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The nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord, and connections between them and throughout the body. It is a continuous feedback loop translating electrical signals into our experiences. Neurons are nerve cells that communicate through synapses, releasing chemicals (neuromodulators) that influence which neurons are active. Different neuromodulators like dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine create different experiences. The nervous system enables five key functions: sensation, perception, feelings/emotions, thoughts, and actions.
We have sensory receptors that detect the external world, creating sensations. Perception is how we focus on, interpret and make sense of sensations. Perception is selective and shaped by our attention, environment, experiences, biases, etc. Many species have additional senses humans lack, e.g., infrared detection in snakes or magneto reception in sea turtles for navigation.
Feelings and emotions arise from the nervous system and neuromodulators. They are contextual and culturally dependent. While they feel uncontrollable, we can influence them by changing our nervous system through neuroplasticity.
Thoughts incorporate sensations, perceptions, and memories. They can be reflexive (automatic) or deliberate (requiring effort). Deliberate thought involves analyzing duration, path, and outcomes. Reflexive thinking dominates when resting or distracted, while deliberate thinking is required for learning, focus and change.
Actions are the “final common pathway” of the nervous system. Though short-lived, our experiences, thoughts, and feelings drive our actions and shape our impact on the world. The nervous system converts them into movement, speech, etc. Actions are also either reflexive or deliberate, requiring top-down control and feeling strained.
The autonomic nervous system regulates transitions between wakefulness, sleep, and other states. It includes sympathetic (alertness) and parasympathetic (calmness) divisions. Over 24 hours, it fluctuates between more alert and focused and more calm and unfocused. Understanding and controlling this seesaw is key to neuroplasticity and optimizing one's nervous system.
In addition to circadian (daily) rhythms, 90-minute ultradian rhythms govern our focus, perception, and sleep cycles. We can enhance learning and productivity by timing tasks around these rhythms and our personal energy levels across the day. The early parts of an ultradian cycle may feel strained but become easier.
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the nervous system to change in response to experience. It is most dramatic in childhood but continues to a degree lifelong. In adulthood, it requires effort and focus as well as adequate rest. Acetylcholine and epinephrine are neuromodulators that “open up” neuroplasticity, marking active neurons during focused states for later change. Though learning occurs during focused, effortful practice, the actual rewiring of synapses happens during sleep and rest.
Sleep is essential for health, longevity, emotional regulation, memory, and neuroplasticity. However, sleep quality and properly timing sleep are equally important as duration. Nonsleep deep rest, a state between wake and sleep, also facilitates neuroplasticity and renewal. By understanding one's energy and focus levels across the day and night, one can optimally schedule sleep, learning, and rest for productivity and well-being.
Traumatic experiences induce neuroplasticity unconsciously through heightened arousal and the release of epinephrine and acetylcholine. This “highlights” whatever neurons are active during the event, reinforcing those connections. Deliberate neuroplasticity requires choosing a focus or skill to improve, attending fully while practicing it, and then resting. It allows us to rewire our nervous system in a targeted manner.
How do they relate to one another? Sensation refers to the initial detection of stimuli in the external or internal world by our sensory receptors. Perception is how we interpret, focus on and make sense of sensations through higher brain processes like attention, experience, biases, etc. Awareness is our conscious experience arising from what we perceive. Sensation leads to perception, which produces awareness. We can only become aware of and understand what we actively perceive.
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The podcast provides an overview of the human nervous system, how it governs our experiences and behaviors, and how we can rewire it through neuroplasticity. The discussion covers neurons, synapses, neuromodulators, the autonomic nervous system, ultradian rhythms, and the role of sleep and focus in facilitating change.
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