increasing or decreasing the amounts of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. An example is SSRIs. These are ‘Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors’ which work by blocking the serotonin receptors on the pre-synaptic neurons. In turn this means there is more free serotonin for the neurons receiving the messages. Because serotonin is a ‘happiness hormone’ this then results in an increase in general feelings of well-being.

But we must be careful when manipulating levels of neurotransmitters in this way. This is because we really don’t know enough about the brain in order to manipulate it precisely. For starters there are likely hundreds of neurotransmitters that we don’t currently know about (at the moment we know about 50 different ones). Secondly, the brain has built-in mechanisms to try and maintain its levels of certain chemicals. When you increase the amount of melatonin in your brain through sleeping tablets for instance, the brain can respond by assuming it doesn’t need to make as much meaning you become dependent on the tablets in order to sleep.

In other cases, it’s possible to ‘wear out’ certain receptors in the brain. This is why it can be so dangerous to use opioids and other drugs that increase dopamine in the brain: because over time the dopamine receptors won’t be as effective meaning you require more dopamine in order to trigger the same effects.

Even if these effects weren’t an issue, the fact remains that we don’t know all of the impacts that something like modafinil has on our neurotransmitters. You could be permanently altering the balance of your brain chemistry with no idea what you’ve even done. For those with serious mental disorders drugs can provide immediate relief and may be necessary. But for everyone else… it’s probably not worth it.

For those interested in using nootropics (smart drugs) in order to enhance brain performance, it’s very important to take into account the possible repercussions. You may be striking a Faustian bargain.

Safer Ways to Hack Neurotransmitters

There are better and safer ways to control the neurotransmitters in our brains. For instance exercise can increase the amount of endorphins (and leads to neurogenesis – see below). Likewise we can use cognitive behavioural therapy and other techniques to change our thinking and thus create new patterns of neurons through the brain resulting in the release of different neurotransmitters and hormones. Taking a cold shower can increase noradrenaline, while sitting in a dark room can increase melatonin (as can eating cherries which are one of the few natural sources). As a general rule (magic mushrooms not included) our body has evolved to cope with the more subtle influence of chemicals in our diet and those controlled by our routines.

Here’s a trick next time you want to get to sleep. Instead of taking sleeping tablets or wearing an eye mask, instead just cover your eyes with your own hand (with eyes open) for five minutes in bed. Your brain won’t know the difference and you’ll produce more melatonin, leading to sounder sleep. Meanwhile you can hack your brain in a number of other safer ways through diet and exercise: bananas contains dopamine for example (though that dopamine is incapable of reaching the brain), milk contains l-tryptophan (which is metabolised into melatonin and serotonin – though milk only contains small quantities) and a cold shower will increase noradrenaline.

Structures Within The Brain

Now we have a basic idea of how the neurons within the brain work, let’s take a look at how they are organised into structures dealing with specific tasks. Different parts of the brain appear to have different particular roles according to brain imagine studies, and this allows us to get a rough idea of where different ‘experiences’ are located within the brain. Don’t be misled though, it’s not really that simple: as usually there is cross talk among different parts of the brain whenever we have any experience. ‘White fibre’ is what connects the different brain regions like motorways.

Some theories for instance believe that consciousness is a result of a ‘pattern’ of information across the brain rather than being located in any particular area. Then again, brain damage studies show us that precise damage can sometimes lead to very precise problems – one condition causes you to forget the names of vegetables for instance!

The brain can be split essentially into three main parts: the forebrain, the midbrain and the hindbrain.

The Forebrain: Areas of the forebrain include the cerebrum, the thalamus and the hypothalamus (which is part of the limbic system). This is where our ‘higher order’ thoughts and processes take place – especially in the cerebrum which is comprised of the frontal (higher order thinking), parietal (movement, perception), temporal (perception, speech and memory) and occipital (visual processing) lobes. Each of these lobes can also be broken down into more areas, such as the motor cortex (movement)and the occipital lobe (vision). The neocortex is believed to be one of the most recently evolved structures in the brain and exists only in the cerebrum of mammals like humans, dolphins and primates.

The Midbrain:The midbrain is the smallest part of the brain and works as a relay area for auditory and visual information. Some areas are also involved in movement (the red nucleus and substantia nigra).  The tectum and tegmentum are also notable structures in this region. The tectum controls eye movement and auditory processing.

The Hindbrain: The majority of the hindbrain (not the cerebellum) is often considered together with the midbrain to make up the ‘brain stem’. This is the oldest part of our brain and looks similar to the brains of lizards. As such it’s sometimes known as the ‘lizard brain’. The hindbrain contains the cerebellum, pons and medulla. Together the brain stem is responsible for our basic functions necessary for survival – the regulation of our breathing and heartbeat for instance.

Other Notable Features of the Brain

The Limbic System

The limbic system meanwhile is comprised of a number of different structures within the brain – the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala (responsible for our primal emotions) and hippocampus. These areas control the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that control our emotions. The amygdala is often called the ‘primal brain’ as it is responsible for emotional outbursts.

The Hemispheres

Another interesting feature is the two hemispheres separating the cerebrum and cerebellum by a groove. These appear symmetrical but do in fact control slightly different functions. These two halves of the brain are connected by a bundle of axons called the ‘corpus callosum‘. Famously Einstein had a particularly ‘thick’ corpus callosum which may have resulted in improved communication between the two hemispheres and perhaps increased creativity and abstract reasoning. Some people have managed to exist with only half a brain following what’s called a ‘hemispherectomy’ – which is thanks to the process called ‘brain plasticity’ (see below).

Sulci and Gyri

Something else you may have noticed about the brain is the large number of wrinkles across the surface. This is called cortical folding, or ‘gyrencephalization‘ (the grooves are called ‘sulci‘ while the bulges between them are called ‘gyri‘), and is how our brain manages to be so smart while being packed into such a small space. For starters, these folds allow our brain to fit in our skull (which mothers have difficulty birthing as it is) but at the same time, this also provides a number of ‘short cuts’ in the higher order areas of our brain. White matter contains the various areas of our brain, and electrical impulses take a while to travel across these open plains. Thus the folds enable distant regions of our brains to ‘touch’ thereby enabling quicker travel from one part to the other. This allows our brain to be highly complex without getting incredibly slow…

In keeping with this, the wrinkliest part of our brain is the front of our neocortex where most of our abstract reasoning takes place. Most animals have smooth brains (like our brain stem), but amazingly bottleneck dolphin brains are larger and more wrinkled than ours demonstrating just how smart they are (though there are other factors to consider, so it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ‘smarter’).

Hacking the Structures of the Brain

One of the ways that scientists have been able to discover the function of different parts of the brain is by turning whole areas ‘on and off’ using electrical or magnetic stimulation. Often this is performed during brain surgery using electrodes directly stimulating the brain, but more and more devices are now being developed to let us read and ‘send’ signals through the skull. ‘Trans-Cranial Direct-Current Stimulation’ (Or tDCS) involves wearing a special hat that can do things like shutting down the language centres of your brain to give you autistic savant like abilities (better maths skills) for instance. Using currents to stimulate the memory centres apparently causes subjects to relieve forgotten memories in vivid detail. Meanwhile you can also get devices that read electrical signals in the brain and that will let you control computer games with your thoughts, or measure your success when attempting to meditate etc.

In the future this technology will improve to the point where individual neuron clusters could be stimulated allowing for ‘virtual reality’ type applications, or the selective retrieval of memories. In fact you can already buy devices that apparently help improve your mood or your focus… but they’re a bit of a naff gimmick at this point from what I hear…

How Neuroplasticity and Learning Works

Neuroplasticity describes the ability of our brains to change shape and to grow depending on how we use them. Repeatedly firing neurons in close proximity for instance creates a links between those cells (‘neurons that fire together, wire together’) and this in turn is strengthened the more often that association is repeated (through the creation of more receptors I believe). Over time this gets to the point where smelling cookies will remind us of our Grandma – memory is the ‘ability to reconstruct a whole from a degraded part’. Interestingly, adding emotion to a memory can also make it stronger as our brain then assumes that memory is ‘important’. This is why you get ‘flash bulb memories‘ where you remember significant events in vivid detail (like where you were when Optimus Prime died for the first time…). This is also why it’s useful to use as many different senses as possible to remember something (watching a video rather than just reading dry information for example) – because it creates more ‘in roads’ to that information as more neurons are firing together. (While we’re on the subject, the brain likes mind maps because they are structured similarly to our neuronal pathways)

This is the basis for learning and memorising. But what’s more interesting is when the brain completely changes shape to accommodate a change in your routine. Cellists for instance have larger areas in their motor corticesrepresenting their finger-tips. Blind people meanwhile have brains that support their hearing far better allowing them much greater auditory acuity – some blind people can even navigate using ‘sonar’ (it’s called echolocation). Our brains are most plastic when we are in childhood and for a long time it was believed that the major structures of the brain are ‘set’ by the time we leave adolescence (our brain goes through ‘critical periods’ until the age of seven where it can be radically altered).

More recently though, it has been discovered that the brain actually remains highly plastic as we age. In one study monkeys were plugged into a robotic arm they could control with their brains, and quickly their brain altered shape so that they were using it as second nature – using three arms. A possible military application of this finding is planes with 360 fields of view input straight into pilots’ brains. Studies like this suggest that the human brain could cope.

Hacking Brain Plasticity

Imagine if we could tap into that kind of plasticity for the purpose of enhancing our brain function. Already researchers are looking for drugs to increase plasticity (valproate among others looks promising if you want to do more research of your own). Likewise you can give yourself a boost by exercising which has been shown to boost neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) particularly in the hippocampus (the hippocampus is used for the consolidation of ‘short term memories’ into long term memories so it makes sense it would need to grow a lot).

Sleep is also very important for enhancing your own neuroplasticity. Dreaming may at least in part be caused by the brain ‘rehearsing’ things you saw, learned or thought during the day and thereby strengthening connections between neurons further – consolidating what you learned during the day. Want to hack this for rapid leaning? Using hypnagogia (the short period of strange thoughts just before we drift off) may serve a similar role. This is why we get the ‘Tetris effect’ where we see Tetris shapes (or Angry Birds) every time we close our eyes – it’s our brains practising. Visualisation can even be used to strengthen neuronal pathways which is why you can practice dance moves in your head while you’re on the train. Visualisation itself can also be trained which has powerful applications.

You could also use things like TDCS in order to create more brain plasticity – by causing multiple neurons to repeatedly fire together with an electrical signal you could increase associations between them – possibly learning martial arts Matrix style.

Conclusions

So there’s a ton of information about your brain and how it works. My goal is that you will now be a little less lost next time you hear someone say that X medication suppresses X neurotransmitter. At the same time, I hope this has inspired you to look into other ways you can boost your own brain function through training, diet, routine and technology.

Most important of all though, I hope this highlights how much we still don’t know – and perhaps put you off of doing anything too risky. As they say – if our brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to do so!

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.