The brain can adapt
Golubovy/ShutterstockWe now know that the way the brain works isn't fixed, and can "recruit" other areas to compensate for damaged parts when needed. For example, we know that in certain cases, brain injury leads to brilliance. "The brain can adapt to injury such as stroke or head trauma, a process referred to as 'brain plasticity,'" Dr. Tarawneh says. "The brain can 'rewire' itself so that healthy neurons can form new networks, or modify existing networks to compensate for the damaged parts of the brain." Experiments in people who were born blind show that they use the visual parts of their brain, even though they can't see. "One of the most important discoveries in the field is that brain activity can stimulate the process [of revising connections between neurons], which is referred to as activity-dependent plasticity," she says. "Therefore, brain exercises and rehabilitation is a crucial step in recovery from brain injury, as it allows the brain to 're-learn' functions that were lost due to trauma, in a way that is very similar to what is seen in early brain development." Don't miss these extraordinary stories of people whose brain injuries unleashed hidden talents.
The brain doesn't mature until age 25
DC Studio/ShutterstockAlthough we've already legally become an adult, our brains aren't fully grown up until around age 25 according to science. And your brain can continue to grow long past your 20s. Dr. Tarawneh says the brain matures from back to front, with the "prefrontal cortex" the last to finish developing. "The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order thinking—referred to as executive function—such as judgment and problem-solving, decision-making, complex planning, organized thinking, personality development, and impulse control," she says. "The reward centers of the brain are the most active during adolescence but are back to normal levels of activity by the mid-20s, so individuals become less sensitive to peer pressure and much better at risk management during their 20s compared to the adolescent years." Don't miss these proven ways to make better decisions.
Brain games don't make you smarter
Jne Valokuvaus/ShutterstockYou might think getting good at Sodoku or doing the daily crossword puzzle will enhance your brain's capabilities, but sadly this isn't the case. "If you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you can get better and better at completing crossword puzzles," says Dr. Chapman. "The limitation is that the mental effort spent on this challenge, while building vocabulary, is unlikely to expand your higher-level reasoning abilities, such as decision-making, planning, and judgment." Another example: Even if you get really good at remembering where the red cube was on a screen, it doesn't mean that you'll always remember where you put your car keys. A group of scientists actually have signed a statement refuting the claim that brain games can slow cognitive decline, saying there is as of yet no scientific evidence that they do. Find out how you can train your brain to have a superhuman memory.
But, you can strengthen your brain
basiclassic/ShutterstockAlthough brain games may not supercharge your thinking cap, you can train your brain by focusing on broader, more dynamic skills. "The best news is that we can do things to counter age-related brain decline and strengthen our 'smartness' into late life– especially when it comes to innovative problem solving and deeper level thinking," Dr. Chapman says. "Reasoning and innovative thinking contribute to the intellectual capacity needed to respond effectively to our constantly changing real-life demands." For example, learning a new language, a musical instrument, or other new hobbies have been shown to increase brain function. Here are 15 more brain-boosting activities with science on their side.
Social interaction is good for the brain
Jacob Lund/ShutterstockIf you want to remain sharp as you get older, it's not just about gaining knowledge but about social stimulation too. "Research suggests that meaningful social activities actually maintains or increases brain function," says Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC, president of the healthcare consulting firm The Aging Experience. "The memory center in the brains of seniors maintained their size and, in men, grew modestly after two years in a program that engaged them in meaningful and social activities." So volunteering, visiting with friends and family, and staying active in social groups can actually help your brain as you age. Check out these other 15 things brain doctors do to prevent Alzheimer's.
Classical music doesn't make babies smarter
Africa Studio/ShutterstockForget the Baby Einstein DVDs. Although actually learning an instrument has been shown to benefit children's brains, the "Mozart effect"—the idea that playing classical music while your newborn sleeps will boost his IQ—has not. "The idea was that if babies listen to music composed by Mozart, they would have a brain boost, so plenty of products quickly became available to offer such experiences for parents to give their children a mental edge from the start," Dr. Chapman says. "Nonetheless, listening to Mozart will not do your babies, children, or you any harm and may build a lifelong appreciation for music—other music will achieve that as well." These are the other incredible ways classical music makes you healthier.
Alcohol doesn't actually kill brain cells
279photo Studio/ShutterstockAnother brain myth most of us believe is that drinking alcohol kills brain cells. Alcohol does take a toll on your body and brain, but it's not the number of brain cells that are diminished with alcohol consumption—instead, it's actually the production of new cells that's impacted, according to research. A recent study from the UK found even moderate amounts of alcohol to have negative long-term damage on cognitive functioning. Here are more health benefits of quitting alcohol.
Multitasking interferes with the brain's performance
Rawpixel.com/ShutterstockIf you think doing multiple things at once shows your smarts, you might be mistaken—research has shown that multitasking only causes us to take longer to do each task. "Multitasking hijacks your frontal lobes, the brain's higher-order thinking center," Dr. Chapman says. "When you think you are trying to multitask by doing two or more tasks at the same time, your brain is actually switching rapidly from one task to the other." Multitasking reduces creativity, increases errors, lowers our ability to focus on what is most important, and increases problems with memory, sleep, and stress, she says. Instead, single-tasking is the way to go to be a high-performer. Here's how to be more productive in your first hour of work.
The brain can get distracted
Photographee.eu/ShutterstockThe brain isn't always inefficient when doing two things at once—but when it comes to higher-order thinking, distraction can severely impact the brain's ability to stay on task. "The main limit arises when both of the tasks require attention—for example, we can carry out a conversation while walking, but if you were walking over a complicated, uneven, and dangerous path, it would be difficult to carry out an involved conversation at the same time," says psychology professor Steven J. Luck, PhD, director of the Center for Mind & Brain at the University of California, Davis. This is the main reason distracted driving, such as while chatting on a cell phone, is so dangerous. We can't see the other person on the phone, we might have trouble hearing them, and our brain has to imagine their environment. Driving is often automatic, so "we can do a pretty good job of talking on a cell phone and driving much of the time, but we have problems when the driving suddenly requires attention, for example, when something unusual happens, such as another driver coming to a sudden stop," Dr. Luck says. Find out how to recognize 12 signs of adult ADHD that go beyond everyday distraction.
The internet is info overload for the brain
Africa Studio/ShutterstockThe brain's problem with distractions and multitasking could be a reason why studies show too much smartphone and Internet use isn't good for the noggin. "Technology can be tremendously helpful, but allowing a constant influx of information and distractions can promote an ADHD-like state that exhausts your brain and erodes deep thinking and efficient information absorption," Dr. Chapman says. "Watch out for 'Google Brain' where you constantly look up more and more information—this activity can gobble up mental energy." Instead, take regular short breaks from screen time and shut off alerts, especially when working on important tasks. Don't miss these other surprising ways technology is making us stupid.