Our brains are immensely complex places, and trying to keep track of every little thing happening there is on the scale of trying to track everything happening across an entire city at the same time.
Telling stories is one way of pulling important details out of a complex world and showing their connections, and telling stories about superheroes is a great way of exploring parts of the world we can't fully explain.
For all the advances of science, how consciousness arises from the physical brain remains a great mystery. What has become clear is that the brain doesn't have a central authority, organizing things from the top down. Rather, the perception of order that emerges on a larger scale does so from the combined chaos of many, many smaller forces. In my research, I found a great source of information about the structures in the brain, from the smallest to the most sweeping, each explained at three different reading levels.
I also found that after I knew more, I could recognize some of these things happening in my own brain in real time. Now, I think that a brain becoming aware of itself is one of the most incredible outcomes in a vast and random universe, but there's so, so much out there to learn. I hope that this page can be a bridge from reading about the world of this story into starting to understand the underlying science.
For most of the activities I learned to recognize, the best way to imagine them was by knowing which chemicals were causing what effects by interacting across the different regions of the brain -- or in simpler terms: who's doing what and where.
In addition, there are a whole bunch more characters that populate the city, representing other chemicals, which would have been fleshed out more if the series had continued:
- Epi A. Drenaline shows up with a burst of intensity in Stage Fright. He's based on epinephrine (also called adrenaline), a more extreme "cousin" of Nora Drenaline. He creates focus and alertness, like his cousin, but also increases heart rate and helps trigger fight-or-flight levels of tension.
- The G.A.B.A. are a law enforcement agency, mostly functioning as beat cops, restricting activity, keeping traffic from getting out of control. Chemically, GABA is an inhibitory molecule, forcing "red lights" where other chemicals try to turn them green.
- Gluta mates are most of the common residents of Brain City, working and living in every part of the city. The hero chemicals may get the glory, but nothing would run if it weren't for glutamate.
- In another story, Hista Mean would have been Dopa's uncle, a noble knight fighting to keep the city awake, aganst the forces who would see all cross-city traffic shut down. That's why taking anti-histamines can make it hard to stay awake.
- And I knew Mel A. Tonin was to be the kid sister of Sera Tonin, always wanting to join the super team but not able to commit. The soothing abilities of melatonin are more powerful than her "sister," but they only work in the dark, so she spends most of her time hiding.
A signaling chemical's main job in the brain is to help decide whether traffic can cross the local "intersection."
See, each block of Brain city is meant to represent a single brain cell. At the end each cell's axon (roads, in the story) there's an intersection where signals pass from one cell to the next by causing or preventing a kind of green light called an action potential.
In the stories, the heroes fly around in the helicopter they share, called the Modulator, which lets them skip the traffic lights completely. That's because the four "hero" chemicals are special. Each of them can spread from small areas in the brain between the cells, instead of along the "roads," to affect huge regions of the brain in a single burst. This is called neuromodulation.
The heroes do take the "surface roads" too sometimes. That's how they affect the other traffic, but they can also do both at the same time. Really, none of these chemicals are in just one place at a time. There are billions of these molecules, constantly performing different functions in different parts of the brain.
Like real city blocks, every cell is a bit different, but different neighborhoods are known for different kinds of cells. Each brain region has special arrangements of cells and connections to other regions that create a hardwired function.
- The network of roads define the memory neighborhoods of Brain City, just like the networks of brain cells rearrange to store memories in your head.
- Sensetown is Brain City's name for the thalamus, a big area in the center of the brain that helps carry sense and movement information. This area is the first stop for most sensory information in the brain, with nerves directly from each of the eyes and each of the nostrils. That makes it the busiest neighborhood of brain city, with the most to experience.
- The "Depot" mentioned several times is the name for the striatum, here called the "Straight ‘Em Depot" and represented as a train station because of its role in sending motor signals down into the body along the long tracks of nerves, which are similar to the roads inside the brain but function a little differently.
- Broca's area is a real place, which helps find the relationships between all the words the brain takes in, like the ones you're reading now. That helps the brain process language, as do some other regions.
- Mix-dela Radio represents the amygdala, which processes signals from all around the brain and sends out an emotional state for everyone to tune into and for the higher functions to interpret. There are two of these regions in the brain, but the one in the right half of the brain is more focused on finding reasons to panic, which is why Stage Fright is focused on Mix-dela Radio "East."
- The city government in these stories is intended as a depiction of conscious thought. Again, nobody's completely sure how consciousness works. It's not a specific place, but it arises somehow from the cooperation of lots of different "departments." As a conglomeration, it can issue edicts and orders, but that doesn't mean the rest of the brain will always obey.
All that is just the tip of the iceberg. The more science comes to understand about the brain, the more complexity it seems to discover. I hope all this helps with your own research.
As humans, we may never fully understand our own brains, but that's no reason not to try.