Here are the 20 amazing facts about the human brain you should know:
1) How fast does the brain work?
Brain speed is difficult to measure, but scientists from MIT think they have an answer. To test the processing power of the visual cortex, they flashed images for fractions of a second to see if people could recognise them. Before the test, they expected the brain to take 100 milliseconds to decode the information. But afterwards, it became clear that our brains can work almost ten times faster, decoding entire pictures in as little as 13 milliseconds. How does that compare to a supercomputer? Current estimates from benchmarking experts suggest that the brain is up to 30 times faster than IBM’s Sequoia.
2) How does the brain store memories?
The brain’s short-term memory storage is in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain behind the centre of the forehead. The left side of this region lights up when we’re working with words and the right when we’re remembering spatial patterns. Longer-term memory storage happens elsewhere and falls into two main categories: implicit and explicit. Implicit memories are unconscious, like muscle memory, and they form in the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. Explicit memories are conscious, and they can either be episodic (things that happened) or semantic (facts). They’re formed by the hippocampus, which takes on the role of “writing’ the data into the brain, often when we’re sleeping. It does this by strengthening connections in the neocortex, on the very outer surface of the top of the brain. It also talks to the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, tying in the feelings that the memory evokes.
DID YOU KNOW?There are roughly three times as many stars in the Milky Way as there are nerve cells in the human brain.
3) Why do we have emotions?
Emotions have lots of parts. The first is the physical response in the body: the tears, the laughter, the sweating, the heart beating faster. The second is the change in the way we think, like heightened senses when we’re afraid or recalling old memories when we’re sad. And the third is the change in our behaviour, perhaps avoiding dangerous situations or repeating actions that made us happy. Emotions help us to cope with the situations that triggered them, they help us to prepare for the future, and they send signals to the people around us, strengthening our social bonds.
4) How do we determine the smartest species?
Designing tests to measure animal intelligence is a challenge that scientists have been working on for decades. The simplest way to assess intelligence is to measure the size of the brain; in general, the bigger the brain, the smarter the animal. But this isn’t always the case. Other tests involve looking for signs of intelligence that we recognise in ourselves: the ability to delay gratification, to recognise oneself in a mirror, to make and use tools, to solve problems, and to respond differently to different individuals. The tests try to get at whether animals can make reasoned decisions, or whether they’re just learning patterns and responding automatically.
5) What’s a stroke?
Strokes are like heart attacks, but in the brain. These medical emergencies happen when the blood supply to a part of the brain suddenly stops, often due to a blood clot or a bleed. Without oxygen, the brain cells start to starve and die, so the faster the blood supply returns to normal, the better. Drugs can be used to help to dissolve blood clots and surgical procedures can help to remove them, minimising the damage. If someone suffers from a small stroke, the brain can sometimes repair itself, but larger areas of damage can have lasting effects. These differ depending on where in the brain the stroke happened.
6) Why do we dream?
Many scientists think that dreaming has something to do with the way the brain makes memories. The brain learns by making and strengthening connections between different neurons. This allows us to make sense of the world around us. During the day, we do this in a way that’s guided by incoming sensory signals, but at night, this influx of information stops. With the input turned off, the brain is free to explore new connections on its own. This allows it to make connections between facts that weren’t previously linked up, helping us to solve complex problems.
DID YOU KNOW?Only half of the cells in the brain are actually nerve cells, the rest are support cells called glia.
7) How different are human and chimp brains?
Chimpanzees are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but as smart as they are, chimps’ brain power pales in comparison with our own. Our brains are three times bigger than theirs: this huge size difference is down to changes in our cerebral cortex, the region responsible for processing, planning and intelligence. We’ve got around double the number of brain cells in there, and they make more connections.
8) How much energy does the brain use?
The brain uses around a fifth of our energy: about 400 calories every day. That might sound like a lot, but it’s actually surprisingly efficient. Its power consumption is around 20 Watts, barely more than a low-energy light bulb. The brain uses around two thirds of its energy to send messages, and the rest for maintenance and repairs.
9) Why do we become forgetful as we get older?
Around two in five people start to lose their memory after the age of 65. The brain gets smaller and levels of serotonin and dopamine start to fall, and this seems to affect our ability to make new memories. Changes in metabolism and blood supply can also affect the way we think.
10) What do the different part of the brain do?
The brain has three main zones: the forebrain at the top, the midbrain deep inside, and the hindbrain underneath, close to the spinal cord. The hindbrain is the most ancient part, and it handles the most fundamental parts of our biology. The brainstem controls breathing, swallowing and heartbeat, and the cerebellum looks after fine-movement control and muscle memory. The midbrain coordinates more complex information. The hypothalamus keeps a constant check on the body, making minute adjustments to maintain a steady state. The limbic system handles emotions, and the hippocampus controls our memories. The forebrain looks after the most complex processes of all. The cerebrum is by far the largest part of the brain, and it does the thinking. It has two halves, each divided into four lobes. Together they handle sensory information, reasoning, planning and emotional control.
11) Can gut bacteria really control your mind?
There are trillions of microbes in every milliliter of your digestive contents, and they have a direct line to your brain. Changes in gut bacteria influence mood and behaviour. The gut’s enteric nervous system sends signals upwards via the vagus nerve, and bacteria seem to be able to interfere with the messages. Vagus nerves carry sensory data from the internal organs back to the brain.
12) What is ‘grey matter’?
You can think of the brain as being a bit like a telephone network. The bodies of the brain cells are the callers, sending and receiving the signals, and the axons are the wires, linking the network together. Like real wires, brain cell axons transmit signals using electricity. To stop the signals getting crossed and to help the messages move faster, the axons have insulation. Known as myelin sheaths, this insulation contains layers of white-coloured fat, visible inside the brain as ‘white matter’. The bodies of the cells don’t have this insulation, so they appear grey.
DID YOU KNOW?The brain has its own dedicated immune system made from millions of cells called microglia.
13) Can we become brainier?
In total, we have around 86 billion brain cells, wired together by 10 trillion synapses. We learn by making new connections in this network, changing the strength of old connections, and pruning connections we no longer need. Most of this rewiring happens before our tenth birthdays. As we get older, our ability to make new brain cells and new connections decreases, but it doesn’t disappear. Take black-cab drivers for example, the memory centre of their brains physically grows as they learn to navigate London’s streets. So if you keep on learning, you’ll be brainer.
14) How does sleep affect brains?
Sleep lets our brain activate its self-cleaning programme, bathing nerve cells in fluid and sweeping away the molecular debris of the day. Lack of sleep can lead to a buildup of waste, slowing brain cells down in the short term, and increasing the risk of brain disease in the long term.
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15) How does the brain control bodily functions?
The internal organs do their jobs without too much help from the brain, but there are times it needs to intervene. Signals from the brain help to ensure the organs are working together to meet the body’s current needs. The brain controls the organs using a two-part set of nerves called the autonomic nervous system. The ‘sympathetic’ part of this system gears the organs up for fight or flight, and the ‘parasympathetic’ part calms them down so that they can rest and digest.
What can the brain control?
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make small adjustments to our internal organs…
16) What does the brain need to stay conscious?
We can try to understand more about consciousness by looking at what happens when it’s gone. We tend to lose consciousness when the blood flow to the brain stops. This can happen if blood pressure drops, during a stroke or if there are problems with the heart. So the brain needs oxygen to stay conscious. But we can also lose consciousness as a result of a general anaesthetic. When brain cells send signals, they usually get feedback in response, but under anaesthetic this feedback stops. The effect seems to be strongest in the cerebral cortex, which handles thinking and memory.
17) Why can’t we consciously control our bodies?
Voluntary control comes from the cerebral cortex, but not all our systems receive their instructions from that part of the brain. Directions to move our muscles come from the motor part of the cortex, putting them under conscious control. But directions to our internal organs come from deeper structures, like the hypothalamus.
DID YOU KNOW?Elephants have the biggest brains on land and sperm whales have the biggest brains in the sea.
18) What makes a person intelligent or stupid?
The most famous way to measure intelligence is the IQ test. Developed in the 20th century, it attempts to assess people’s ability to perform certain mental tasks. People who get one question right are more likely to get the others right, even if the questions are of a different type. This is known as the ‘general intelligence factor’. It’s less about remembering facts and more about being able to think abstractly, use reasoning and solve problems. Studies of twins and studies of adopted children suggest that IQ is an equal combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment). So far, scientists have found more than 500 genes with a link to IQ, but we still don’t really know what makes some people smarter than others.
19) What is brain freeze?
The brain can’t feel pain, but its outer covering (the meninges) can. When the blood flow here changes, it can really hurt. The main artery that supplies the brain is the carotid artery; it runs up through the neck, close to the blood vessels inside the mouth and throat. When the blood here gets cold, the anterior cerebral artery behind the eyes can start to widen. Cold can also trigger the trigeminal nerve, which also affects the blood supply to the brain. Warming the mouth lets the blood vessels return to normal, helping the pain to subside.
20) Do we need all of our brain?
In 2009, doctors described a girl in Germany who was living a normal life despite being born without the right hemisphere of her brain. In 2014, a similar story emerged about a woman in China who had been living without her cerebellum. The developing brain has an ability called ‘neuroplasticity’, which allows nerve cells to take on new roles. This incredible ability enables doctors to perform a procedure called a hemispherectomy. In rare cases of severe epilepsy in children, surgeons can remove half of the brain to stop the seizures. Amazingly, the other half adapts to take on its jobs.
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