Pass the Salt, Neurons

Sometimes, I am baffled by how my mind works – how some thought springs to life in a burst of creativity back in the non-conscious reaches of my brain.

Today is not one of those days. At least, not entirely.

I owe my chemistry teachers of a decade ago, and the FDA nutrition labeling guidelines, a debt of gratitude for so firmly linking the concepts “sodium” and “salt” in my mind. It meant that when I was reading the textbook description of a neuron’s action potential – its way of transmitting information down the axon to other neurons – I read “sodium ion” and the related concept of “salt” was immediately active as well. This activation trickled over to the concept of “salt shaker”, so upon reading the use of  a “passing game” to demonstrate action potentials I immediately envisioned students passing a salt shaker. It might just help them remember that an action potential happens when sodium rushes into a neuron.

I admit, from this point on the precise nature of my brain at work eludes me. Somehow, passing the salt shaker came to involve the acquisition of two fun-size bags of M&Ms, to stand for neurotransmitters, and foam crowns for my student-dendrites to wear.  I’m fairly certain I can blame my father for the pun of gluing small foam axes on headbands to make “axon” headbands for my salt-shaker-passing students to wear, but I can’t explain exactly how puns work in the brain (although yes, there has been at least one study on that particular topic).

Thinking would be a complicated business if I were aware of the process as it happened, all those neurons firing and connections being made. But I’m happy to know, at least in theory, how it must have happened after the fact. It will make me feel a little less crazy, and a little more the produce of simple neuroscience, when I tell my students to line up, don crafty headgear, and pass the salt.

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