Thanks to years of studying the insides of people every chance we get, we have a pretty good grasp on the functions of almost all of our body parts. The brain, however, seems to get more mysterious the more we try to study it. Because of its complexity, it’s no surprise that studying it (as well as the nervous system) is a full-fledged scientific field on its own, namely neuroscience.
As our scientific tools get better and we get a deeper insight into the inner workings of the most important part of the body, we realize that it’s capable of much more than we previously thought. Here are ten of the most mind-blowing things you had no idea the human brain can do.
The ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field has been extensively found and studied among animals. From birds to marine mammals to insects, many of them use the field to navigate, though this ability has always been assumed to be absent in human beings. After all, if we had that, why did we bother with the whole navigation thing in the past?
As it turns out, we might just have it, though not to the level of other animals. In a recent study, researchers put 84 participants in a Faraday cage, which is just a fancy name for a box without any electromagnetic disturbance. They created an artificial magnetic field and gradually changed its orientation and then observed the reaction in the brain. To their surprise, there was a definite reaction in the sections of the brain that deal with sensory stimuli.
The participants couldn’t consciously feel anything, and the reaction was limited to changes in magnetic orientation that would be found in nature. (The brain didn’t react when the magnetic field pointed upward.) It suggests that this possible sense only works in response to the Earth’s magnetic field and isn’t an all-purpose magnetic sensor.
We all know someone who claims to have a natural alarm clock that wakes them up exactly when they need to. “I don’t need an alarm; I am an alarm,” they’d say casually, before you proceed to shut them down with research on how that’s not possible. If you actually look into it, though, you’d realize that they aren’t kidding. The natural body alarm clock is quite real and is as good—if not better—than any alarm money can buy.
Provided that you have a regular sleeping schedule you stick to, as most of us who have jobs do, the inbuilt alarm clock of the body is quite effective at waking you up before the stipulated time. As per research, it works due to stress hormones released by the brain a few hours before your wake-up time. They allow you to gradually wake up without being abruptly interrupted by the real alarm clock, indicating that the brain subconsciously hates alarms as much as us.
You don’t need to do anything special to activate it other than sticking to a set schedule, either. This is why routine officegoers often find themselves waking up minutes before the alarm is set to go off.
We understand sleep as a time of partial shutdown for the brain. We certainly don’t expect the brain to have any of its regular abilities while we’re sleeping, especially the ones that allow it to encode learned information on the basis of sensory cues.
Surprisingly, the brain is capable of doing exactly that, as long as it happens during the REM phase. In a study published in Nature Communications, they put 20 volunteers to sleep and played acoustic patterns at them in all stages of their sleep. They were then asked to identify the same patterns when they woke up.
They found that the subjects could identify the sound patterns heard during the REM phase but didn’t recognize the ones from other, deeper phases of sleep. Now, it certainly doesn’t mean that you can study for your tests while you sleep, but it disproves the previously held notion that the brain is unable to pick up new information when it’s sleeping.
It’s common knowledge that in order to train your brain to get good at something, you have to practice it. Whether it’s learning a new language or handling romantic rejection, there are no shortcuts to grinding it out. There definitely are, though, if you’re talking about learning how to play the piano. Apparently (and bafflingly), according to science at least, simply imagining practicing the piano does the same thing to your brain as actually doing it.
Take, for example, a study by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who dedicated his life to understanding the impact of mental practice on the brain. Back in 1904, he taught basic piano lessons to two groups of subjects who had no previous experience with the instrument. While one group was taught on the actual piano, the other was just told how to move their fingers and what the notes sound like. At the end of it, he found that both the groups had learned to play the sequence they were taught at a similar skill level.
In the 1990s, the same study was replicated by other researchers, except with additional tools to map the changes in the brain. To their surprise, they found that the imaginary practice had the same impact on the brain as the real thing.
No matter how nonjudgmental we claim to be, when we meet someone for the first time, we inadvertently make a mental impression of them based on just visual cues. Do they look rich? What’s wrong with their fashion sense? Are those scars criminal in nature? While you’re busy doing that, though, the brain would have already had made a subconscious profile of the person, and a much more accurate one, too.
Research shows that the brain is scarily fast at making up judgements about other people, taking about 0.1 seconds for the whole process. More importantly, its judgements turn out to be right, whether it’s about their sexuality, competence at the workplace, or political affiliation. It’s when you start to think on your own and override your brain’s judgements that they turn into stereotypes that are often inaccurate. The cues that the brain notes are also impossible to fake.
On especially hectic workdays, we all wonder if there’s a way to put ourselves on auto mode. How awesome would it be to just zone out and let your body take over? Other than your full attention, it already has all the parts needed to complete the job.
You’d be surprised to know, then, that the brain doesn’t just have an autopilot mode of its own, but it’s much better at a given task than the active part of the brain. Studies have found that once you get good at something, the brain relegates the processing of that task to a separate brain region called default mode network (DMN), which deals with subconscious processing.
In one of those studies, 28 subjects were asked to play a card game that required a bit of learning and monitored their brain activity. Things went as expected at first, though when they got sufficiently good at the game, it got shifted from the active regions to the DMN. Their responses became faster and much more accurate, too. It’s the reason why some tasks—like playing an instrument—are more difficult to do when you consciously think about them, though only if you know how to play that instrument (obviously).
It’s not something unheard-of, as we already use that part of the brain for regular stuff like unlocking our car or tying our shoelaces. The study was the first time it had been shown to work for more complicated tasks.
The interaction between the eyes and the brain has been a topic of interest among neuroscientists for quite some time now, and not just for fun’s sake. Properly mapping out the pathways between our eyes and how the brain processes that information can help millions of people suffering from a variety of diseases. It would also give us more of an insight into how the visual processing part of the brain actually works.
While there will be some time before it’s completely understood, we’ve made some key discoveries in the past few years, one of them being the brain’s ability to predict the immediate future.
In a study, researchers found that because of the delay in the information from the eye to the brain, it forms its own predictions of what’s going to happen next, which get more accurate with age. It bases it on previous behavior (like the known trajectory of a ball) and does it before we can consciously figure it out. So, in essence, we’re always slightly looking into the future, which helps us avoid injury or death by subconsciously predicting potentially threatening events.
It has been speculated—in horror movies as well as real life—that people have a “sixth sense” when it comes to knowing if someone is watching them from behind. You’re supposed to feel uneasy, start sweating, and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s thought of as a vestigial sense from our hunter-gatherer days, though it’s absolutely not. The actual reason it happens is that we’re perfectly able to observe all 360 degrees of our surroundings.
If the eyes seem to be limited by the scope of their field of vision compared to other animals, it’s because the brain doesn’t need to be able to look behind. It has other, better means of making a full-scale 3-D model of our surroundings. Studies have found that our sense of hearing is quite accurate at detecting even the slightest shift in our surroundings, especially the parts we can’t see. That, combined with our other senses, provide the brain with a largely accurate “view” of all 360 degrees of what’s around us.
It’s summer already (at least for our Northern Hemisphere readers), which means that once again, many of us were unable to get that perfect summer body we had promised ourselves when the year started. It’s largely because of the understandable reason that being fit requires you to work out, which is definitely not easy to do.
Apparently, however, you can do it just by thinking about working out, at least when it comes to building muscles. In a study by researchers at Ohio University, they wrapped the wrists of 29 volunteers in surgical casts. They then asked half of them to think about focusing on exercising their wrists for 11 minutes a day, five times a week. At the end of it, they found that the half that did the imaginary exercise developed muscles twice as strong as the other half, even if they did the same amount of actual exercise—none.
It’s not just this study, either. Many previous studies have indicated that you can increase the physical strength of your muscles by the power of the mind alone. Can you get six-pack abs by this method, then? Well, you’ll never know until you try!
One of the most complex and mysterious parts of the brain is how it deals with memories. Despite decades of research and case studies, we still only have pieces of the puzzle. We don’t even know exactly which parts of the brain are responsible for storing and retrieving memories, let alone understanding how the brain processes them.
A big part of that mystery is false memories: things that never happened but that you clearly remember. While we’ve known about the brain’s ability to do this for a while, that’s only the beginning of it. We’re not just talking about convincing yourself about borrowed money that never happened but serious stuff like theft or even murder. In one study, 70 percent of subjects were falsely made to believe that they committed crimes like theft or assault with weapon by basic memory-retrieval techniques in interviews. Of course, there have also been cases where someone was incarcerated for a crime they confessed to despite having an alibi.
We still don’t quite understand why—or even how—the brain is so good at fooling even itself. Theories suggest that it may be because of its propensity toward filling up gaps in the recollection process, even if it’s filling them with inaccurate information.