Ten Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Your Brain
There's a lot you don't know about that thing in your head.
You've had your brain inside your head for your entire life, so you might think that by now, you have a pretty good idea of how it works and what it can and can't—do. But guess again. As the new season of Brain Games will convince you, there's a lot that you don't know about the miraculous biological machine between your ears and how both its abilities and flaws influence your everyday life. In this article, we'll give you a peek at some of the mind-boggling stuff that you'll be learning about your brain.
But first, since your brain didn't come with an owner's manual, here is some basic background about your mental equipment's specifications.
Your Brain: A Quick Guide
The brain is your body's most complex organ—and it has to be, because it controls all of your actions and generates all of your thoughts and consciousness. Different parts of your brain engage in various tasks, ranging from processing visual information to responding to danger.
The biggest part of your brain is the cerebral cortex, which is the top outer layer. It's the part of the brain where your thoughts take place, where you understand speech and come up with things to say. It's also where you process information from your eyes, ears and other sensory organs.
Other important parts of your brain include:
- The Brainstem connects your brain and spinal cord. It coordinates for a lot of critical basic functions, such as heart rate, breathing, eating and sleeping.
- The cerebellum, in the back of your head under the cerebral cortex, which coordinates the brain’s instructions for skilled repetitive movements and for maintaining balance and posture.
- The limbic system which regulates emotions, motivations and movement. It includes the amygdala, which is where the fight-or-flight response is triggered, and the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation.
- The diencephalon is another part of the brain. It contains the thalamus, which is involved in sensory perception and regulating movement and the hypothalamus, which regulates the pituitary gland, which in turn controls the release of hormones throughout the body.
The brain's various parts are filled with close to 100 billion neurons, which are cells that have something that the other cells of the body don't. They include complex structures called dendrites and axons, which form a communications system that transmits electrical and chemical messages in and out of the cell. That transmitting system allows neurons to communicate with a lot of other neurons at super-high speed. The connections between neurons are called synapses, and the typical neuron probably has tens of thousands of them. All those connections enable your neurons to work with other nearby neurons, but also to form pathways with distant neurons to carry brain signals. Those complex interconnections help you to do the enormous array of complex activities that are part of your everyday existence.
But that's just part of the story. In order to cope with all the tasks that your brain has to perform, it utilizes a lot of ingenious shortcuts. While those tricks help you, they also occasionally can trip you up. In various episodes of the program, we'll show you some dramatic examples of that.
Okay, Now for the (Even More) Amazing Stuff!
Here's a glimpse of some of the really cool, surprising things about your brain, which will be covered in more detail in the companion articles to various episodes of Brain Games.
1. Your brain actually can get better in some ways as you age. Young brains do work better than older ones in some important ways—they're better at doing several tasks in close succession and retrieving items from memory, for example. Older brains are not only surprisingly resilient, but can actually do some things better as the years wear on. Older brains are superior at vocabulary and at solving word puzzles. A study published in 2012 also shows that as you age, your brain increases the number of connections related to emotions, so that older people are better at solving problems in personal relationships than younger ones. In the episode "Battle of the Ages," we'll tell you more about the differences between younger and older brains.
2. Sometimes, you may see colors that aren't really there. One of the processing shortcuts utilized by your brain is color constancy. That means that once you become accustomed to thinking of an object as a certain color—apples are red, bananas as yellow, and so on—you tend to see that object as being that color, even if it actually isn't. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who were shown black-and-white pictures of bananas, for example, activated parts of the brain that normally fire when your eyes perceive yellow. In the episode “In Living Color,” you'll learn more about how your brain perceives color and how it influences your thinking.
3. You tend to trust or distrust someone because of the shape of his or her face. The parts of the brain that evaluate trustworthiness tend to make split-second decisions based heavily upon superficial visual information. It's a trait that probably was useful to our ancient ancestors, who had to decide instantly whether to trust a stranger or not. Researchers have found, for example, that we tend to put more faith in individuals with comparatively broader chins, wider mouths with upward-pointing corners, bigger eyes and eyebrows that are higher on the face. In the episode "Trust Me," we'll analyze the brain's system for judging others' truthfulness and the how reliable it actually is.
4. The most beautiful woman in the world may also be the most ordinary. Studies have demonstrated that people are usually attracted to average features. Researchers who’ve shown pictures of various female celebrities to test subjects, for example, have discovered that one deemed most gorgeous had facial proportions—the distance between the eyes and mouth, for example--that almost exactly conformed to the average of all human females. In the episode "Laws of Attraction," we'll explore the mystery of why we feel drawn to some people but not others.
5. Stress actually can cause you to look at the bright side. You might think that having a scary experience—whether it's a surprise quiz in school or being trapped in an elevator—immediately would give you a negative outlook. But instead, researchers have found that when your brain’s stress response kicks in, you tend to discount negative information and focus upon positive information with an upbeat spin. It’s believed that this mental mechanism makes it easier for people to make potentially life-saving decisions when they’re threatened. In the episode "Stress Test," you'll learn how stress can both help you and hurt you.
6. Male and female brains find their way around differently. Because of differences in the brains of men and women, men tend to be better at visualizing the positions of objects and locations in space, and drawing mental maps for themselves. Women, whose brains tend to be better at using language, usually rely instead upon more detail such as landmarks when giving directions. In the episode "What's Going On?" we’ll look at how we manage to figure out where we're going, and what is around us.
7. Winning or losing a contest changes your brain chemistry. The thrill of victory is a biochemical process. Some research has found that whether you're an athlete or a fan, if you’re on the winning side, your brain releases a flood of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that leads to a powerful pleasure sensation. In the episode "In It to Win It," we'll look at the neuroscience behind competition.
8. You can be tricked into remembering things that didn't actually happen to you. Researchers have found that it's possible to alter subjects' memories and even implant false recollections of events that never occurred. In one experiment, for example, a psychologist convinced some subjects that they'd met Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny at Disneyland when they were young. In the episode "Retrain Your Brain," we'll look at how you can manipulate your brain's own hidden processes to improve your abilities.
9. You can feel an itch, even if nothing is making your skin feel itchy. Neuroscientists have discovered that itching is triggered by a specialized neuron that detects extremely faint stimuli. But the system is so sensitive that it easily can be triggered simply by thinking about a bug crawling on your leg, even if there isn't a bug there. In the episode "Mind Your Body," we'll look at how the body can fool the brain, and vice-versa.
10. If another person looks at something, your brain is programmed to look, too. Scientists have discovered that humans, along with a few other species, have a trait called deictic gaze, which means that when you notice another person’s eyes looking at something, your brain automatically tells your eyes to do the same thing. Some researchers suggest this may have helped ancient human hunters point out prey to other members of their group without calling attention to themselves. In the episode "Follow the Leader," we'll look at the neuroscience and psychology behind how we influence one another.
How to Have a Better Brain
Three tricks for optimizing your brain's potential.
In the new season of Brain Games, you're going to learn about some of the amazing abilities built into your brain, and about some of its odd and amusing quirks as well. In these companion articles, you'll get more of the scientific background about your brain, and also some tips on how to put your new knowledge to use to develop abilities and improve your everyday life. But first, here are some basic introductory tips on how to keep your brain optimally healthy and ready for all the tricks that we're about to teach you.
1. Get plenty of rest. University of Wisconsin researchers have discovered that sleep turns on genes that trigger production of myelin, a material that's the equivalent of insulation around electrical wire, helping make sure that your neurons are able to transmit impulses among one another. A study published in Science in 2013 also found that your brain uses sleep time to flush out toxic waste that cells produce during daily use. Amazingly, your cells actually shrink a little in size, to make it easier to clean in the spaces between them. The National Institutes of Health says that most adults need about 7-8 hours a day, though some can get by on as little as 5 hours, and others need as much as 10.
2. Eat the right foods. Certain nutrients are important to healthy brain function, and you can get them with the right food choices. Studies show that blueberries, for example, contain nutrients that help protect the brain from oxidative stress, and may even help reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Deep-water fish such as salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain function. Nuts and seeds—including foods such as peanut butter—are good sources of vitamin E, which helps to stave off cognitive decline. Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow to your brain. Whole-grain breads and cereal also contain nutrients that can help in that way.
3. Get enough exercise. Regular cardiovascular exercise actually can boost your brainpower. Research has shown, for example, that workouts cultivated the growth of new neurons in mice, and that formerly sedentary humans who did cardio work for six months showed improved performance in cognitive drills that require them to switch between different tasks without making mistakes. A German study published in 2010 found that subjects who swam, rode bikes or even worked in the garden a few times a week were only half as likely to show cognitive impairment as they aged, compared to those who rarely worked up a sweat. It doesn't take a lot of exercise to benefit your brain—three 20-minute sessions a week should do it.