True or false: The brain’s hippocampus contains an “Oprah neuron”
that lights up when we see pictures of Ms. Winfrey or even hear her name. If
you guessed “false,” check out British neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga’s quirky research, which not only found
specialized Oprah neurons, but also brain cells devoted to Jennifer Aniston,
Halle Berry, basketball great Michael Jordan, and even Luke Skywalker. There
was also a brain cell that preferred watching “The Simpsons” to Madonna and
Quiroga, researchers found.
While the studies were small—one involved 7 epileptic patients
with electrodes implanted in their brains to find cells that were triggering
their seizures—the research offers an intriguing look at the mysteries hidden
inside our brains, which contain more neurons than the galaxies in the known
universe: about 100 billion on average, plus thousands of miles of nerves,
packed into a space the size of a coconut. No two brains are alike—even those
of identical twins. How much do you know about your most important organ?
Here’s a look at five common myths about the brain.
Truth: Brain imaging studies using PET scans and functional MRI
show that any mentally complex activity uses many areas of the brain, and over
a day, just about all of the brain gets a workout. More proof that the entire
brain is crucial for daily life is the devastating impact of damage to even a
small area of the brain. However, we do have some brain reserves. An autopsy
study found that seniors who stay mentally active—through
activities like reading the paper, going to the theater, or playing chess—are
less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease—even if they have the characteristic
physical brain changes typical of dementia, suggesting that mental function has
a “use it or lose it” component. That allows people who keep their brain stimulated
to develop more brain reserves, allowing them to continue functioning normally
even as their brains are being damaged by Alzheimer’s.
Myth #2: People are
right-brained or left-brained.
You’ve probably heard that left-brained people are logical and
good at solving problems, while right-brained people are imaginative and artsy.
This myth began in the 1800s, where doctors discovered that injury to one side
of the brain frequently caused loss of specific abilities. Brain scan
experiments, however, show that the two halves of the brain are much more
intricately linked than was originally thought, so problem-solving or creative
tasks fire up activity in regions of both hemispheres of the brain, not just
half. It is true that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the
body and vice versa, so a right-brain injury can cause disability on the left
side of the body.