Prepare for a brain explosion
The brain is one of the most astonishing and intricate parts of the human body, yet it only takes up a fraction of space. But, oddly enough, there’s so much the average person doesn’t know about his or her noggin. Here are some strangely interesting facts about your grey matter.
The brain itself can’t feel pain
Ever wonder how brain surgeons are able to perform surgeries on patients while they’re awake? Beth McQuiston, MD, neurologist and medical director at Abbott, explains that even though the brain contains layers of coverings and blood vessels that contain pain receptors, the brain itself has zero. When a person has a headache, for example, it’s often thought of as pain stemming from the brain, but this is actually not the case. The muscles and skin surrounding the brain, however, can feel pain.
Your brain is greedy
Your brain might account for only about 3 percent of your body weight, but it receives about 30 percent of the blood being pumped by your heart. This shows how much attention and support it requires in comparison to the other seemingly important areas of your body. “The brain is like a spoiled and demanding child, but yet it is extremely smart and efficient,” explains Bennet Omalu, MD, a forensic pathologist, neuropathologist, epidemiologist, clinical professor at University of California, Davis and author of Truth Doesn’t Have a Side. “It takes the brain about 1/10,000th of a second to respond to something and generate an action.”
You actually do use most of your brain, most of the time
Though the film Limitless with Bradley Cooper leads people to think that they use only a tiny portion of their brain, this is actually not true. “This misconception came about because the brain is so adaptable that sometimes minor damage causes only subtle problems,” explains Brett Wingeier, PhD, engineer, neuroscientist and co-founder of Halo Neuroscience. “The fact is, most of your brain is constantly working – to sense, process, think, move and even dream.” Even when you head to sleep at night, your brain is still hard at work!
Brain waves are even more active while you’re dreaming
When you’re fast asleep, you might think that your brain is “shut off”, but it’s actually doing a whole lot more than when you’re walking, talking, eating and thinking. “When awake, people utilise alpha and beta waves, which gives us day wakefulness,” explains Brandon Brock, MSN, BSN, staff clinician at Cerebrum Health Centers. “Sleep, however, especially in the initial stages, uses Theta activity, which is greater in amplitude than Beta.”
Adult brains still make new neurons
While most of our neurons have been with us since birth, and age does take a toll, your brain still makes new neurons. “This process, known as neurogenesis, occurs in a special region called the dentate gyrus,” explains Dr. Wingeier. These brain facts have been highly debated, but research shows that the adult brain can generate new nerve cells and incorporate them into neural circuits. “These neurons are thought to be important for learning, memory and responding to stress.” How can you boost this process in your own brain? Dr. Wingeier says through healthy living – things like sleep, exercise and a balanced diet.
Almost half of a child’s energy goes to fuel their brain
In order for the brain to stay running at top-notch, it requires significant amounts of energy. And this is even more true for young children who are still learning, processing and developing at a fast rate. “Scientists at Northwestern University discovered recently that in the preschool years, when a child’s brain development is faster, physical growth is slower, possibly to save more energy for the developing brain,” explains Dr. Wingeier. “Conversely, during puberty, when physical growth is faster, brain development is slower – which may come as no surprise to parents of teenagers.”
The majority of brain cells aren’t neurons
Did you know that for all the neurons in the brain, there are at least as many glial cells that support and protect these neurons? “These microscopic unsung heroes make sure neurons have a constant supply of nutrients and oxygen, insulate neurons from each other, and even help clean up after neural damage,” says Dr. Wingeier. “They even help optimise communication between neurons.”
Exercise is as good for your brain as it is for your body
Professional athletes know how important fuelling their brain is to ensure they’re able to put maximum effort and energy into their workouts. “This is because of the mental stimulation that comes with exercise, but also because a healthy cardiovascular system means better plumbing for the brain,” says Dr. Wingeier. Especially when you try a new fitness class or regimen for the first time, your brain is working hard at learning the motions and controlling your muscles.
You can “see” through your ears
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganise and change itself throughout a person’s lifetime, is a truly remarkable thing. One study by the University of Montreal compared the brain activity of individuals who were born blind and those who had normal vision. They found that the part of the brain that’s normally wired to work with our eyes can instead rewire itself to process sound information instead of visual perception. Pretty cool, right?
The visual areas of the brain are in the very back
These brain facts might sound counterintuitive, considering your eyes are in the very front of your head, but the part of your brain responsible for vision, the occipital lobe, is located in the very back. “Bang someone on the back of the head and they will see stars, not sounds,” says Henry Soper, MD, clinical psychology faculty member in the School of Psychology at Fielding Graduate University. Similarly, the left side of your brain controls the vision on your right side and vice versa. The same goes for how our brain processes sound – on opposite sides of the head. “Although evolutionary theories have been proposed, the bottom line is we really do not know why,” Dr. Soper says.
Brain scans can “light up” when a person is in love
Some may think that being “in love” is only an idea or merely a term people use, but brain scans reveal otherwise. “For people who are romantically in love, functional MRI brain scans can show activity where dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, is present,” says Dr. McQuiston. “Other areas in the brain associated with pleasure and reward can also show greater activity for people who have fallen in love.”
Your brain activity is as unique as your fingerprints
Research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that a person’s brain activity may be as unique as his or her own fingerprints. To reach their conclusion, scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to create “connectivity profiles”, which allowed researchers to identify the brain activity of more than 100 individuals. “Learning about individual brain connections offered scientists specific insights about an individual’s intelligence or personality,” explains Dr. McQuiston. “This could have implications for how scanning brains might be used in the future to one day help individualise care for each unique person.”
Your brain is smaller than your ancestors’
This might be one of the scariest of these brain facts when you really think about it, but paleoanthropological research proves that our brains are shrinking. Skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent backs up this theory. Some scientists suggest that this may be related to the fact that the average body size of humans has also shrunk in size over the last 10,000 years. “A larger body requires a larger nervous system, so, as our bodies grew smaller, so did our brains in response,” suggests Donald Krieff, DO, a board-certified neurosurgeon.
Just how smart can we get? Find out how far we can push our bodies.
The brain has more cell types than any other body tissue
Unlike the liver or certain muscles in our body where most of the cells are the same type, the brain is composed of a variety of complicated, interconnected types of cells, one being neurons, explains Hermona Soreq, professor of molecular neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences.
Your brain could power a small light bulb
That’s right, when you’re awake, your brain produces enough electricity to power a small light bulb. According to computer scientists at Stanford University, a robot with a processor that is virtually as intelligent as the human brain would require at least 10 megawatts of electricity to operate properly. “Neurons in the brain do make enough electricity to run a light bulb – 100 billions cells generate this amount of energy,” explains Brock. And the brain works fast, too – so fast that it’s speedier than the world’s greatest computer. “The information going to your brain from your arms and legs travels at 150 miles (240km) per hour.”
The brain waves of musicians can synchronise when performing
There’s a scientific reason why your favourite bands and musicians blend together harmoniously. A team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, used electrodes to record the brain waves of 16 pairs of guitarists as they played the same musical sequence. Even though the two individuals in each pair played different parts, their brain waves synchronised. “This study suggests that there’s a neural blueprint for coordinating actions with others,” explains Brock. “Brainwaves, neurochemicals and some say even heartbeats, start to sync and become similar in those singing together or in choirs.”
“Brain freeze” is your brain recognising a temperature drop
It’s true! In an effort to save you from freezing to death, your brain leaps into action when it senses a drop in temperature on your palate. “Your brain quickly increases blood pressure in an effort to tell you to slow down or take it easy,” says Brock. “The scientific term is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia and is a way for your brain to say that it is turning up the brakes on what you are doing to prevent unwanted changes due to temperature.”
Reading aloud uses other brain circuits to silent reading
Researchers have long understood that children first learn to read by speaking words out loud and only once that knowledge has been established can they learn to read to themselves. “Environmental noise versus chaotic noise versus noise discrimination all use different channels,” explains Brock. In the same vein, noise in the form of music is processed differently than regular speech, various pitches and frequencies and different harmonies, as well.
Your brain is mostly fat
Yep – your thinking cap is the fattiest organ in your body, consisting of a minimum of 60 percent fat. This is why a diet rich in healthy fats, such as omega-3s and omega-6s, is vital for brain and overall body health. “Fat stabilises the cell walls in the brain and carries, absorbs and stores fat-soluble vitamins in your bloodstream,” explains Brock. “It also reduces inflammation and helps the immune system regulate and function properly.”
Brain cells can only survive on oxygen and glucose
These two nutrients are incredibly vital to the functioning and survival of the human brain. It takes the brain anywhere from three to five minutes to suffer irreversible damage when it is starved of oxygen or glucose. As Dr. Omalu explains, the brain controls and drives the heart and lungs and controls our consciousness. This is why most deaths are never instant. “Even if a human being is decapitated, the brain does not suffer irreversible damage and death until several minutes after decapitation.”
The brain is not permanently arranged at birth
Nope – those nerve cells in your noggin continue to change based on how often they’re used and stimulated in the first year of life. This is especially true for speech and language. “Some toddlers have to undergo extensive brain resections for medical reasons and these procedures may unfortunately mean removing the primary language centre in the brain,” explains Jennifer Bickel, MD, Paediatric Neurologist and Director of Comprehensive Headache Clinic at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “If adults undergo a similar procedure, they are often unable to communicate through written or verbal language, however, a young child’s brain is so adaptable that it will reorganise itself and the ability to use language will be retained.” It’s this ongoing ability of the brain to adapt that is the reason why young children require regular exposure to language.
Reading allows your brain to directly download information
“Although the headsets of science fiction are still far off, technology – like the printing press – has been amplifying human abilities and helping us learn, process and communicate for centuries now,” explains Dr. Wingeier. But why does this count as a brain-machine interface? When you learned to read, your brain had to change and restructure itself so your visual and language systems could transfer information from the page into your working memory. “Now, we’re augmenting our brains further with smartphones and Google searches,” he says. “And, just like the science-fiction headsets, it’s up to us to use them wisely.”
The more your brain is working, the smaller the brain waves
As it’s working, your brain is creating electric fields. “The fields are measured on your scalp, called the electroencephalogram (EEG), and are often larger when your brain is doing less,” explains Dr. Wingeier. “This is because idle neurons sync up by default – so like a crowd chanting in unison, they can be ‘heard’ from far away.” Neurons processing more information sync up in more complex patterns, so like a crowd having a thousand different conversations, they’re harder to “hear” clearly.
Dinosaurs lacked the ability to think and reason
There’s plenty scientists are still discovering about the long-lost reptiles that roamed the earth 65 million years ago. But what they do know is that they couldn’t think or reason the way humans can. “Dinosaurs had no neocortex, which we use for thinking and such, and no frontal lobes, which we use for planning and problem-solving and the like,” says Dr. Soper. “Dinosaur thinking is more along the line of chicken thinking – they could learn certain things, but minimally compared to mammals.” They did, however, have a killer sense of smell that was far, far better than we humans have.
When we age, much of our brain stays intact
“As many civilisations have said, the older folk know more because of their experience, even though their memory may not be as good,” says Dr. Soper. “With regard to ageing, the mind that stays active and exercises will not show the decline that others may show.” Of course, this involves exercising the brain daily, which is why crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku, bingo and mahjong can be incredibly helpful for the elderly. “If the elderly pick up mental exercises, their intelligence may actually go up – and the same is true of the body and its exercises.”
Your brain’s storage capacity is virtually unlimited
There’s no such thing as knowing too much – or learning so much that you can’t retain any more information (though it can certainly feel that way after sitting through a long board meeting). “Your brain doesn’t get ‘used up’ like the data storage in your computer or smartphone,” says Krieff. “There is endless brain power! Although lack of sleep can affect your brain’s ability to create more memories.”
Use it or lose it
The brain is similar to a muscle, explains Shirley Newell, MD, chief medical officer at Aegis Living. “You can build up your ‘cognitive reserve,’ or your brain’s innate ability to get a job done, through different types of learning and/or through new experiences.” People with a stronger and healthier cognitive reserve – one that’s been strengthened with learned experience – have been shown to be more capable of coping with unexpected life events.
Short term memory generally lasts around 20 to 30 seconds
Ever wonder how you can say something, get distracted briefly, and then completely forget what you were about to say? This has to do with your brain’s capacity for holding small amounts of information in the active mind. It keeps it in an available state for easy access, but only does so for a period of around a half a minute. Brock notes that, when recalling numbers, specifically, most people hold memory for around 7.3 seconds on the average and 9.3 seconds on average for letters.
Surgical removal of almost half our brain is possible
These brain facts might sound crazy, but a hemispherectomy, or the surgical removal of half of the brain, can and does happen – with little or no effect on personality or memory. It’s a very rare neurosurgical procedure that is used to treat a variety of seizure disorders. However, this type of procedure, as one would imagine, is not done without impact. “Some traits are very specific to one hemisphere thus it can give us very subtle differences,” says Brock. “Usually memory, humour and personality will recover but cognition might change a little.”
Sleep deprivation can affect the brain in many ways
There’s a reason a solid seven to nine hours of sleep a night is recommended – it’s because your body and your brain require rest in order to function properly, retain memory and react in a timely manner. Judgment is even impaired when a human has not had a proper night’s rest. “Sleep deprivation kills brain cells, can create psychosis if long enough and will reduce the ability of the body and the brain to heal,” says Brock. “All of these things can impact cognition, judgment, or reaction time.”
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