Brain Organization

This article is part of a series exploring research done for an upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Think – Play – Send!

It is not possible to explore mental training without first understanding, and being fascinated by, how our brains work. Our brains are pretty amazing organs. They consist of 90 billion neurons (brain cells), which are connected by 100 trillion synapses (cell connections). To put this in perspective, there are 10 billion websites on the world wide web, connected by 1 trillion links. Yes, our brains ARE that amazing.  Beyond the shear complexity, our brains are one of the most active parts of our bodies and affect nearly every aspect of how our body functions. Though it weights in at about 2% of our body weight, it burns 20% of our total calorie expenditure each day. Amazed yet? I hope so.

Our brains have often been compared to computers, but besides from what pop science fiction might like us to believe, this is a very poor analogy. Digital computers are very accurate and fast when it comes to computing and keeping track of numbers. Our brains however are terrible at this. For example, type 57 x 153 into any cheap calculator. Does it get the right answer? You bet. Every time? You bet. How long did it take to arrive at the answer? Immeasurable? Likely less than one one thousandth of a second. OK, now you go….

No, you’re not stupid. It’s just that the calculator was designed for the single task of computing numbers. The structure of the electronics within are precisely organized to yield fast, reliable, and accurate results. A calculator is typically organized as shown in Figure 1. It has an input device, which is typically a keypad, an output display, memory, a power supply (battery), and a mathematics computation unit (MCU). Commands come in from the keypad, some input is stored temporarily in memory, and the MCU sends the answer to the display. The calculator is designed to do one thing very well. Computers are not that much different than this, with the exception that programs can be run rather than taking input from a keypad, and the MCU can be very complicated. Most computers, however, are designed to do a limited number of things very well.

You may ask, “well then what am I good at that a calculator or computer isn’t?” Lots of things. You can ride a bike, read and speak languages, you can recognize patterns, and you can recognize when things are similar to each other while not being the same. You can also learn new things fairly rapidly. We are able to do these things much better than computers because our brains are architected very differently than most computers. Our brains consist of an enormous network of connected concepts, which have various strengths of connectivity. Figure 2 shows an example of how this can be represented. When someone mentions the word bike, I can visualize what this means. There are also many other things that my brain has associated with the word “bike”, and depending on the strength of that association (noted by the weight of the connecting line), I may also think of these items too. For example, I may think of my favorite mountain bike trail or the Tour de France. I may, with lower probability, think of the color red (if my bike is red).  The weight of the association between concepts are altered by our experiences. If we are around red fire trucks a lot, we will strongly associate red with fire trucks. If we often ride and enjoy our favorite trail, we will associate bike with the trail. Much more on how this works in a later article.

So, what does all this have to do with mental training for climbing? In upcoming articles, I will show how the organization of our brain is important in how we learn and how we behave, and this basic information about how our brains are constructed will help us understand these concepts better.

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