The more we study our brain, the more we understand ourselves and our actions. What we are now, what we accept to be true and what we love are things that are deeply connected with the way our brain is wired. As individuals, studying the brain will help us make better decisions for our future as we become more disciplined and more aware about the amazing problem solving machine we have at our disposal. As a community, studying the brain will change the way we look at education, politics, and the future of the humanity. In that microscopic circuit of the brain is written the history and the future of our species.
The author wrote this book for the large audience. To understand the concepts presented no specialized knowledge is required, just curiosity and thirst for self-exploration. I really enjoyed this book as it presented in a very clear way the important role the brain plays in the world of extreme sports, criminal justice, facial expressions, genocide, gut feelings, robotics, and the search for immortality.
Why are we different?
A very interesting concept I haven’t given much thought until reading the book is the fact that, unlike other animals, we humans are born incomplete and helpless. For about a year we can not walk, for about two we can not articulate complete thoughts and it will take many more until we will be able to take care of us. At a first glance, this seems like a disadvantage for us since the baby giraffe can learn to stand on its feet in a few hours and the dolphins are born swimming.
But in reality, this is our true advantage and the reason we are the rulers of this planet: the animals have a preprogrammed brain and the humans have an adaptable brain. The human brain can be formed by the details of life experiences, so that it can develop perfectly well in different environments, from the icy tundra to the noisy urban centers. This is why the first 2 years of life are very important for the healthy development of the children.
How to keep the brain healthy
Knowing that having a brain in peak condition will improve every aspect of our lives will automatically raise the question: what can we do to keep it strong and healthy? Beginning with 1994, a study was conducted on a very stable group (more than 1100 monks and nuns who have similar education, nutrition and social status) that revealed some unexpected results: if the tissue of the brain is affected by a disease like Alzheimer it does not really mean that person will have cognitive issues. The data was analysed again and it was discovered that psychological factors and the life experiences determined if the person will show sign of illness or not.
Particularly, cognitive exercises that are keeping the brain active like crosswords, reading, driving, learning new abilities, taking responsibilities, social interactions and physical activities had a protection role. Same was true for practicing being conscious, meditating, having a life goal and an active life. Also, negative factors like loneliness, anxiety and depression were associated with a rapid cognitive decline.
So, if you do not have this habits already, it may be a good idea to incorporate some of them into your routine in order to keep your brain in maximum shape.
What is reality?
Even though we all live together in one single world, each one of us sees it differently. This happens not only because each one of us had different life experiences, but also because the brain is wired to present us the world in a way that will help us function better. Understanding that people could have very different perspectives on very similar things can greatly improve our social skills.
For example, let us play with two colors: white and red. If you place a red dot in a middle of a white square, for some people it will look just like any other drawing. But for others, it will create very powerful feelings of patriotism and will bring to mind many heroic stories about the history of Japan.
The difference in perspective from the example above is due to cultural differences. However, our brain is also shifting our perspective in other ways. Even if we do not realize it, our eyes are moving around 4 times each second. If you would move a camera and try to record a video in the same way your eyes are moving, you will realize that the recording will be very bad. So why does the world seems stable when we look at it? Because our internal model works based on the assumption that the external world is stable. Your eyes are not similar to a camera – they are just gathering more details to fuel the internal model.
In reality, color, sounds and odor do not exist and there are people who can taste colors and see sounds. So, we can say that the brain tricks us in an unlimited amount of ways, many times for the better.
Are we really in charge?
The Universe has proven to be far bigger than we could ever saw looking at the sky. Similarly, the universe from our own head greatly exceeds our conscious experiences. The effort required to recognize the face of a friend, to drive a car or to understand a joke seems tiny but that is only because of the crazy amount of operations done by the subconscious mind. In every moment of your life, the neural networks in the brain are working at full capacity: billions of electric signals are traveling the brain cells creating chemical impulses in billions of other connections between neurons. Fortunately, you are not conscious of this activity, but your life is modeled and colored by what happens at the neural level: the way you behave, what is important to you, your reactions, desires and beliefs are all the result of these hidden networks.
In the first days we learn a new motor ability, the cerebellum has a very important role, coordinating the necessary movements for precision and perfect synchronization. After practicing a skill for long enough, the subconscious mind will take over, and we are not thinking about the way we are climbing the stairs or touching the keyboard any more. Now we can do more things at the same time. Sometimes, an ability is so deeply engrained that the pattern of circuits at its base is situated beneath the brain, in the spinal cord. After a while, we loose access to the sophisticated programs unfolding subconsciously and we can not say exactly how we do what we do. Trying to change these abilities in a conscious manner will often diminish performance (the rock climbers can attest to that). When we practice something in a conscious manner, the brain works more in the beta-wave frequency, while doing something subconsciously will trigger more alpha-waves.
What happens when we make decisions
When you are thinking about having an extra ice cream, some brain networks want the sugar surplus. Others vote against this decisions because in the long term you want to look different. And others are proposing to have it only if you promise yourself to go to the gym and burn the extra calories. The brain is like a neural parliament made up by rival parties battling for supremacy. However, the body has an important role in making decisions;
Imagine you have to choose a certain type of soup. You have to take into account a lot of information: calories, price, amount of salt, taste, package. If you were a robot, you could stay stuck for a long time trying to compute the best decision. But we, as humans, have an extra review offered to us by our body: maybe our palms are a bit sweaty after thinking about our budget, or you salivate when you are trying to remember the last time you had that kind of soup, or you feel the curiosity reading other ingredients for a soup you haven’t tried yet. This body experience is what allows the brain to quickly provide a value for soup A and soup B. Those signals are more subtle than when you are facing immediate danger like seeing an angry animal ready to bite you, but each choice is marked by body reactions.
Ulysses, a legendary Greek hero, was sailing his ship close to an island on which there lived mermaids who could sing in an angelic way. Their songs were so strong and beautiful that the sailors who heard it would smash their ship in order to get to the shore. Because Ulysses wanted to hear the song but he knew this was dangerous, he ordered his men to tie him up and cover their ears. He new that the present Ulysses was not the problem, but the future Ulysses will be. A decision of this type is called an Ulysses contract, and we can see it everywhere: students uninstalling games in order to learn for the exam, people setting meetings at the gym in order to be sure they will get there, or even setting up donations to causes you do not support if you failed to remain disciplined. The Ulysses contract is a good way to help someone keep the behavior of the person he wants to become.
In order to do the right things and stay on course, we usually use our willpower. But we all know when it diminishes: after a long, tiring day of working. A lot of studies have shown that is not just a thing we can exercise, but also a resource we consume. In order to make good decisions we need to be conscious about when this happens and try to replenish ourselves with energy in order to keep making the right choices.
The social brain
Strong empathy is one of the most distinctive human attributes. Empathizing with a person means literary feeling the other’s pain. We are going through a convincing simulation of the way we would feel if we were in that state. This is why movies and novels are so captivating: fictional or not, the characters are sending us their agony or joy.
We are gifted with this ability because it is useful: knowing what someone else is feeling will help us better predict what their future actions will be.
Unfortunately, history taught us that this ability can be hijacked trough continuous propaganda that spreads hatred towards other groups of people in order to dehumanize them, so that the empathy mechanism will stop working. We must always be very conscious about this kinds of attempts and fight them off because this is what lead humanity to commit the biggest crimes in its history.
How did we conquered the world?
In the last 100 000 years, our species has gone a long way: we have transformed from primitive hunter-gatherers to a hyper-connected species that conquered the planet and defined its own destiny. The secret of our success and our future opportunities relies on the amazing ability of our brain to adapt, known as cerebral plasticity.
Cerebral plasticity is what we used to enter any environment and get familiar with local particularities that we needed in order to survive including the local language or cultural differences. It is also the key to our future, because it opens the way of changing our own “hardware”.
Modern medicine has shown us that people can still live a normal life even if part of their brain is damaged. That is because our brain reprograms in order to adapt to the required inputs, outputs, and tasks that need to be completed. From this point of view, the brain is fundamentally different from a digital computer’s hardware because it is continually reprogrammed throughout our lives (the circuits are reconfigured). Even though the adult brain is not as flexible as a child brain, it still keeps the amazing ability to adapt and change. This property of the brain permits a new fusion between technology and biology.
Connecting peripheral devices
We are getting better and better at connecting our bodies to different devices. These days, hundreds of thousands of people are walking around using artificial hearing and artificial sighting. With a device called cochlear implant, an external microphone digitises the sounds and sends them to the auditory nerve. Similarly, the retinal implant uses a camera to send information to the optic nerve. These devices have given back the senses to many people around the world.
But it wasn’t always clear that such an approach will work. When such technologies were in the early stages of development, a lot of researchers were skeptical that a dialog could be made between the metal electrodes and the biological cells. As it was proven, the brain learns how to interpret signals in a similar way in which it learns a new language. At first, the electrical signals can not be decoded, but, in the end, the neural networks are beginning to identify patterns in the received information. Even though the input signals are raw, the brain finds a way to decipher them, coordinating the information with the other senses. If there is a structure in the incoming input, the brain discovers it (usually in the span of a few weeks) and the information begins to make sense, even though the input sent by the implants is a bit different than the one sent by our natural sense organs.
We came into this world with a standard set of basic senses which are permitting us to experiment just a small fraction of the world. We can draw an analogy between our senses and the peripheral components of a computer. The brain does not really care where the information comes from, it will learn to decode it. So, in the future, it is plausible than we can connect different peripheral components to our brain which in turn will learn to make use of the new information.
Some animals have a wide range of other peripheral sensors: the snakes have heat sensors, some fish species have electro-sensors, cows and birds have magnetite which helps them orient using Earth’s magnetic field, and a lot of animals can see in the ultra-violet spectrum.
An example of a human-made sensor is a device no bigger than a postal stamp, called BrainPort, that works by sending little electric shocks to the tongue through a network. A blind person can wear sun glasses that contain a small camera which will provide the pixels that will be transformed in electric shocks for the tongue. A blind athlete named Erik Weihenmayer, uses BrainPort to climb rocks.
David Eagleman and Scott Novich have invented a new way to help people hear called VEST, which is a portable technology that captures sound from the environment and directs is towards small engines that vibrate on the torso. Initially, these vibratory signals make so sense, but, with enough exercise, the brain realizes how to use the data. Unlike the cochlear implant, this does not require any surgery and it is 20 times cheaper.
But all that represents just sensory substitution. If we can receive different information than we are used to, then why not enhance ourselves with other type of senses?
David Eagleman, author of “The Brain”, works with his students to add new senses to the human repertoire in order to extend the experience of the surrounding world. Even though the internet sends petabytes of interesting data, in the present we only have access to that information through a computer or smartphone screen. What if we could have that information inserted into our body in real time, so that it will become part of our direct world experience. What if we could really “feel” that info about the weather, the stock market and the last tweets while we are doing our daily routine?
Our brain is already very good at multitasking in the sense that after we have mastered one skill (like driving) we can perform other actions at the same time (changing the radio station, speaking, smoking). Even though today many people have bionic limbs that they can operate using only the power of thought, we do not know yet what are the limits in using similar but more advanced technology like using your brain to control the movements of a machine that is miles away while responding to some emails and using the motor cortex to operate the vacuum cleaner.
The nature has done a great job in choosing the chemical components to construct our bodies. Keep a robot in the rain for too long and, unlike us, it will get rusty. Bone is also less dense than metals and this is important because the weight of our bones strongly affects the energy needed to move around. We may have had efficient bodies for the life on Earth, but they are not the best when it comes to going into space and exploring new worlds.
What is clear is that we are no longer a natural species that has to wait for sensory adaptation on the evolution scale. In the far future, we will not just extend our bodies but also our consciousness. Having new sensory experiences will profoundly change us as individuals: our physical condition determines what we are feeling, thinking and who we are. Without the limits of our standard bodies and standard senses, we will become different persons and maybe our grand-grand-grandchildren will struggle to understand what we were and what really mattered to us. And maybe in that moment of history, we would have much more in common with our ancestors from the Stone Age than with our descendants from the near future.
Some people want to extend their lives by using cryopreservation (the use of very low temperatures to preserve structurally intact living cells and tissues). Others have approached a different direction of research: what if there are other ways to access the information stored in the brain?
As the computer software can work on different types of hardware, it is possible that the software of the mind could work on other platforms too. What if the biological neurons do not have a special property and the identity of a person would depend only on the way they communicate? This perspective is known as the computational hypothesis of the brain and it promotes the fact that the essential part is not represented by the neurons, synapses or other biological elements but by the computations they perform. According to this, it does not matter what the brain is physically. What really matters is what it does.
If this theory is proven true, then we could run the brain on every substrate. So long as the computations are correct, the complex processes from within the new material will create all the thoughts, emotions and aspects of our personality. Than means we can run a simulation of a person without the physical brain.
A lot of movies and TV shows have been made about this topic also:
If we could have enough computers to simulate the interactions of the human brain, we could “transfer” ourselves. We could exist at a digital level running like a simulation, evading the biological matter from which we came and becoming non-biological beings. That would be the most significant progress of our species, one that could bring us into an era of transhumanism, where we could have any kind of life we want. If this idea will be proven right, then this is what will permit us to get to other solar systems.
Our current bodies are not allowing us to get to the exoplanets we believe are very similar with Earth. But, because we are able to turn off a simulation and turn it back on 1000 years later our consciousness would not even realize how much time the transportation took.
Now is the time when our species discovers the tools in which we can model our destiny. What we will become is entirely on us.
Six interesting stories about the power of our brain
1. Visions in the dark
There is a special cell in Alcatraz called “The Hole”. If you broke the rules in the outside world, you were sent to Alcatraz. If you broke the rules while in Alcatraz, you were sent to the dreadful hole. It is a 9 square meters place covered in total darkness. While in there you cannot see any light and you can not hear any sound. You are completely alone.
After an armed robbery, Robert Luke (nicknamed Cold Blue Luke) was sent to the hole for 29 days. While in there, an interesting phenomenon emerged: although there were no lights or sounds, the brains of the inmates continued to “see”. Sometimes they saw a beam of light that gets bigger and bigger until it transforms into a TV screen, other times they saw images of the trips they made while they were free. They said the experience seemed very real and it was something completely different than daydreaming.
These testimonies make clear the relation between the outside world and what we call reality. How can we explain what Luke described? According to the traditional model of the “sight mechanism”, perception is the result of processing the information that begins in the eyes and ends in a mysterious point in the brain. However, this model in incorrect.
In fact, the brain generates its own reality, even before receiving information that comes from the eyes and the other senses. It is about the internal model. The thalamus is situated between the eyes, in the front side of our head, while the visual cortex is situated in the back of our head.
Surprisingly, the number of connections that bring the visual information to the visual cortex is 10 times smaller than the number of connections that goes into the opposite direction.
The visual cortex sends the thalamus detailed expectations of the world, the suppositions of the brain regarding what is happening outside. Then the thalamus compares that with the information that comes from the eyes. If those two expectations correspond (“when I turn around I should see a chair there”), the visual system is bombarded with much less impulses. The thalamus just sends a report regarding the differences between what the eyes are seeing and what the internal model of the brain predicted. The visual cortex receives only the information that was not anticipated.
So, in every moment, the experience of sight is based less on the light that enters our eyes and more on what is already in our mind. That explains the experience of Cold Blue Luke – even when it does not receive external data, the brain continues to generate its own images. Something similar happens every time we are dreaming, but many people like to try the sensorial depravation thanks for a cooler experience.
2. Time distortion – can we be like Neo?
There is a part of reality that we rarely think about: the experience our brain has regarding time can often be pretty strange. In some situations, it seems like reality unfolds quicker or slower.
We all heard stories about people who were in desperate situations and needed to act fast (accidents, armed robberies or seeing a dear one in danger). After that, they can describe their experience in detail and it seems time was running slower in order for them to calculate the best scenarios and act accordingly. David Eagleman, the author of The Brain, had a similar experience as a kid when he fell of the roof of his house. The journey down seemed like an eternity but he later approximated it to last only 0.8 seconds.
Jeb Corliss, who practices a sport that requires jumping from a plane in a wingsuit, also experienced the same phenomenon one time, when something went wrong during the flight and he had to make the decision to unpack his parachute or not. What seemed like many minutes only lasted about 6 seconds in reality.
To test this ability, an experiment was conducted where people would jump of a plane wearing a digital screen on their wrist that showed numbers who were changing very fast. If the time was really moving slower for them, they could have identified more numbers than when they were outside any danger. But that did not happen, their performance did not increase and it seems like we do not have the powers of Neo yet.
The answer for this phenomenon seems to be linked with the way we store memories. In threatening situations, a region from the brain called amygdala gains speed, taking over resources from other brain regions and forces everything to deal with the situation at hand. The memories that are formed when the amygdala is hyper-active are richer and more detailed than the ones normally created. This is the role of memory: to keep evidence of the important information, so that, when you will be confronted with a similar situation, your brain will have more information to help you survive. In other words, when you are in a life threatening situation, is a good idea to take notes.
This has the following secondary effect: the brain is not used with such memory density (the road was dirty, the other driver looked like my neighbour, it was dust in the air, the rearview mirror was falling), so that, when you relieve the experience, you imagine the specific event took longer. But if you try and remember if the other persons where screaming a slow-motion “nooooooooo”, the answer is probably no.
3. Proprioception – our underrated superpower
We take for granted a lot of the things we can do. For instance, it seems natural to pick up a cup of coffee and drink from it. In reality, this is a very complex action, based on billions of electric impulses coordinated by the brain. The robotics field is still struggling to simulate this and while a supercomputer requires very high energy costs, our brain can solve the problems very effectively, using only the energy of a light bulb (~ 60 watts).
In a nutshell, this is what happens in this scenario: The visual system scans the scene for the cup of coffee, and our years of experience provide memories regarding coffee in other situations. The prefrontal cortex generates the signals to the motor cortex, which coordinates with precision muscle contractions – through the torso, arm, forearm and hand – so that you can grab the cup. While you are grabbing the cup, the nerves are bringing back a lot of information about its weight, temperature, place in space, and so on. This information goes up through the spinal cord to the brain, and a response is send back in a fraction of a second in order to adjust the force to perform the action. It would take dozens of supercomputers in order to equal the computing power necessary to perform this action. But the only thing we are conscious about is if we brought the coffee to our lips or not. Even with our eyes closed we know the position of our hands, legs or back. This capacity of recognizing the state of the muscles is called proprioception. When we have a numb limb, the proprioception will not work anymore because of the pressure applied upon the nerves.
In order to have a glimpse of what it would mean to do all those things consciously, we can study the case of Ian Waterman, who suffered a rare type of nerve lesion when he was 19, so he remained without the sensitive nerves that give the brain information about touch and the position of his limbs. He could not automatically control any body movement even if his muscles were in good state. He didn’t want to let this condition limit him to a life without moving, so he gets up and walks, but, while he is awake, he must always be very conscious about every movement the body is doing. Because he does not know here his limbs are, Ian has to lean his face forward to watch his feet, and his hands backwards to keep his equilibrium. Because he can not feel the floor, he must anticipate the exact distance of every step and do it by contracting his leg. Ian says that people around him are moving with such fluidity that they do not realize they have an amazing system that coordinates this process for them.
So, next time you see someone walking, running, skiing or skateboarding, pause for a second to wonder about the power of the unconscious brain that makes all of it possible.
4. The Brain and the 6th sense
Mike May lost his eyesight when he was three years and a half old. A chemical explosion hurt his corneas and his eyes had no more access to the photons. Although he was blind, he became very successful in bussines and also a skiing champion at the paralympics games, navigating using sound indications.
After more than 40 years of blindness, Mike found out about an innovative treatment with stem cells which could fix the physical injury of his eyes and he decided to perform the surgery.
Then, something unexpected happened: a lot of TV cameras were ready to show the moment when his bandages were taken off. Mike is describing the moment like a bombardment of light and images over the eyes, an overwhelming torrent of information. The new corneas of Mike received the light correctly, but his brain could not understand the information he was receiving. While the cameras were rolling, he looked at his children and smiled, but, in his mind, he was terrified, because he could not tell how they look like or differentiate them. Even if the surgery was a success, Mike couldn’t say he got his eyesight back, because his brain was screaming “Oh my God!”. He found skiing harder than when he was blind, and struggled to differentiate people and objects. Now, 15 years after the surgery, it is still hard for him to read some words or facial expressions, but he uses his other senses to verify the information: he listens, picks up and touches.
The lesson that we can learn from Mike’s experience is that the visual system is not similar with a video camera: the eyesight does not require just lifting the sens cap. To see it is not enough just to have some functional set of eyes. In Mike’s case, 40 years of blindness have led to his visual system territory (visual cortex) being taken over by other senses (for example, hearing and touching). The ability to see is the result of the coordination of billions of neurons which creates a complex and different symphony.
Having the other senses more developed is often called having a 6th sense.
5. The link between memory and imagination
Henry Molaison had his first epileptic attack when he was 15 years old. From that moment on, the attacks became more and more frequent. Because in the future it was expected that more violent convulsions will appear, he was subjected to an experimental surgical operation: the middle part of the temporary lobe (including the hippocampus) was removed on both sides of the brain. Henry stopped having seizures but at a terrible cost: for the rest of his life he could not form any new memory.
This does not end here. Beyond this incapacity to form new memories, Molaison was also incapable to imagine the future. If you imagine yourself standing on the beach, there are a lot of things that can go through your mind, but the only thing Henry could think of was the color blue.
This unfortunate incident tells us something about the brain mechanisms that form the basis of memory: their role is not only to simply record what happened, but also to permit us to project ourselves into the future. To imagine the experience you will have tomorrow at the beach, the hippocampus has an essential role in assembling an imagined future based on information from our own past.
6. The link between pathological changes in the brain and our behavior
We know that the experiences we have in life are changing the structure of our brain. The changes in our brain shows us what we did and who we are.
But what happens when our brain changes because of an illness or a lesion?
On august 1st 1966, Charles Whitman, 25 years old, used his gun to randomly shot into a crowd of people, before being stopped by the police. The curious thing was that no one had any information about him that could anticipate what happened. He as a cashier at a bank and he was studying engineering. But, before being gunned down, he wrote a farewell note in which he asked for an autopsy after his death to check if something was physical wrong with him.
His request was granted. After autopsy, it was reported that Whitman had a small tumor on his brain that was pressing a part of his cortex called the amygdala – associated with fear and aggression. This little pressure had made Whitman do things he would not normally do, he changed together with his brain matter.
This is an extreme case, but a series of less dramatic changes in our own brain can change our identity. Some forms of epilepsy are making people more religious, Parkinson disease could make people loose their faith, and Parkinson medication can transform others into hardcore gamblers. Not only an illness can change the brain, but also substances like drugs or alcohol, and literally everything we do in our lives, from the movies that we watch to the jobs that we have, all are contributing to the continuous reconfiguration of our neural network who makes us who we are. If you are looking for a beneficial habit to reconfigure the brain, look no further than meditation, that can change the brain structure for the better in less than 8 weeks.
23 Interesting facts about our brain you should know about
from “The Brain – the story of you” by David Eagleman
Since our birth, we have at our disposal the most impressive computer ever created. Learning more about the brain and how we can put it to work 100% for us is probably the best thing we can do in our lives. Here are 23 interesting facts about the brain that can help you to understand more about yourself and your potential.
- When the brain of Albert Einstein was examined, nobody discovered the secret of his genius but it was noticed that the cerebral region responsible for commanding the fingers of the left hand was bigger than normal, creating a so-called “omega sign”. This was due to his lesser known passion: playing the violin. The people who play the piano develop an omega sign on both hemispheres, due to the graceful and detailed movements they perform with both their hands.
- Priming is the phenomenon that occurs when one thing influences the perception of another thing. For example, if you’re holding a hot drink in your hand you will probably describe your relationship with a family member more favorably than if you were holding a cold drink.
- Our behavior and decisions can be influenced by a little stimulus without us even noticing it. For example, placing fruits at the eye-level in supermarkets makes people choose healthier foods. This aspect is explained very well in the book Nudge.
- During an experiment done by Eckhard Hess in 1965, a group of men was asked to look at photos of women and choose which one they thought was the most attractive. They all chose the ones which had dilated pupils. But none of them seemed to notice that and it is also believed that none of them knew dilated pupils are a sign of female excitement.
- We are attracted by the things that make us think of ourselves. It is believed that this is why the number of couples formed by people who’s name begins with the same letter is very high. Also, among dentists, there are a lot of people named Denise or Dennis, and many individuals named Laura or Lawrence will become lawyers.
- All people have a reflex called Mirroring which consists of mimicking the facial expressions that we see. A smile is reflected by a smile even if the movement of the face muscles is subtle and hardly noticed. What is the reason behind this reflex? To better understand the feelings of the ones around us. This is also the reason long-married couples are starting to look alike: they have been mirroring each other for so much time that they have developed similar wrinkles. Also, a study conducted in 1989 concluded that people who had botox injected in their face in order to appear younger have more difficulty understanding other people’s emotions, due to the numbness of their facial muscles.
- When looking through a microscope, it is impossible to notice the difference between a rat neuron and a human neuron. Both brains are programmed in the same way and both go through the same development stages. This is the reason rates are used for experiments before applying them to humans.
- Approximately 3% of the population suffers from synesthesia – the result of the contact between some sensory regions of the brain. People with this condition can “taste words“, “see sounds like color” or “hear visual movement“.
- Starting from 1887, before the microscopes were invented, the brain was studied by chemical staining portions of cerebral cortex, revealing individual brain cells. That was the first time humanity had a glimpse of the complexity of the human brain.
- Even with our eyes closed we know the position of our hands, legs or back. This capacity of recognizing the state of the muscles is called proprioception. When we have a numb member, the proprioception will not work anymore because of the pressure applied upon the nerves.
- Electroencephalogram is a method of monitoring the global electric activity generated by the neurons. Starting with 1940 different kinds of brainwaves were found: Delta waves (<4Hz) produced during sleeping, Theta waves (4 – 7 Hz) associated with profound relaxation and visualisation, Alpha waves (8 – 13 Hz) produced when we are calm and relaxed, Beta waves (13 – 38 Hz) produced when we think intensively and solving problems, and Gamma waves (39 – 100 Hz) implicated in profound mental activity, reflection and planning.
- During our lifetime the number of brain cells remains the same but the synapses are always changing depending on our experiences.
A 2 year old child has more than 100 000 billion synapses, double the amount of an adult. That is because the synapses that are not used are eliminated. That means that you become who you are not by the elements that are developing in your brain, but by the elements that are removed.
The Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has an important role in controlling impulses, is the part of the brain that reaches maturity later, after 20 years old. This is why insurances charge more the adolescent drivers and teenagers are treated differently than adults in court.
- Our activities will continue to shape our brain well beyond teenage years. Because all taxi drivers from London are obliged to memorize 320 routes, 25000 streets and 20000 points of interest in order to get the license, they are developing their spacial memory and because of that the posterior part of their hippocampus increases.
- In the span of 7 years all the atoms in the human body are replaced by other atoms.The only thing we have in common with our older versions is our memory. And even that suffers changes over time.
The enemy of memory is not time, but other memories. Each new account must set new relations between a finite set of neurons. When a neuron leaves a constellation in order to take part of a new one, the memory associated with the former becomes weaker.
- Information transmitted through a light beam needs more time to make its way through the visual system than the noise signals transmitted through the auditory system. This is why a gun is used in order to signal the start of a sprinting competition.
However, when you clap your hands together everything looks synchronized, even though we know sounds are processed faster than images. This is due to some editing tricks of the brain who hides the difference between the arrival of the image and sound. The brain gathers all the information from all the senses before he chooses a story about what is going on.
The visual cortex sends the thalamus the assumptions of the brain about what happens in the exterior world, and receives back the differences between the predicted model and what the eyes saw. That means the visual cortex gets back only the information that wasn’t expected.
- In reality, colors do not exist. When electromagnetic radiations touch an object, some of them reverberate and are received by the eye. We can distinguish millions of combinations of wavelengths but it is only in our minds where they become colors.
The visible light is just a fraction from the electromagnetic spectrum (less than 1 in 10 thousand billions). The rest of the spectrum (wireless internet, X-rays, radio waves, microwaves) flows through us now and we are not aware of it, because we do not have biological receptors to receive that kind of signals.
The reality is also deaf and odorless: the compression and expansion of air are received by the ears and transformed to electrical signals, which the brain presents to us as sounds. Also, the molecules that float in the air are caught by the receptors in the nose and interpreted by the brain as different smells. Recently, scientists have come up with new explanations about the way our brains use autocorrect features to make out sounds.