Even if you can’t keep a beat, your brain can. “The brain absolutely has rhythm,” says Nathan Urban, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
When you concentrate, Urban says, your brain produces rapid, rhythmic electrical impulses called gamma waves. When you relax, it generates much slower alpha waves.
The internal cadences of the brain and nervous system appear to play an important role in everything from walking to thinking, Urban says. And abnormal rhythms, he says, have been associated with problems including schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism and Parkinson’s disease.
The rhythms of the brain begin with the firing patterns of individual brain cells. Some types of cells tend to fire as slowly as once a second, while others tend to fire more than a hundred times as fast. “They’re little clocks,” Urban says. “They have an intrinsic frequency.”
All those different beats in the brain could produce chaos. One reason they don’t is that groups of brain cells synchronize when they need to get something done. So, when a mouse is exploring a new place, cells begin firing together in areas of the brain involved in navigation and memory.
Urban has been studying how brain cells achieve this synchrony and has found evidence that it works a bit like a room full of people clapping their hands. At first, each person claps to his own beat. But if you ask them to clap together, they’ll start listening to their neighbors and adjusting their rhythms until the claps are synchronized.
Brain cells appear to do something very similar, Urban says. There’s still debate about why this synchronization takes place. But many scientists believe it’s important, because they know that when any two cells fire together, the connections between them get stronger, a process that is critical to learning and memory.
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