I’m the engine that keeps you running all day long, and I’m here to share the mysteries of how I really work.
I have a lot on my plate: 100 billion nerve cells
So you might want to take a moment before you blame me for not being fast enough, failing to get easy math right, or even forgetting your friend’s birthday. It’s not really my fault: Information travels through me between the rates of 0.5 meters per second and 120 meters per second. Even though I weigh about three pounds, I’m a fuel guzzler that uses 20% of your body’s energy.
Google is making me weak
A 2011 study from Columbia University found that you’ve been relying more on the Internet, less on me. That means I’m going to forget more over time. Study author Betsy Sparrow, PhD suggests we should focus on “greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking,” and less on memorization.
Some of us crave junk food. Some of us don’t.
In one study, subjects were shown the names of foods they liked, and the parts of me that got excited were the same parts activated in drug addicts. This may have to do with dopamine, the hormone linked to motivation and pleasure, say researchers. The thinking goes that those with fewer dopamine receptors may need more food to make me happy.
There’s a powerful link between music, nostalgia, and me
In a 2010 study, researchers found just listening to a meaningful song from childhood brought on a happiness triggered by the fond memories.
I can predict future events
Findings from a 2012 study reveal exciting new evidence that my front-most region, the frontopolar cortex, helps predict future events from past experiences. It’s not exactly psychic-superpowers, but I am able to make short-term predictions and think strategically about the future by drawing conclusions from recent patterns. For instance, the study’s participants could anticipate slot machine payoffs based on previous trends in the games.
I get distracted easily when we go shopping
Two cool new studies: One looked at the MRIs of participants watching deceptive ads (think: late-night infomercials). When I was cloudy from stress, lack of sleep, or low awareness, I was most likely to urge you to buy. Another study on shoppers noticed I may subconsciously push you to more expensive products if attractive, potential mates are nearby, so we impress them. (Here are some signs you might have a shopping addiction.)
Sometimes, even I think you should trust your gut
Conscious thought doesn’t always lead to the better choice: One study showed students to be happier when they used me for simple decisions, and used their “gut” for more complex ones. In another study, participants let my unconscious state do the grunt work, and they showed less buyer’s remorse. So: When you think hard on a big decision (new job), don’t get stuck on one of the factors (salary, long-term potential, location, et cetera) and instead, sleep on it.
Brain games might not do much for me. Seriously.
In a recent study, 11,430 volunteers aged 18 to 60 completed a series of online tasks for a minimum of 10 minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks. Even though participants improved at the tasks, researchers believe that there wasn’t a boost in general memory and learning abilities. Want to get sharp in your downtime? Listen to more music: Stanford University researchers found that it helps me better organize chaos, pay attention, make predictions, and update memory. After all, happy music triggers positive memories.
I get stimulated easily, and not by what you might expect
A 2011 study in Addiction Biology found that frequent tanning will fire off the same “reward” response for me as drug addiction (ie, I want to do it again and again). Ditto for binge eating, being popular on Facebook (!), or other obsessive activities. Find healthy ways to stimulate me: exercise, spending time with friends, treating yourself to a day of relaxation.
Ladies: I’m more moody with you. Sorry.
Physically, I’m about ten percent larger in men than women. It doesn’t make guys smarter, it just lets me control their different bodies. Neurologically, it’s more common for women to suffer from mood disorders—but men are more likely to have ADHD or language disabilities.
I peak in my 20s
Memory starts declining at around 27! Even though my ability to function doesn’t start deteriorating until as early as 45, we will start losing some of my cells in your 20s. Beat the odds: Eat your way sharp with these seven research-backed foods like blueberries, that help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, maintain your memory, and boost my acetylcholine levels (which helps improve memory function).
Drinking yourself stupid? It’s all myth
Yes, alcohol disrupts brain function and hurts motor activity, like speaking or walking in a straight line. But it doesn’t kill off entire cells; and adults who drink in moderation do not risk losing brain cells. As a bonus, a glass of red wine a night might protect me from stroke damage, according to a 2010 study.
You can train me to be less impulsive
In an isolated 2012 study, researchers found that people in a simulated gambling task could teach themselves to be more cautious bettors. With more research, scientists believe they can help with new developments in treating addiction and impulse-control disorders like ADHD.
Your cell phone scares me
New research from the National Institute of Health showed that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up my activity in the area closest to the phone antenna. Although the verdict isn’t out yet on cell phone usage and cancer, many more studies reveal cellphone radiation to be linked with other disturbances, like sleep problems. Do us both a favor and limit use, or try a headset or earpiece.
Some parts of me never sleep
It’s important for you to get a good night’s sleep, even if I’m busy: Sleep helps stabilizes memories. It also may help me process them, by encoding the emotional bits and ditching the unnecessary details to remember the order of events.
I can be reprogrammed to be happier
In one study, adults classified as pessimists showed higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were optimists. To rewire me to become more optimistic, take positive actions! Recent research shows that genes play only a 30 to 40% role in your life outlook, and you can shift from being a pessimist to an optimist over time.
Meditation is groovy
A recent report found that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks showed significant changes in my parts linked to memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. Try silently repeating a calming word again and again to prevent distracting thoughts from inundating your brain, or focus on your breathing to be more in the moment. Try following these meditation tips.
I can trick you into thinking busy means fit.
But being swamped at the office or home isn’t the kind of activity I need to stay healthy. People lose concentration by being immobile; exercise helps me rewire and shield against Alzheimer’s disease, among many other health benefits. Help me by fitting in at least three to five sessions of cardio for 30 minutes a week. Can’t swing that? Walk to work, park your car farther from the supermarket, take the stairs, or try dozens of other ways to get more movement in your day.
Here’s what I like you to eat: omega-3s, vitamin B, complex carbs, antioxidants.
Omega-3 fatty acids help my intellectual performance. Choline (the fat-like B vitamin in eggs and other foods) minimizes fatigue and increases my alertness without a trip to the closest Starbucks. It also helps with memory and stress resistance. Complex carbs are useful to improve my mental performance.
Laughter really is the best medicine for me.
My amygdala and hippocampus (two parts linked to depression) light up when I hear laughter, as does my nucleus accumbens, which is a key player in pleasurable feelings. Chuckling reduces stress hormones and lowers blood pressure too, decreasing your chance of heart attack and stroke. In one 2012 study, researchers found an increase in oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”, which enhances my reward centers), when subjects listened to infant laughter. This may just explain the YouTube popularity of laughing baby videos.
I get better with exercise.
Exercise helps more than just keeping your bones strong and heart pumping. Art Kramer, from the University of Illinois, found that memory—one component of my many functions that declines with age—can improve with treadmill usage just three days a week, working up to an hour a day. Exercise increases blood flow to me, which delivers vital oxygen and glucose.
MRIs revealed that areas pivotal for decision-making, planning, and multitasking also improved in those who went on the treadmill.
Watch your blood pressure.
There’s a large body of research connecting high blood pressure and how I function. Hypertension (high blood pressure) puts a constant stress on me and your cardiovascular system, and it can physically be spotted on MRIs as white matter lesions. Don’t ignore warning signs like having a “high-normal” reading, blood pressure creeping up slowly, or only getting high readings at the doctor’s office. (We bet you didn’t know this one surprising activity may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.)
Prevent (or better manage) diabetes to keep me healthy.
In June 2012, a nine-year longitudinal study showed that participants with diabetes who didn’t control their blood sugar levels suffered from cognitive decline. Take control of your diabetes or prevent the disease completely by swapping everyday foods high in sugar for healthier choices, staying active with exercise, and seeing your doctor regularly.
Sources: “The Odd Brain: Mysteries of Our Weird And Wonderful Brains Explained,” Reader’s Digest Magazine, Emotion, USA Today, New York Times, Science , NewsObserver.com, Addiction Biology, NPR.org, PsychCentral.com, faculty.washington.edu, brainfacts.org, Boston.com, PsychologyToday.com, BMJ.com, bbc.co.uk, news.columbia.edu, prevention.com, nature.com, cbsnews.com