“The brain is the most complex thing in the universe,” according to Marwan Sabbagh MD, a prominent neurologist. “On one level, it’s a softball-sized collection of cells, chemical and connective tissue and on another level, it’s the totality of all things.”
The totality of all things – there’s no grander accolade than that, and yet it still falls short of describing the human mind. Today, I’m going to present 20 things you didn’t know about the brain that are sure to inform, fascinate, and amaze!
The human brain is essentially the most powerful supercomputer in existence. Our brains can process up to 10 to the 16th computations or tasks per second. And we each can store about 2,500,000 gigabytes of data in our brains, compared to the best iPhone that can only hold 256 GB!
A typical human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, which is also the approximate number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Despite the jaw-dropping number, neurons still only make up about 10% of our brains.
All of those billions of neurons are connected by trillions of synapses, forming what scientists call a “neuron forest” that rush information and neuro-signals around the brain.
Our neurons travel at varying speeds, but even the slowest neurons zip information around at 150-260 miles per hour!
If you think your tummy is problematic, your brain is actually the fattiest organ in your entire body, made up of at least 60% fats. For that reason, eating healthy fats like omega-3s and omega-6s boost brain health and vitality.
Your brain’s consistency is about the same as a bowl of Jell-O, but brains that are removed from cadavers for scientific study are treated with a substance to make them firmer.
There’s a scientific explanation behind the intense pain we call “Brain Freeze” that occurs when we drink or eat something too cold. It’s referred to as a sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia and happens when the blood vessels in the back of the throat constrict, slowing blood to the brain. The pain you feel is actually when the vessels warm and open back up again, rushing blood to your forehead.
Speaking of blood flow, every minute of our lives, about 150-1,000 milliliters of blood flows through our brain, enough to fill a bottle of wine. That volume of blood is carried through a vast network of vessels in the brain equivalent to 100,000 miles if stretched out, or four times the circumference of the earth!
With all of that activity, it’s no wonder that your brain generates energy. But did you know that the average waking brain sparks between 12 and 25 watts of electricity? That’s enough electricity to charge a small light bulb!
Generating all of that activity takes energy, so our brains use about 20% of all the oxygen and blood in our entire bodies. Without a constant flow of oxygen, brain cells begin to die within five minutes. Even concentrating and thinking deeply about something can take up to 50% more oxygen and blood than normal, which is the reason being mentally tired is much more fatiguing than just being physically tired.
The human brain consists of two hemispheres, dividing it into left and right. These hemispheres are connected by a nest of fibrous nerves, which are called the corpus callosum.
However, our left and right brain hemispheres are not exactly symmetrical. In fact, the brain’s left hemisphere controls muscle function on the right side of the body and the right hemisphere on the left. Whichever hemisphere is dominant leads to us being left or right-handed.
So, you think you’re an adept multi-tasker and even pride yourself on it? Think again! When we jump between tasks as we try to do them simultaneously, we’re actually just switching context rapidly, not undertaking them at once. That context switch increases our rate of errors by 50 percent, and research shows it actually doubles the time it takes to complete the tasks correctly.
According to a study conducted by the National Science Foundation, the average person has up to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% are serially repetitive – the exact same thoughts we have each and every day – and 80% of them were negative.
The brain restores itself through sleep, and researchers still haven’t been able to unlock the mysteries of how sleep rejuvenates our bodies and minds. But we do know that sufficient sleep is necessary to maintain memory, judgment, reaction time, mood, and concentration, which are impaired if we don’t get enough ZZZs. In fact, it’s during sleep that the brain catalogs and retains all of our memories from waking hours.
The average person has about 4-7 dreams per night, but our dreams, too, present a vast scientific puzzle that has yet to be fully mapped. We understand that our dreams derive from a bevy of factors such as our physiological state, neurological markers, imaginations, memories, and emotions. Our dreams stem from the limbic system in the brain and especially the amygdala, associated with fear and the reason so many of our dreams (and nightmares!) are stressful or fear-induced.
Yawning may be one of the strangest physiological functions until we realize there’s a good reason behind it. When we are tired or sleep-deprived, our brain temperatures rise. But a simple yawn lets in cool air and drops our brain temperature!
The study of addiction and how drugs affect our brains is now well-understood, even if there is no simple fix. We do know that certain substances (including illicit drugs but also alcohol, nicotine, and even sugar) stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, causing the secretion of feel-good hormones like dopamine and others. This creates a vicious cycle of reward and deprivation that leads to addiction as the user needs more and more just to get the same satisfaction.
Fascinating enough, our brain may be the only thing in the universe that can contemplate itself. No other animal or living organism can do the same.
One of the most powerful features of the human brain is its neuroplasticity, or ability to change based on experiences, trauma, and even positive direction. It’s not just retraining your mind to think differently – neuroplasticity means that our brain actually physiology adapts, grows, or recedes. It does so by creating new channels of connectivity for neural networks to reorganize.
Basically, anyone can rewire their brain to affect positive changes or form new habits over time, which you can read about here.
Did you enjoy these facts about the human brain? Look for part two coming soon with 20 more things you didn’t know about the human brain!