An introduction of the brain through the lens of a traveler.
Mental health is a prevalent topic in the travel world, which is not surprising when considering the mutualistic relationship between the two. Research suggests that tourism experiences cultivate happiness better than related material purchases. Not to mention the effect that these fulfilling experiences can affect cognitive function.
How does traveling affect the brain? What happens to your brain when you go on vacation? These might be some popular questions while trying to understand the psychological outcomes of traveling.
The brain, however, is more than just the mind. Not only does it do the thinking and feeling, but this information processing superhub and expert coordinator uses its connections throughout the body to respond to external stimuli and change itself to adapt.
This feat is possible because of two beneficial abilities: the malleability of neurons and the interregional interaction between different parts of the brain.
First, neurons. Indeed, the perfect combination of biology and communication, these cells are the building blocks of the brain. Not only do the chemical signals they release, called neurotransmitters, relay messages; but the electrical pulses that travel down the axon also encode information.
An easy way to visualize how this system works is to think of a telegraph. These devices used electric pulses like neurons to send messages across long distances. Of course, people do not “zap” each other to say hello, just like there is not a constant high-voltage current buzzing throughout your body. Instead, both are converted into a form that is meaningful to the recipient.
For telegraphs, we make sense of the short and long pulses of electricity by translating them into Morse Code. In neurons, this is accomplished by varying the number of action potentials – the nerve impulses – that a neuron transmits in a given second.
Like people, nerve cells do not electrocute one another. After all, they must communicate with other somatic cells that cannot read impulses. They also do not usually converse with only one other cell. The brain is a complex network that needs to direct the entire body, and a 1-to-1 system would be unable to keep up. This is where dendrites, axons, and synapses shine.
In standard multipolar neurons, messages travel in one direction, starting from the dendrites on one end, to the axon hillock, down the axon, and stopping in the terminal end where neurotransmitters are released into the synapse.
A single neuron has dozens of dendrites connected to the “bottom” of other nerve cells. The space between these two parts is the synapse.
A neurotransmitter will travel across this gap until it reaches a receptor on one of the dendritic arms of the nerve cell. If the cell detects enough excitatory chemicals, the axon hillock will initiate an action potential down the axon. This current will trigger organelles in the terminal button to release a neurotransmitter into the next synapse.
Now how does this all work together?
The diverse functions and physical forms of the cells in the brain give it the ability to carry out myriad tasks – some that are still unknown. There is, however, a general understanding of the standard processing functions that certain brain sections manage.
To get a better idea of what these brain regions do and how they function together, imagine the brain is an all-inclusive travel agency.
What is the first thing you do before flying off somewhere? Plan! The frontal lobe is the travel agent that initially hammers out the details of the impending trip. This region is where planning, decision-making, and other higher-order cognitive functions occur. Once a destination is chosen, one must gather more information about where you’re going to create a comprehensive plan.
The following agent will inform you of the destination’s climate, languages, and cuisine; representing the parietal lobe. Sitting just behind the frontal lobe, this brain region processes somatosensory information, like sights, smells, and tastes.
Even with just these two parts of the brain, it becomes clear how the units work together. Experiencing the pain from a sunburn will likely motivate you to plan to bring sunblock for the next time, which bring us to the next section.
Our next agent handles all things related to memory. They are responsible for creating a scrapbook of your experiences in order for you to be able to look back on them later. This is the temporal lobe. Located just above the ears, it handles encoding memory and processing auditory information.
Now, you can remember experiencing the painful sunburn and plan to bring sunscreen.
But, you still need to picture your destination. Our next travel agent is responsible for taking pictures to showcase the place you will be touring. The occipital lobe handles this. Located towards the back of the brain, this section processes visual information.
With the regions we have now, seeing the sunscreen on your counter will prompt you to remember the pain of your last beach trip and lead you to plan to put some in your suitcase.
Finally, there is the cerebellum and brain stem. Both are located under the cerebrum or the wrinkly tissue of the brain.
The cerebellum generally coordinates movement while the brainstem handles vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and sleep. These are agents who handle things like accommodations and daily activities.
Even though this overview glosses over the more intricate processes that allow us to fully function, it is clear that the brain is a super organ. Throughout this series, I hope to highlight the complexities and extraordinary abilities of the brain through the lens of a traveler.