Neuroscience explains exactly why we should be grateful for our brains

Right here’s one thing new to contemplate being grateful for at Thanksgiving: the lengthy evolutionary journey that gave you your huge mind and your lengthy life.

I do know I’m grateful. However then, I’m the one proposing that we people revise the way we tell the story of how our species got here to be.

Brains fabricated from cells, however what number of?

Again after I had simply obtained my freshly minted Ph.D. in neuroscience and began working in science communication, I discovered that 6 in 10 college-educated individuals believed they only used 10% of their brains. I’m glad to say that they’re mistaken: We use all of it, simply in numerous methods at completely different occasions.

The parable appeared to be supported by statements in critical textbooks and scientific articles that “the human brain is made of 100 billion neurons and 10 occasions as many supporting glial cells.” I puzzled if these numbers had been details or guesses. Did anybody truly know that these had been the numbers of cells in the human brain?

No, they didn’t.


Neuroscientists did have a tough concept. Some estimates recommended 10 to twenty billion neurons for the human cerebral cortex, others some 60 to 80 billion in one other area referred to as the cerebellum. With the remainder of the mind recognized to be pretty sparse as compared, the variety of neurons in the entire human mind was undoubtedly nearer to 100 billion than to simply 10 billion (far too little) or 1 trillion (manner too many).

However there we had been, neuroscientists armed with fancy instruments to switch genes and light-weight up components of the mind, nonetheless in the dead of night about what completely different brains had been fabricated from and the way the human mind in comparison with others.

Counting up neurons in mind soup

So I devised a technique to easily and rapidly count what number of cells a mind is fabricated from. I spent 15 years collecting brains after which turning them into soup that I examined underneath the microscope. That’s how I received the arduous numbers.

Because it turned out, there are a lot of methods to place brains collectively: Primates like us have more neurons in the cerebral cortex than most different mammals, irrespective of the scale of the mind. A mind can be giant however fabricated from comparatively few neurons if these neurons are big, like in an elephant; primate neurons are small, and fowl neurons are even tinier, so even the smallest bird brains can hide lots of neurons. However by no means as many as the most important primate mind: ours.

When evaluating brains, we care about numbers of neurons within the cortex as a result of it’s the world of the mind that lets us transcend the easy detection and response to stimuli, permitting us to study from the previous and make plans for the long run.


If individuals had stored solely consuming uncooked meals, like all different primates do, they would wish to spend over nine hours every single day looking, accumulating, selecting and consuming to feed their 16 billion cortical neurons. Overlook about discovering electrical energy or constructing airplanes. There would be no time for wanting on the stars and questioning about what may be. Our nice ape cousins, ever the uncooked foodies, nonetheless have at most half as many cortical neurons as we do – and so they eat over eight hours per day.

However our ancestors found out learn how to cheat nature to get extra from much less, first with stone instruments and later with hearth. They invented cooking and changed human history. Consuming is quicker and way more environment friendly, to not say delicious, when meals is pre-processed and remodeled with hearth.

With loads of energy obtainable in a lot much less time, new generations gained greater and greater brains. And the extra cortical neurons that they had, the longer youngsters remained youngsters, the longer their mother and father lived, and the extra the previous may study from the latter, then from grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Cultures quickly flourished. Expertise bloomed and lived on by way of education and science, changing into ever extra advanced.

With a lot tradition to share, what makes us trendy people has turn out to be about much more than our human biology. Being born with plenty of neurons offers us the potential for a protracted and sluggish life, one the place every of our brains will get an opportunity to be educated by what the generations earlier than us have discovered, and to coach the following ones. We are going to stay trendy people as long as we are prepared to convene round dinner tables to have fun our variations and to share our hard-earned information, tales of success and failure, our hopes and desires.


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