Than You Think
The human brain is, so far as we know, the most complicated thing in the universe. It exists in the lonely darkness of the skull, but by interpreting electrical signals from the senses it’s able to build up a detailed picture of the world around it.
Quite how accurate this picture is, and how closely one person’s version of reality matches with that of another, is not known for sure. It is nonetheless an impressive trick.
There’s still a great deal we don’t understand about the human brain, and it may well be that we’re never going to be smart enough to figure it out completely.
We do know that a lot of strange and extraordinary things are going on inside our heads. These are ten reasons why your brain might be crazier than you think.
10. Your Brain’s too Complex for a Supercomputer
Japan’s K computer is one of the fastest and most powerful supercomputers in the world. Its 88,000 processors are capable of an astonishing 10.51 quadrillion computations per second, and it chews its way through roughly the same amount of electricity as a medium-sized town.
Since becoming operational in 2011, at which point it was ranked as the fastest computer in the world, the machine’s capabilities have been harnessed for medical research, disaster prevention, and modelling climate change. In 2014 it was used to create the most accurate simulation of a human brain’s activity ever attempted.
Only a mere 1% of the brain’s entire neural network was simulated, anything more would have been too much even for a machine as powerful and sophisticated as the K Computer. Even then it required some heavy lifting, and it took the Japanese machine some 40 minutes to replicate just one second of brain activity.
The K Computer is due for retirement in August 2019, having been surpassed by ever faster and more powerful machines. Even these are not yet capable of replicating the complexity of the human brain.
9. Memory Capacity
In 2007 a Canadian named Dave Farrow broke a world record when he successfully memorized a sequence of 3,068 playing cards.
While this is an extraordinary achievement, particularly for those of us who struggle to remember where we left our keys, it only scratches the surface of the human brain’s memory storage capacity.
Until recently this was believed to come in at somewhere around one and ten terabytes, but recent studies suggest the true total is several orders of magnitude greater.
Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies believe the average human brain can store over a petabyte of data. That’s the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text, or around 2% of the total number of written words in every language in all recorded history.
Much of this capacity is devoted to such things as ensuring you don’t wake up having forgotten how to read a book or drive. By necessity, only a fraction of the remainder is available to you at any one time. It would be enormously inconvenient if you had to trawl through your memories of everywhere you’d ever been to work out where you lived.
8. Half a Brain can be Enough
Human brains are by no means the largest brains in the world. That particular distinction belongs to the sperm whale, whose brains are around six times as heavy as our own. However, comparing brain size with body mass is a far better indication of intelligence. By this measure the humble tree shrew comes out on top, with humans placing in second.
Surprisingly, it’s possible to remove an entire hemisphere of a human brain with no negative impact on the individual’s intelligence or memory.
In rare cases surgeons have no option other than to perform a hemispherectomy in order to prevent a patient’s seizures. In an adult this would be catastrophic, but the outcomes for children who undergo the procedure at a very young age are surprisingly positive. Their brains are able to adapt in a way that an older brain could not.
A recent study found that not only are most of the children who underwent the procedure seizure free, many were thriving. One had even gone on to become a state chess champion.
7. You Might Not Have Free Will
It seems obvious that humans have free will. We make thousands of decisions every day, and every time we act on these decisions we experience free will first hand. There is, however, a strong case to be made that free will is nothing more than an illusion conjured by our brains.
While it used to be believed that mind and matter were two separate entities, we can now say with a good deal of confidence that mind does not exist independently. The brain seems to be entirely material, which suggests that it must obey the law of causality – that every effect must have a specific cause.
This leaves little or no room for free will. Any decision we make or action we take is an inevitable result of the brain state which immediately preceded it, going back to even before the moment we were born.
This sounds odd, but it’s an established fact that humans are terrible judges of their own behaviour. They can be manipulated into acting in a certain way; when asked why they have done so they will subconsciously post-rationalize the action and insist they had made a decision based on their own free will.
The question of whether free will really is an illusion is far from settled, and a new $7 million study has just been launched in an attempt to come to a definitive answer.
6. Brain Plasticity
In 2014 a Chinese man visited his doctor’s surgery in Great Britain complaining of headaches and strange smells. Scans revealed a parasitic worm burrowing its way through the unfortunate man’s brain, and doctors believed it had most likely been in there for as long as five years.
That he had been able to function for so long with such relatively manageable symptoms is testament to the brain’s remarkable ability to reorganize and rewire itself.
Whenever we learn a new skill, or even form new memories, the brains physical architecture remodels itself. The hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with spatial navigation, is significantly larger in London taxi drivers than in the average person. Differences in brain structure have also been found between musicians and non-musicians.
The brain’s 90-billion or so neurons are linked by trillions of connections. Learning a new skill forms new links, while recalling a memory strengthens existing links. Our brains are constantly changing, adapting, and forming new connections. It’s this brain plasticity that means stroke victims are often able to make a full recovery despite suffering permanent damage to parts of their brain.
5. Your Brain Might be a Secret Genius
For 31 years Jason Padgett’s existence was relatively unremarkable. He worked as a futon salesman, and his free time revolved around drinking and picking up women.
That all changed in 2002 when he became the victim of a vicious, unprovoked assault outside a nightclub. Padgett managed to stagger to a hospital across the street, where he was diagnosed as having suffered a severe concussion.
Padgett’s life would never be the same again. The violent attack had somehow unlocked a previously untapped ability in his brain.
Whereas previously he had shown no particular interest or aptitude for mathematics, the attack had transformed him into a mathematical genius. Even the way he saw the world had been profoundly changed. It looked as though it was pixelated, and everywhere he looked he saw complex mathematical shapes known as fractals.
While Padgett’s experience was extremely unusual, it wasn’t entirely unique. There are other instances of people suffering a brain injury, only to come into possession of extraordinary new abilities.
Acquired savant syndrome is rare, with only a few known cases across the world. But some scientists believe almost any human brain could potentially be rewired to unlock the genius within.
4. You Remember the Past all Wrong
Our memories are fundamental in determining our sense of self. Without them we would be both literally and figuratively lost in the world. Considering their profound importance to us, it’s surprising just how unreliable our memories are, and how little we know about how they are formed.
Conventional wisdom has it that memories are recalled through connected neurons across the brain all firing at the same moment. Other research suggests that memories physically reside within brain cells.
However it’s done, the results aren’t terribly reliable. Memories aren’t recorded perfectly ready to be retrieved with total clarity at some future date.
According to research conducted by neuroscientists such as Daniela Schiller, each time we recall an event our memory of it is brought into an unstable state within the brain. When it is stored back into memory again our recollection of that event is slightly altered.
We use our memories to tell ourselves a story of who we are, but our source material is deeply unreliable.
3. When You Go on a Diet, Your Brain Eats Itself
The human brain is made up of something in the region of 90 billion neurons. Until recently it was believed that all of these are present from birth. We now know that through a process called neurogenesis it is possible for even adult brains to create brand new neurons. This is good news as we’ll lose plenty of neurons as we navigate our way through life.
Obesity, smoking, alcohol, and cocaine have all been linked with killing off brain cells and even physically shrinking the size of the brain, and a recent study suggests that even dieting can cause the brain to cannibalize itself.
Despite only weighing about 3 pounds, the brain consumes about 20% of the body’s energy, and when there’s fewer calories than expected coming in it doesn’t seem to much like it. The neurons start cannibalizing each other, which sends out an urgent message to the body that it needs to eat something in the very near future. This explains why losing weight can be so difficult.
2. Your Brain Doesn’t Have Pain Receptors
When our bodies suffer physical injury, pain receptors fire warning signals up the spinal column to the thalamus, which serves as the brain’s sorting house for sensory signals. The message is then passed on to the regions of the brain that deal with physical sensation, thinking, and emotion. This results in the deeply unpleasant sensation of pain.
If the brain itself is injured, this doesn’t happen. It doesn’t have any pain receptors of its own. This means it’s quite possible for surgeons or neuroscientists to poke around in somebody’s brain with them fully conscious and in no discomfort. The patient is then able to assist doctors in mapping out the brain, helping to ensure no damage is done during the operation.
1. Synesthesia can be Learned
Synesthesia is a condition that causes two or more of a person’s senses to become mixed up. One of the most common types is to perceive numbers as having a particular color. However, it comes in a wide variety of flavors, such as tasting words or perceiving the days of the week as having specific personalities or appearances.
The condition is often associated with particularly creative people. The famous physicist Richard Feynman saw equations in colors, and this may have helped him win a Nobel Prize in physics in 1965.
Around 1-in-300 people are born with synesthesia, but it’s possible to train your brain to experience it. A study at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom had subjects read books where certain words appeared in a certain color.
After several weeks of training most of the group reported seeing those colors even when reading standard black text. However, it seems the effects were not permanent, and within a few weeks the synesthesia had worn off.