8 surprising ways your brain powers the rest of your body

Your brain is your body’s control center. But how much do you really know about what it does? 

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The brain is one of the most complex organs in your body. It’s the control center that oversees pretty much every other part of your body. From walking in the woods and learning new things to powering your mood and even overseeing your eating habits, your brain has a lot of responsibilities.

Now, you might assume that you’re stuck with the brain you have — and as you get older, it too ages and slows down. (Maybe you forgot the keys and locked yourself out of the house a few times, and you’re worried about it.) But, thankfully, your brain has the ability to change, adapt, and even sharpen as you get older, as long as you keep using it. That’s called brain plasticity.

While there’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about the brain and how it works, what they do know is fascinating. And hopefully, that knowledge can put you at ease, even if your keys go missing again. Here’s a look at some of the amazing things your brain can do.

A great way to work on remembering your keys? Getting access to BrainHQ’s science-backed brain training program. You might have access to BrainHQ included with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today.

1. You have a “little brain” attached to your brain

The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) is a distinct part of your brain that is attached to the rest of your brain at the back of your head. The cerebellum is only about one-tenth the size of your whole brain. But it contains about half of all the neurons in your brain. (Neurons are the cells that send signals between your brain and the rest of your body.)

Scientists used to think the cerebellum was specifically involved in coordinating movement and balance. But it’s now understood that the cerebellum is involved in other things as well, including language and mood. In fact, it may function as a general “prediction machine” involved in just about every aspect of cognitive function.

This might be because as humans have developed more advanced cognitive skills, our brains have adapted circuits in the cerebellum. These circuits used to be involved just with movement, but the brain has put them to work on abstract thinking and language.

2. Your brain uses a lot of energy

Your brain accounts for only about 2% of your body weight, but it uses roughly 20% of your body’s total energy. Even when you’re sleeping, your brain is burning tons of energy just to keep all your basic body functions working.

Your brain’s preferred fuel is glucose, a sugar derived from carbohydrate (carb) foods. Early studies estimated that the brain burns through about 110 to 140 grams of glucose per day. For reference, that’s about half of the carbs you should eat in a day, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Doing a difficult task, like a complex math problem, does take more energy. But don’t expect to lose weight crunching numbers. The increase in energy used for critical thinking is tiny compared to your brain’s baseline energy needs.

Also, your brain can’t store energy. It needs a constant supply of glucose and oxygen from your blood. If that blood supply is cut off — such as by a stroke — brain cells can start dying within minutes, causing brain damage. That’s why it’s so important to get emergency care ASAP if you or someone else is having a stroke.

3. Children’s brains use even more energy

For the first decade of life, children’s brains use up to twice as much energy as an adult’s brain. That’s because they go through so much growth and development in those years.

And yes, that means children’s brains burn more calories. In fact, research shows that children’s physical growth may correspond with brain development. A child’s brain uses the most energy around age 5, when it uses up to two-thirds of a child’s resting energy expenditure.

This is also an age where kids typically lose weight. Weight then increases later, near adolescence, as brain development slows.

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You might be eligible for no-cost brain training with BrainHQ.

Access to BrainHQ’s brain exercises may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan at no additional cost. Check your eligibility.

4. Your brain feels no pain

You might feel like your brain is pounding when you have a headache. But the brain itself has no pain receptors. That headache pain is coming from nerves somewhere else in your head.

This is why patients can sometimes be awake during brain surgery, as a surgeon pokes and prods at their brain tissue. Doing brain surgery this way allows the operating team to check in with the patient and make sure that damage is not being done to the patient’s speech, vision, or motor skills.

5. Your peripheral (side) vision is better at night

You might have never made the connection, but your eyes are closely associated with your brain. How your vision works has everything to do with what’s going on in your brain.

If you’ve ever looked at someone out of the corner of your eye, you’ve used your peripheral (side) vision. Somewhat surprisingly, in dim light your peripheral vision is better than your central vision, or what you’re looking at directly. This is because of where certain photoreceptors are located on your retina (back of your eye). Photoreceptors are the cells that convert light to electric signals that travel to the brain so you can see.

Rod cells, or photoreceptors that respond best to dim light, are located mostly in the periphery of the retina. Cone cells, receptors that are active in daylight, are concentrated in the center of your retina.

This means you have a small blind spot in the center of your vision at night. Have you ever looked up at a starry sky and noticed that when you try to look directly at a star, it seems to disappear? It’s because of that blind spot.

Peripheral vision is important no matter what time of day it is, especially for activities like driving. That’s why BrainHQ has designed specific science-backed exercises to strengthen your peripheral vision. Best of all? BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility to get started today.

6. How well you see has to do with the shape of your eyeball

Your eyes are like tightly calibrated machines. All the parts must work together just right to project what you see onto the retina and send the correct signals to the brain.

The shape of your eyeball can cause a “refractive error.” This is when the light isn’t projected onto the right spot of your retina. So, the image that gets sent to your brain is out of focus. Refractive errors are what cause blurry vision — you may have a hard time seeing far away objects (nearsightedness) or close-up objects (farsightedness).

Have you noticed that squinting helps you see a little bit better? That’s because squinting changes the shape of your eyeball slightly, getting that focal point closer to where it needs to be.

Another fun trick? Make a small hole with your fingers (or poke a small hole in a piece of paper) and look through it with one eye. Voila! The pinhole helps focus the light, creating a clearer image. (Of course, most of us use glasses or contact lenses to correct refractive errors — they’re much more efficient!)

7. Your working memory has a limited capacity

Short-term, or “working” memory, is sort of like a “scratch pad” for your brain. It holds onto information for as long as you need it before it’s either forgotten or stored in your long-term memory.

Early research suggested that the average person had room for about seven “things” in their working memory. Those could be digits (i.e., a phone number) or “chunks” of information. Newer research has found that working memory is more complicated, but it does have limits (unlike long-term memory, which is seemingly limitless).

Working memory can decline with age. But certain brain-training exercises may help. Did you know that access to BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan? Check your eligibility today

8. Your brain never stops growing and changing

Remember what we were saying about brain plasticity? Don’t believe the myth that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! It’s true, your brain goes through a lot of growth and development when you’re young. But it doesn’t stop when you reach adulthood or even your golden years.

Every time you practice a new skill, new connections are made between nerve cells in your brain. And as those connections get stronger, your abilities and knowledge increase. That means that your brain physically changes each time you learn something new!

So, the key to staying sharp and keeping your brain active is to challenge your brain more often. A great place to start? BrainHQ’s evidence-backed brain-training programs. Check to see if BrainHQ is included with your Medicare Advantage plan.

Additional sources:
Daily carbs recommendation: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025
Research on brain energy use in children: Northwestern University
Review of peripheral vision at night: Current Biology
Understanding refractive errors: National Eye Institute
Early research on working memory capacity: Psychological Review
Study on brain exercise to improve working memory: PLoS One