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To understand how the brain works, it is first helpful to consider what the brain does. Our brains help us interact with the world around us. All of our senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) are processed through the brain. We may touch things with our fingers and smell with our noses, but it is only through brain activity that we can make sense of what we touch or smell. It tells us something is red, sour, hot, loud, fragrant, pleasurable, or painful. The brain’s ability to help us understand and make sense of our environment is crucial for our survival. The brain also controls how we respond to our surroundings.

For example, picking a red apple from a tree for a snack illustrates many brain processes. First, your brain lets you know that the grumbling in your stomach means you are hungry. Next, the brain reminds you that in the past when you were hungry, an apple hit the spot. Your brain then remembers how you are able to get that apple (in this imaginary situation, you have an apple orchard in your back yard). Your brain next controls your muscles and allows you to walk out in the back yard to the nearest apple tree. Now, your eyes kick in. Looking at the tree, your brain interprets the images coming from your retinas to tell you that there are green and red apples on the tree. From your memory, the brain reminds you that the red apples are sweet, the green apples are sour, and that you prefer the red apples. You reach out and pick a red apple. Using your sense of touch, the brain knows that the apple is firm and not squishy, reminding you that the apple you hold is likely not rotten. You bite the apple, and enjoy its sweetness (the brain’s interpretation of the apple’s taste). After you eat the apple, your hunger is gone and you feel satisfied. This feeling of satisfaction is an emotional sensation produced by your brain (like the emotions of sadness, happiness, anger, pride, envy, etc.).

The story of the apple shows that the brain is used in sensing our body’s needs (I’m hungry and should eat something); sensing our environment (sight, touch, and taste of the apple); organizing and planning (what steps do I need to take to get that apple?); memory function (I remember I have an apple orchard in my back yard); relating and comparing past events to present ones (my experience tells me that firm, red apples taste sweet, so I’ll try to pick one just like that); initiating complex motor programs (picking the apple); and finally, producing the emotional response to the successful completion of the job (satisfaction). If the brain doesn’t work properly, it can interfere with any of the processes described above.

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I. The Brain and How it Works