Your brain is amazing. You might not believe that, but it is true.

If you think the smartphone that you carry around with you is the most amazing piece of technology in the world, you’re overlooking just how complex and powerful the human brain actually is.

The human brain is made up of many different types of cells. The most important of these are the neurons (commonly called ‘brain cells’).

Neurons are the cells which process and transmit information to one another. The average human brain is estimated to have between 86 and 100 billion neurons. The neurons connect to one another via synapses, the gap between neurons through which neurotransmitter chemicals travel. Each neuron is estimated to connect to between 10,000 and 40,000 other neurons, bringing the sum total of synaptic connections in the average brain to over 100 trillion. This makes the brain one of the most complicated structures in the universe.

Unlike a computer or a smartphone, a healthy human brain has a seemingly unlimited capacity for memory. Whilst the internal memory of a phone may be filled by several hundred songs, videos and photographs, the storage of the human brain is unknown. Throughout our lives, we are constantly learning and assimilating more information and even the storage capacity of a top-of-the-range computer pales in comparison to how much information the human brain can hold.

Whilst in the womb, there are times when the brain is creating 250,000 neurons every minute. By the time a baby is born, their brains will have created most of the neurons they need but comparatively few of them are connected to others. For the first ten years of a child’s life, their brains develop by forming the many trillions of connections between neurons. By the time a child is two years old, their brain is 80% the size of an adult brain.

Although the brain stops developing at a certain age, recent studies of neuroplasticity have shown that our brains continue to reorganise themselves throughout our lives. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new connections between neurons and accounts for our ability to learn new skills. The brain’s ability to form new neural connections and pathways also allows the brain to adapt to injury and so respond to changes in the environment.

Understanding the structure of our brains and appreciating how our experiences ‘wire’ each of us differently is becoming increasingly important in psychology. Whilst psychotherapy and neuroscience have formerly been seen as two distinct fields, many neurologists and therapists are now seeing the importance of understanding one another’s work.

Developments in the field of neuroplasticity are now highlighting how an individual can adapt to change, even later on in life. For many therapists, an individual’s capacity for change is at the heart of the counselling process. We appear to be moving towards an exciting future where the benefits of psychotherapy can be explored and validated at a neurological level.

 

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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