7 Facts About Your Brain You Should Know

The human mind is limitless in its capability of creating the phenomenal.

Christiaan Huygen revolutionized the precision of timekeeping with the invention of the pendulum clock, which later lead to his discovery of the speed of light. Amadeus Mozart wrote the renowned overture to the opera Don Giovanni the morning of its premiere. Along with his incomparable paintings such as the 'Mona Lisa' and 'The Last Supper', Leonardo Da Vinci has drawn and described the human anatomy in as much detail as medical technology today. Dr. Dale Hale Williams (the nation's first African-American cardiologist) was the first surgeon in history to successfully perform open heart surgery, without access to blood transfusions or advanced medical technology. 

Not only are our brains tools for endless possibilities, but its an organ that indulges in some pretty incredible, thought-provoking, and, at times, frustrating behavior. Here are 7 wild facts about your brain that you probably weren't aware of:

#1 Most, if not all, of your decisions are made unconsciously

How many times have you convinced yourself that you just have to get that 50" name-brand TV, those stylish kicks, that low cut cocktail dress, or that sexy bartender? If you believed these decisions were methodically planned to logical perfection, I've got some bad news. Based on Dr. Susan Weinschenk's book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?, the deep brain structures that make some of your most innate desires uncontrollable are constantly at work:

Social Validation: Your brain is always processing and imitating what's regarded as most favorable in the social stratosphere (also known as "keeping up with the joneses"). We care about being a part of the bigger picture, alas our instinctual need to have items that are highly reviewed and rated.

Strategic Product Placement: Consumer companies know your brain better than you do. Contrary to popular belief, these institutions have very little fiduciary responsibility to your well-being. Neuromarketing strategies are rapidly gaining traction in alluring customers to a product based on our predictable, primal needs for sex, food, and safety. The method behind company designs and commercialization is millions of dollars being poured into studying what ideas will best implant your subconscious need for their product. 

Affective Forecasting: Based on a study by renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we misinterpret how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring.

What does this mean exactly? 

For example, most consumers who overestimate the pleasure of buying (or even worse, leasing) a car, end up resenting the purchase later on and prefer spending the money on other important obligations. 

Another prime example is how much you would pay to see your favorite artist now play in concert compared to the amount you would spend on seeing your favorite artist ten years ago in concert. The difference is substantial. But, ten years ago you would have paid much more to see them perform then. 

The human mind is constantly in a balancing act of overestimating and underestimating what we buy and need in order to maximize happiness. 

#2 Your memories may be misleading 

Our strongest memories tend to be ones overrun with emotion and powerful sensory stimuli. In a way, we see our memories like fragmented movie clips: Roaring emerald waves crashing synchronously to the words "Will you marry me?", the sweet ringing of a new born's first cry, and a familiar hand helping you up after your first time falling off a bike. 

I truly hate to say this...but it's these memories (also called "flashbulb memories") that have been proven to have the most errors, especially with increasing time. Our brains have this strange evolutionary ability to reconstruct memories with new information and perceptual stimuli each time we activate a specific memory. We combine details of a memory with what is generally true, later filling in the gaps with our own imagination of how the sequences took place. 

As if this isn't crazy enough, our brains also have a knack for combining and mixing separate memories into one. Essentially, our memories are almost constantly changing based on how our perceptions of an event, person, place, or the world are changing. 

The amygdala has been shown to be the critical brain region involved in enabling us to acquire and retain lasting memories: modulation of long-term memory. When we hold on to specific memories the synaptic links formed from these memories become stronger, so it becomes more ingrained in our brains. 

 Pathway of memory consolidation between the amygdala and hippocampus (brain region that stores memory) 

Pathway of memory consolidation between the amygdala and hippocampus (brain region that stores memory) 

What's the evolution behind this process of retrieval and reconstruction? 

Because their is an overwhelming amount of information and stimuli that we, as individuals, process every second, minute, and day, most memories are classified by our brains as insignificant. Which is why emotion, smell, and recognition are the most powerful tools for bringing back specific memories. These cues were orchestrated efficiently by our ancestors to survive from predators and to avoid dangerous wildlife. 

#3 Fast-Food chains have hacked your brain

Why is being dumb, fat, and happy so appealing? 

  • Sugar 

Sugar is as addicting as cocaine. Yea. Which means you will go through the same trademark symptoms as drug addicts: binging, cravings, and withdrawal. Apparently McDonald's "fruit smoothies" have more sugar per serving than Coca-Cola. So, when they say "I'm Lovin' It" it's because they are subtly mocking you. 

  • Convenience 

When it's more likely that you will run into a fast-food restaurant than a produce aisle, the chances of compulsive eating becomes a cultural norm. Over time, our impulse control starts to diminish, along with the neurons that are involved in the prefrontal cortex. This means as Big Food companies and their brands become a more prominent part of our lives, the more we give into temptation. 

We have five dopamine receptors in our brains. The D2 receptor is most involved in controlling compulsive eating. Studies have shown that people who are obese, or have a higher body-mass index, correspond to fewer D2 receptors. 

  • Reward 

Dopamine is well-known to be the brain chemical that drives our behavior towards favorable outcomes. Hence, the reason we become suckers to fast-food brands. The combination of spending little money for a high-calorie diet placed in your hands within minutes becomes the gold standard for addiction. The closer you pair a stimulus with a reward, the stronger the association. This satiation forms stronger memories associated with a brand, pampering your craving of it. (Joshua Gowin, PhD, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-illuminated/201108/7-things-mcdonald-s-knows-about-your-brain). 

#4 You probably have too many Facebook friends

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Robin Dunbar, an Oxford University professor, has researched and established that our brains are only capable of making a specific number of meaningful connections and memories. This magic number is: 150. Your brain will only allow you to have 150 "friends": the optimal number for social cohesion and interaction. Interestingly, our brain can only facially recognize 1,500 people. So, if you have more than 1,500 friends/followers on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/YouTube/YouTwitFace/etc. you probably won't remember some of them AT ALL

How did Dr. Dunbar determine this?

Well, the fundamental recipe for all real relationships is reciprocity. You can meet all 7 billion people on this planet, but the truth is, the majority of people we meet in our lives will either not reciprocate the attention we give to them, or vice versa. Along those lines, a Dutch sociologist determined that every 7 years half of our friends are replaced by new friends, regardless of the change in size of our social network. 

I guess it's time to do some social media spring cleaning...

#5 If you thought the coolest part about you was being able to multi-task....then I'm sorry

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In our modern-day way of life it's safe to say that multi-tasking just has to be done. In all honesty, there's no way I'll be able to live with myself if I can't text my best bros, while studying for the MCAT, while playing the piano, while making dinner, while watching the finale of Games of Thrones

Side Note: If you HAVE been capable of doing this successfully, call me...I have a job for you. 

But, scientifically-speaking, our brains can only attempt one cognitive function at a time (although we like to fool ourselves into believing that we are productively accomplishing many tasks at once). 

A Stanford University study in 2009 sought out to challenge 262 college students to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory

Researchers wanted to test whether multi-taskers were cognitively more efficient than non-multi-taskers. 

What they found was multi-taskers not only did terribly at all three tasks, but also used their brains much less effectively to try to complete them compared to the opposing group. 

So, what's the solution to this problem if you can't leave your phone? 

Use the "20-minute" rule! The same Stanford researchers determined that rather than switching between tasks every couple of minutes or so, allot 20 solid minutes of focus to one task at a time. (and, yes, I have faith you can study for 20 minutes straight without texting your boyfriend/girlfriend). 

Lastly, a French clinical scientist discovered when people attend to two different tasks* simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task. Therefore, our brains have a two task limit. 

*Different tasks were defined as one physical task and one cognitive task 

#6 Color is just in your mind 

 How men and women see color 

How men and women see color 

The eye only has three different types of photoreceptors. That means that the human retina can only differentiate between the colors red, green, and blue and that's it.

Every other color you "see" in the world is only a construct of your brain. In fact, it would be technically inaccurate to call them colors. Our eyes have cones and rods that detect different wavelengths of light, which refract into the perceived colors red, green, and blue. 

Our conceptualization of color is so deeply rooted in the brain that even fluctuations in emotional states affect how we see color. 

#7 Neuroplasticity: Your brain's ability to reorganize, adapt, and regrow

This topic of Neuroscience is probably one of the most studied and revered in the field. The term neuroplasticity refers to our command center being flexible, and not a static entity. This means that our brains have a profound ability to adapt to changes in our bodies, both internally and externally. 

For example, any time you learn a new skill like playing an instrument, driving a car, scuba diving, or learning calculus your brain starts to build new neural pathways (connections of neurons) to accommodate these changes throughout your life. You see, even throughout the majority of the twentieth century, neuroscientists believed there was only a certain critical period of our life cycle (youth) when the brain was adaptable. After crossing that threshold, it was believed that the brain was immutable, and stagnant. However, with time and research the brain continued to impress and shock the scientific community. 

Our brains are capable of regenerating new neurons through learning, memory, and even serious injury throughout our lifespan.

For example, a fifty-year-old adult who just suffered a stroke to the region of the brain that controls speech can, over time with therapy, re-learn to speak, even if that part of the brain is completely dead and useless. This is due to the phenomenon of plasticity. Other parts of the brain will take over (and build new neural networks) for the task of speech. 

Lesson:

Just like the inspirational figures before us, we are all equal in our unique capacity to accomplish extraordinary feats. It is within ourselves to strive for a limitless plan.

But, now you know, that while your figuring this out, your brain is already waiting to make it happen. 

Here's a link to more fun, obscure facts about the brain: http://www.factslides.com/s-brain

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