If I told you that your mind was full of gaps, you might think I’m just being rude.
But in reality, you have trillions of them inside your brain.
When I say gaps, I don’t mean physical holes in your brain, I mean synapses.
Synapses are connections between two brain cells. It is when one cell “talks” to another. If these brain cells or neurons, don’t communicate, they wouldn’t be useful at all.
This is why it is fundamental that you have little spaces where they can exchange information.
But it doesn’t all just happen randomly. Neurons don’t just phone each other up to spill their secrets, they use electricity and chemistry as their language. And every synapse happens in an organised way:
1. An electrical impulse travels down the longest bit in the neuron, called the axon. This electricity is called an action potential, which is created by an imbalance in charge outside and inside the cell.
The electricity shoots down this line jumping between insulated bits until it reaches the axon terminal.
2. The electricity reaches then end of the axon. At this point, chemicals which are stored inside the cell are launched into the gap between the neurons. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
They can either have an excitatory or an inhibitory effect on a neuron. In other words, they either stimulate or calm
3. The neurotransmitters travel through the gap between neurons towards the neuron on the receiving end. Where specific receptors are waiting for them.
4. The chemical messengers will dock on receptors specific to them. Many of these receptors need to be taken up in order for the neuron to receive the message. This is called an activation threshold. If the minimum number of neurotransmitter molecules do not find their way across the gap, then no signal will be detected by the neuron.
This all happens to allow you to have thoughts, memories and to move. As you read this, new synapses are forming in your brain, allowing you to recall this in the future.
Synapses are so important to our cognitive processes and yet most people ignore how they work.
So next time you feel like you have too many things missing in your mind, remember that gaps are what make up your knowledge.
CrashCourse Anatomy and Physiology video on synapses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VitFvNvRIIY
Neuroscience for Kids synapse explanation: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html
Alzheimer’s Association “Brain tour”: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html