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Teaching Kids About the Brain

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Your brain is an amazing machine. Every time you use it, billions of signals are carried between neurons. In fact, about 25% of your body's energy goes towards keeping your brain working. Ever wonder why you remember some things while other things fade? Let's take a look at what's going on inside your amazing brain!

Parts of the Brain

Let's start with an overall picture of the brain. There are four major parts, and each has a special job. The brain stem, the cerebellum, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex grow in a specific order, beginning with the brain stem. This is followed by the cerebellum, the limbic system, and finally the cerebral cortex.

  • brain stem- in charge of basic survival functions, like breathing and your heartbeat.
  • cerebellum - in charge of things you do by reflex, like blinking and swallowing.
  • cerebral cortex - in charge of the things you do on purpose, like throwing and catching.
  • limbic system - in charge of storing emotions.

It's important to know that the limbic system is also responsible for storing the positive emotions that lead to strong attachments. More about that later.

Digging Deeper - The Neurology of the Brain

Understanding the neuron, the basic unit of the brain, will show us how your brain works as a community that helps you understand your world.

The neuron: The brain is made of billions of very active cells called neurons. Believe it or not, you went through the process of neurogenesis before you were even born. Neurogenesis is the creation of neurons through cell division. At this time, you have more neurons than you will ever need. In fact, you'll only add a few more later on in life. Your brain, as a baby, made about twice as many neurons as it needed. Why make so many neurons? Your body does this to make sure you have plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.

The neuron is the control center of your brain.

Neurons have four parts: a cell body, dendrites, axons and synapses. Neurons talk to each other using electrical signals, kind of like pathways that let all your thinking happen.

Understanding the Neuron and its Parts

Like the captain of a spaceship, the cell body is the control center of the neuron. This is where information is collected and the decision is made whether or not to send it on to other cells. The cell body, as the captain, decides if the electrical signal coming in is strong enough. If so, the cell body opens the door and lets the electrical information flow out. We call this your brain making connections.

Dendrites are like tree branches that reach from the cell body. They look and listen for messages being sent from other neurons. Amazingly, one neuron can have hundreds of dendrites that spread out in your brain to information from other neurons. In your brain right now there are some neurons that are connected to as many as 15,000 other neurons.

The axon looks like another branch coming out of the cell body, but it puts information out instead of letting information in, as the dendrites do. Axons and neurons need a lot of energy to enter and exit the cell body. If the signals coming or going aren't strong enough, their electric signal is not passed on. If it is strong, the signal passes very quickly.

Lastly, a synapse is the place where an axon and dendrite connect. As you've been growing and learning, thousands of connections have been made and organized as you experience your world. In fact, in your first ten years, your brain may form trillions of synapses, and lose many as well. Why does this happen?

Connections Come and Go

When neurons connect and disconnect with other neurons, it makes a web of neural sidewalks. Remember, the job of the neuron is to send messages to other neurons to make connections. These electrical and chemical signals, or 'talking' between neurons in different parts of your brain and body, are what allows you to do simple things, like pick up a cup, to complex things, like remember a math problem.

What makes a signal strong? Neuroscientists say 'if it fires together, it wires together'. That means that when you make connections, the signal is stronger. The first time your teacher talks about fractions, for example, the words numerator and denominator are new to you - they have nowhere to connect. But the next time she says the words, or you read them, an electrical impulse is fired with the memory of the last time you heard these words. Your memory is getting stronger. By the time you're finished with your unit on fractions, you're a numerator and denominator genius! The connection is solid.

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