There’s a famous quote about understanding the brain from the mathematician and science writer Ian Stewart. He said:
“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.”
That’s a bit of a mindfuck (no pun intended), but it’s an interesting point. The brain may be the only thing in the universe that, by definition, we’re incapable of fully understanding because the thing trying to understand it is the same as the thing that’s trying to be understood.
It’s kind of like seeing the back of your own eyeball.
That said, the human brain is one of the most complex entities in the known universe. Despite how dumb most of the people around you may seem, the human brain’s computational power and ability to adapt and understand the environment around it is staggering.
Here are some of the more fascinating facts about the brain I’ve come across over the years, and what they mean for you.
1. We forget our childhoods because we actually replace our brain cells
Neurons develop at the rate of about 250,000 per minute during early pregnancy. Formation of new neurons may actually be the reason we forget things, and since so many new neurons are developing during infancy, it may also be the reason why we don’t remember the first few years of our lives.
What this means for you: I think we all kind of assume that our brain has some physical permanence. If you fell off your bike when you were a kid, then your brain will always remember that and somehow that connection will remain with you forever.
But the truth is that your brain, like any part of your body, is always changing, always reconfiguring itself. And those neurons that existed when you scraped your knee may actually be jettisoned at some point. This would, quite literally, imply that some past childhood traumas or pains, are eventually simply removed from you permanently, for no other reason than…well, life.
There’s that colloquial saying that time heals everything. The regenerative functions of the brain, in many ways, may symbolize the regenerative functions of time on our pain.
2. The brain is the most efficient computer system in the known universe
During wakeful states, the brain consumes around 20 watts of power, enough energy to power a dim light bulb. The computer on your desk uses about 1 million times more energy per calculation than your brain, making your brain the most efficient “computer” we know of.
To date, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers is able to simulate 1.73 billion neurons and over 10 trillion synapses — which represents only about 1% of the human brain’s network. (It’s likely that newer technology, not supercomputers, will actually crack the neural code.)
What this means for you: You should take care of your brain. Although it’s like a computer in many ways, your brain is like a muscle in others. You need to use it to keep it sharp. In a real sense, what’s between your ears is sacred — it is the height of known complexity in the physical world. Honor that. Take care of it.
3. Your brain grows in size the more you use it
Your brain doesn’t just “make new connections” when you learn something new or practice a skill extensively — it actually grows. For instance, one area of the brain involved in spatial navigation is measurably larger in taxi drivers compared to non-taxi drivers, and professional violinists have larger motor cortices associated with their fretting hand than non-musicians.
A region of the brain known to be involved in sexual behaviors, including sex drive, is 2-½ to 3 times larger in men than women.
What this means for you: Maybe stop masturbating so much? Or masturbate more? I’m not completely sure.
4. Stress kills brain cells
Stress might actually decrease the number of synapses in different areas of your brain, leading to various mental illnesses.
What this means for you: As the years go on, scientists are discovering an array of health problems caused by stress hormones and the effects they have on the human body. The brain is no different in that regard. In our culture, stress is often perceived as something admirable — it means you care, it means you work. But putting yourself under constant loads of stress can be, neurologically and biologically speaking, akin to smoking cigarettes or drinking liquor every day.
5. You have enough blood vessels to circle the earth 4 times
Brains are blood thirsty and contain about 100,000 miles of blood vessels.
What this means for you: Wear a helmet.
6. We still don’t know how anesthesia works
Anesthesia revolutionized the medical world. Before it was adopted into common medical practice, many people chose to commit suicide rather than go under the knife because it was such an excruciatingly painful experience. But even though anesthesia has been around for a long time now, doctors and scientists aren’t really sure how general anesthesia even works or what it does to the brain to induce unconsciousness in patients. All we know is that it does work.
To take that even further, we still don’t even really know why we sleep so much, in general. The truth is, we still don’t understand some really basic stuff when it comes to the brain.
What this means for you: Remember the next time you see an article in a newspaper or magazine saying, “Scientists say this part of the brain works this way,” that our understanding of the brain is still elementary. On the scale from 2+2 to differential calculus, we’re still learning our multiplication tables here.
7. Scientists can control individual neurons
Optogenetics is a rapidly advancing field in neuroscience. The technique allows scientists to literally activate or silence specific neurons in discrete regions of the brains of animals. Neurons are infected with special viruses that make them sensitive to a certain wavelength of light, giving researchers robot-like control over certain behaviors, such as making a mouse run in circles to the left.
What this means for you: The integration between brains and computers. Pretty soon you’ll be able to change the TV channel without even picking up the remote.
8. Scientists can grow brains
Researchers recently developed new stem cell techniques allowing them to grow brains–or at least parts of brains–in the laboratory for experimental use.
What this means for you: Call your anti-science legislators and tell them to stop shitting their “morality” all over stem cell research.
9. Mirror neurons
When you perform a simple behavior, say reaching down to pick something up, a set of motor neurons fires in a specific pattern to control that behavior. Interestingly, a subset of those exact same neurons in your brain also fire when you observe someone else perform this same behavior. Some believe that these so called “mirror neurons” are involved in observant learning and perhaps even empathy.
What this means for you: This is likely why it’s so useful to find role models who have a specific skill or trait that you’d like to adopt. Watching them do it trains your brain, neurologically to do it yourself.
Now if only that applied to weightlifting.
10. Your brain recognizes no difference between physical and emotional pain
A fairly direct mind-body connection is seen in studies showing that physical and emotional pain activate many of the same brain areas. Scientists hypothesize that evolution co-opted the physical pain system in producing our emotional pain system. Surprisingly, taking Tylenol has been shown to reduce the negative emotions related to social rejection and even appears to reduce brain activity in regions associated with emotional pain.
What this means for you: There are a lot of stigmas around emotional pain, while few exist for physical pain. If you see your friend get cut and bleed all over the place, you rightly freak out and offer to help. Yet, many of us, in many situations, ignore people close to us who are in dire need of help.
Imagine if someone broke their arm or dislocated their shoulder, and coming to you screaming in pain, you replied, “You know, maybe you should just change your attitude about your shoulder,” or “Just stay positive, you’ll be back to new in no time.”
Unfortunately, for a lot of people who suffer from depression, anxiety or PTSD, this is what happens.