Our noggins are pretty incredible organs, and we are just starting to truly scratch at the surface of what our brains are capable of. In The Future Of the Brain: Essays By the World's Leading Neuroscientists, scientist Gary Marcus writes that we are currently in the most exciting time in the history of neuroscience, discovering and learning more than ever before. And the excitement goes beyond the scientific community: President Obama is investing in a new research effort called the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which will further our understanding of brain injuries, mental illnesses, and Alzheimer's disease.
This is promising news, and not just because it's exciting to learn about what's going on inside our heads: this research will also help scientists develop treatments for numerous brain disorders and diseases that are currently not well understood. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke lists 400 neurological disorders , and the monetary costs required to treat them are disproportionately high, as confirmed by data from the World Health Organization. This new wave of research might help make inroads to treatment, making proper care more easily accessible for those who are suffering.
So when we're learning about the brain, we're not only learning about what it can do — we're also learning about how to protect it. It's mind-blowing enough to stop you in your tracks, especially when you consider how the brain is the only thing on the planet that can think about itself. Trippy, right? Check out these six surprising facts about the human mind.
1. We Can Improve Our Memory By Using Emotion
Researchers and psychologists at New York University have been uncovering incredible information about the adaptive power of human memory, focusing on how emotional stimuli plays a primary role in determining what we remember the most. The more arousing or traumatic the incident, the more likely our brain will have access to it years later — it's why we can all remember where we were on 9/11, or can easily recall the details of the the first time we fell in love. When we feel strong emotion, we activate more parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala, striatum, and hippocampus, so it's likely that the details will be tucked away for the long run.
Scientists have discovered that this strong connection means we can actually strengthen or manipulate our own memory by tapping into our emotions and using those feelings to embed recollections. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers found that mice's neurons — and thus, their memories — could be rewired by using light to influence emotions. This is particularly significant for the practice of psychotherapy, as it might be possible to help people quite literally change their bad, destructive memories to good ones.
2. Our Digestive Systems Are Connected To Our Minds
Grandma was right — we truly are what we eat. Recent research suggests that there are much stronger connections between our guts and our brains than we ever imagined. Dr. Emeran Mayer, professor of medicine and psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR that this is a whole new way to think about the human mind. His work found that connections in the brain differed in individuals depending on the type of bacteria that resided in the digestive system; the mix of microbes affected how our heads are wired.
This topic is picking up a lot of speed, because the National Institute of Mental Health tossed $1 million into a new research program centered on the microbiome-brain connection, and for good reason. Unhealthy gut bacteria has been negatively linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Scientists are still trying to find out exactly how they're linked — the immune system and vagus nerve are predicted to play big roles — but they do know there is a solid correlation there that deserves time and attention (and a million bucks).
More professionals are taking this research into consideration and looking into how probiotics, the good, "live" bacteria that improve digestive health and boost the immune system, may be used to treat illnesses such as chronic anxiety and clinical depression. A study at Leiden University proved that the half of their participants who took probiotics daily for four weeks became "significantly less reactive to sad moods." The healthy bacteria also seemed to prevent the obsessive negative thinking that is the driving force behind depressive symptoms.
3. Brains Change During Pregnancy
Not only do our bodies morph beautifully during and after pregnancy — our brains function differently, too. Several neurologists told the Atlantic that "pregnancy tinkers with the very structure" of a woman's brain. The amygdala, the section responsible for memory and emotional reactions, physically grows when you become pregnant — and continues to do so after giving birth. This is also related to the hormonal shifts that take place inside a a pregnant brain, including the increased levels of oxytocin.
Laura Glynn, a psychologist at Chapman University in California, conducted a study that showed how pregnant rats develop new olfactory neurons, which permanently strengthened their sense of smell. She told Live Science that small discoveries like this one suggest that, although they can't say it with full certainty yet, it's "extremely likely" that pregnancy permanently alters a woman's brain, making her more in tune with her environment and able to connect strongly with both her baby and any other humans around her.
4. Our Brains Don't Fully Mature Until Age 25
According to science, turning 18 doesn't propel us into adulthood, no matter what the law may say — because our brains don't completely develop until we turn 25. Sandra Aamodt, author of Welcome To Your Child's Brain, told NPR that the prefrontal cortex —the section that inhibits impulses and organizes behavior in order to reach a certain goal — is only halfway grown by the time we hit our latter teenage years. Plus, the reward system in our brain is still highly active when we're in our late teens, meaning that we're more susceptible to peer pressure than we will be in our mid to late 20s.
5. "Face Blindness" Is A Real Thing
My friend's husband once told me that he wasn't able to recognize faces; when he told me he was "face blind," I couldn't help but roll my eyes. But it turns out that he was telling the truth, and he's one of many — 2.5 percent of the population suffer from prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder that prevents people from recognizing others' faces, including their own. The area of the brain that is supposed to be in charge of recognizing faces is called the fusiform gyrus; the neuron connections that take place there are responsible for telling the rest of the brain who you're looking at. But in folks with prosopagnosia, this system just doesn't function correctly.
Some people are born with this disorder, while others have acquired it through an injury that has directly affected the occipito-temporal lobe. Luckily, people dealing with prosopagnosia aren't left without any tools to recognize others — their other senses, such as smell, hearing, and ability to recognize body shape, kick in pretty strongly, allowing them to quickly understand who is approaching. And while it may sound dire, it's actually not debilitating. I mean, Brad Pitt thinks he may suffer from prosopagnosia, and he's doing pretty well for himself, right?
6. Brain-To-Brain Communication Is Possible
Telepathy isn't a total myth. Seriously. In 2013, scientists at the University of Washington successfully facilitated an incident of brain-to-brain communication. The experiment involved placing three pairs of individuals half a mile apart; the "sender" was hooked to a machine that reads brain pulses, which were then sent to the "receiver," who was hooked up to a stimulation coil placed next to the part of his brain that controls hand movements. A simple thought from the former to the latter automatically resulted in a related hand gesture.
Researcher Andrea Stocco said, in a university statement on the project, that this is the first step towards developing a viable technology to make brain-to-brain communication possible. Although the accuracy range in this initial test ranged between 25 and 83 percent, it was still enough to catch people's attention all over the world and earn the scientists involved in the project a $1 million grant to continue the research.
As we delve further into the subject, scientists are seeing that the computer technology exists already, but the interface between brain and machine still needs a little tweaking. After all, getting a computer to send a message to one small group of nerve cells among the 86 billion that make up the human mind is not exactly easy.
Sure, this is all pretty exciting and fabulously sci-fi; but can it improve our daily lives? Though it's of limited use to many of us, it could be a great asset for folks who struggle to verbally communicate.
We're still only just beginning to understand what our brains are capable of — and if all of this is any indication of the kind of things we'll discover about our brains in the future, facts about our minds are definitely going to remain mind-blowing.
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