Understanding the brain: the muscle of thinking

A muscle or an organ?

The brain is an organ rather than a muscle; however, it is integral for telling your muscles what to do. The brain controls the nervous system, which is made up of the spinal cord and network of nerves distributed throughout the entire body. The central nervous system controls most of the functioning of the body.

The conductor of the central nervous system

The brain is the most complex part of the central nervous system, receiving a great deal of sensory information from your eyes, ears, nose and mouth in addition to other areas of your body. It also coordinates automatic bodily processes such as your heart rate, breathing and digestion. Some of these processes are impacted by incoming sensory signals, which the brain then tries to make sense of.

The central nervous system and stress

As our stress response was evolved to help us in the days where our main threats came from predators, the brain prepares a fight/flight or freeze response.  This impacts heart rate and other automatic physiological changes in the body. Stress hormones are pumped through our body to mobilise different muscle groups and organs to facilitate the fight/flight or freeze response. For example, our bowels may temporarily be shut down, to preserve energy, as blood is instead rushed to the legs to help mobilise us for flight.

Thinking and emotion

Information in the brain is communicated via brain cells, which are called neurons. What distinguishes humans from animals is our larger cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain. This is what allows us to consciously think, reason, imagine and abstract. Different systems within the brain have been associated with particular psychological functioning. The limbic system is an area made up of different brain structures and is often implicated in the regulation of emotions and drives such as fear or hunger. The prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes are areas of the brain that are thought to have a role in attention control. Brain “exercises” such as mindfulness meditation haven been associated with increased thickness in these areas.

Author: Dr Sula Windgassen