Our brains are intricate machines, capable of some truly remarkable tasks - tasks of which most of us are unaware. There is a practically endless roster of fascinating - and even creepily unsettling - facts about the human brain, which only further illustrates the astonishing capabilities and complexities of this crucial organ. Since it's so easy to take for granted all the ways our brains serve and protect us, we've assembled a list with just a small sampling of fascinating things to learn about your brain.
First: a little background on just what the brain does. We humans have the largest brains of any mammal relative to body size. It essentially serves as the body's command center. It regulates the nervous system, processing information from the sensory organs and sending information to the muscles of the body. Different areas of the brain are responsible for processing and carrying out different tasks, but in a very real sense, all the disparate parts work together to keep us functioning, protected, and prepared - oh, and alive.
Stress takes a toll on the body, mind, and spirit. And regular, chronic stress can actually cause the brain to shrink in size. Release of the stress hormone cortisol may decrease the size and effective functioning of the brain's neurons. PTSD and other issues of unresolved trauma often shrink the hippocampus, the area of the brain which forms new memories.
The neurons in the prefrontal cortex, too, may also shrink in response to major life stressors. If you were looking for more proof that good stress management skills are important to optimum brain health, here it is.
Despite all the remarkable things it does, the brain has a fairly low energy output. The average brain could power a dim light bulb of about 20 watts. One expert noted that "the energy consumed by the cortex is only enough to power 1% of its neurons at any time."
So, if anyone ever calls you a dim bulb, that may not be much of a putdown. It's about all the wattage our brains are capable of giving off.
It may be the height of irony. The brain is the control center that processes pain, telling us when something is wrong or when we need to pay closer attention to a particular part of the body. Yet the brain itself is not capable of feeling pain because it has no pain receptors. What about headaches, then? Surely we feel pain with a headache, as anyone who suffers from migraines can tell you.
Actually, headache pain does not come from the brain itself; it comes from the layers of tissue that shield the brain and skull.
We've been programmed to think of cholesterol as a bad thing, but the link between cholesterol and health is one that has come under close scrutiny in recent years. One area where we know cholesterol is actually a good thing is in the relationship between fat and the brain. First of all, 25% of the cholesterol in your body is used by the brain, where, according to Dr. David Perlmutter, it aids in "membrane function, acts as an antioxidant, and serves as the raw material from which we are able to make things like progesterone, estrogen, cortisol, testosterone and even vitamin D."
Also, research has revealed that in older adults, those with higher cholesterol levels had better overall memory function. Those with lower cholesterol had a higher risk of depression. Oh, and death. (!)