Have you heard of fractals? If so, great! If not, great!
A fractal is parts of organisms, energy flows, geology, society, man-made items, and etc. which are geometrically similar to the whole. The pieces must contain similar sub-pieces, and the sub-pieces must contain still smaller similar copies, and so on (Brandt, 2010, p. 13-14).
Here are some samples:
This is an image of highway systems and traffic flow throughout the US. Notice how interstates turn into highways, highways turn into byways, byways turn into roads, and so on. The are all geometrically similar.
This is the human cardiovascular system. You will see the heart pushing blood into arteries, veins, and capillaries. All geometrically similar in smaller and smaller degrees. Image: “Human Heart and Circulatory System.” by Bryan Brandenburg. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
Rivers also follow a similar flow. Brooks, creeks, streams, and tributaries are all geometricaly similar to a river in smaller and smaller degrees.
Even trees follow a similar path.
The same holds true for the internet, our lungs, and lightning:
One has to ask; what about human behavior?
I’m so glad I asked that question. Did you know that the human body has more than 37 trillion cells? If each cell was a $1 bill stacked on top of one another, the stack would reach the moon and back six and a half times. That’s a lot of cells. Each of those cells is copy or division of other cells giving us what we know as the human body.
Now, let’s jump into the brain. In 2016, von Bartheld, Bahney, and Herculano-Houzel researched 150 years of research to find a consensus. They found that the number of neurons (I’ll explain these in detail in a moment) in the human brain hovers around 67 to 86 billion—this is quite a drop from the commonly believed 100 billion promulgated by the internet. Still, that is a substantial number. von Bartheld, Bahney, and Herculano-Houzel also found the number of glial cells—cells that support neurons in the functioning of the brain and bodily processes—is around 40-50 billion. Previous research suggested that glia were 10 times the amount of neurons in the brain. Based on the evidence, that seems to be untrue. This does not negate the value of glial cells as they are absolutely vital for brain function.
While most research articles and other articles dealing with neurons will focus on neurons and how they are at the core of all biological behavior—which they are in a sense, the unsung heroes are the glial cells. Let me explain myself. In research by Rockefeller University, researchers found that glial cells may actually coax neurons to form certain paths so that every bodily function works properly. When glial cell signals are disrupted, neuronal paths can go awry leading to a malfunctioning system (Staff, 2017). If that is true, glial cells may dictate which neural pathways get used and how important they are. Since neurons either fire or they don’t it seems that glial cells help direct the course of the neuron’s electrical charge.
When one considers fractals, there seem to be other factors at play that lead to certain formations. Some believe that lighting follows a path of charged dust particles in the air (Vieru, 2010). Fault lines seem to follow the weak point in the Earth’s surface. Rivers flow on the path of least resistance. Trees seem to branch out when they meet resistance. Our bodies have an unseen force that helps direct the neurons to their proper place; these are the glial cells. They are the glue (glial meaning glue) that holds the whole system together and help direct neurons in the most efficient paths. This may be why you see a fractal pattern in the nervous system. Glial cells also create what’s called the myelin sheath. This sheath protects the neuron and can cause the neuron to fire faster without losing energy. There is evidence to support that myelination is a continuous process that occurs with experience (Chao, Tosun, Woodward, Kaufer, Neylan, 2015). Chao et al also found increased myelination in certain brain regions occurs in veterans with PTSD and this could explain the symptoms of certain mental illnesses. Quite possibly, the strengthened myelination leads to increased activity in the regions that cause a person to relive the trauma, depression, anxiety, and etc.—that’s my thought and not a researched concept. The point I am trying to make is that myelination may be the key to changing behaviors.
The fractal design of the nervous system is all about efficiency and it seems to be a universal rule. Whether it is man-made systems, the flow of rivers and electricity, highways, or our own neurology, the whole concept is about finding the path that is most efficient with the lowest exertion of energy. The glial cells do this by forming myelin sheaths and directing the paths of neurons. Without that direction, the neuronal connection would be chaotic (Staff, 2017). Glial cells seem to be the true heroes here.
See an example of glial cells in the image below.
Okay, this is where I venture into a view that I have about goal setting. I am going to do this from the view of fractals and trusting the help of our friends, the glial cells in helping us on the journey.
When you want to start or stop a behavior you’ll likely follow this path:
Awareness- Knowing that there is something you want to change. Without awareness, it is difficult to change, so you need to know that you want to start or stop a certain behavior.
Identify- Identify the goal you would like to accomplish (e.g. I want to stop drinking, I want to lose weight, I want to make more money, and etc.)
Clarify- Identify the different paths you could take to reach this goal. As you have learned, there are billions of neurons in your brain, each branching into alternative paths. The law of nature demonstrates that you are not limited to a single path—notice lightning, trees, rivers, and your own bodily systems. Imagine you are a creator and list out all the creative ways you could accomplish your goal.
Commit- What you DO is what you are committed to. If you are not committed, it will show up in your behaviors. You will simply put things off or not act at all.
Act and Adjust- An electron does not know the path it will take when it fires down a lightning bolt. A river doesn’t know which direction it will flow when it starts down its path. A tree does not know its final form until it starts to grow. All of these adjust as they run into barriers. The key is that they all flow and the keep pushing forward until they are successful.
Optimize- As you find a path or behavior that gets you to your goal, repeat it. Keep doing it. Do it until you can do it in your sleep. If you're stopping a behavior, stop doing it, repeat that, keep repeating it. Your brain will support you one way or the other. The neural pathway may not go away, but your glial cells will eventually get the message and shift the energy; this is good for me, keep it, or this is bad for me, let it go. Do this as long as it takes for it to become automatic.
Branch out- See what else you are capable of. Like the fractals, reach out and test different things to see if you might create additional behaviors.
In closing, fractals occur throughout nature. They are in our body and they are not as random as they appear. Your brain works in a similar manner. Your neurons and glial cell are there to support you in starting and stopping your behaviors. If you follow the 7 steps I outlined in this article, you will see lasting change. I know this! Find a path that works and stick with it! You’ve got this! Now, go out there and start reaching your goals with this new knowledge.
Bandt, C., Duy, M. T., & Mesing, M. (2010). Three-Dimensional Fractals. Mathematical Intelligencer, 32(3), 12–18. https://doi-org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.1007/s00283-009-9110-6
Chao, L. L., Tosun, D., Woodward, S. H., Kaufer, D., & Neylan, T. C. (2015). Preliminary Evidence of Increased Hippocampal Myelin Content in Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00333
Staff, S. X. (2017, December 06). Glial cells, not neurons, lead the way in brain assembly. Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-12-glial-cells-neurons-brain.html
Vieru, T. (2010, April 12). Theory Shows Why Lightning Occurs in Dust Storm. Retrieved from https://news.softpedia.com/news/Theory-Shows-Why-Lightning-Occurs-in-Dust-Storm-139566.shtml
von Bartheld, C. S., Bahney, J., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2016). The search for true numbers of neurons and glial cells in the human brain: A review of 150 years of cell counting. The Journal Of Comparative Neurology, 524(18), 3865–3895. https://doi-org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.1002/cne.24040