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Neurosurgeon Reflects on the Awe and Mystery of the Brain

Story at-a-glance -

  • British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh describes the fear and uncertainty that comes with brain surgery along with the sense of excitement and wonder
  • Marsh is honest in his assessment of how little is actually known about the brain and how it coordinates what is the essence of being human: breathing, movement, memory, thoughts, feelings, consciousness…
  • He admitted that even after decades of work as a neurosurgeon, much of the brain is still beyond his grasp

By Dr. Mercola

Who better to explore the mysteries of the brain than a neurosurgeon, a person who has delved into the jelly-like matter of the organ itself using forceps, suctions and a scalpel.  

As British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh wrote in his book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing.”1 His dislike stems from the fact that brain surgery is so dangerous.

Even under the best circumstances, there is a risk of leaving a person severely disabled if even a small area of the brain becomes unintentionally damaged. As technology has improved, surgeons now have a sort of GPS for the brain known as computer navigation.

This involves a brain scan taken just before the surgery, which allows the surgeon to see where his instruments are located in the person’s brain. The patient may even be awake at the time of surgery, performing simple tasks to ensure no damage is caused as the operation progresses. Marsh wrote:2

“Despite all this technology neurosurgery is still dangerous, skill and experience are still required as my instruments sink into the brain or spinal cord, and I must know when to stop.

Often it is better to leave the patient's disease to run its natural course and not to operate at all. And then there is luck, both good luck and bad luck, and as I become more and more experienced it seems that luck becomes ever more important.”

The Wonder of the Human Brain

Beyond the fear and uncertainty that comes with brain surgery is also a sense of excitement and wonder. Marsh is honest in his assessment of how little is actually known about the brain and how it coordinates what is the essence of being human: breathing, movement, memory, thoughts, feelings, consciousness…

He admitted that even after decades of work as a neurosurgeon, much of the brain is still beyond his grasp:3

“The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.”

In an interview with NPR,4 which you can listen to above, Marsh also shared how, oftentimes, what we think is “real” is actually an illusion. He used pain as an example, because when you feel pain in your hand, for instance, it’s not actually in your hand at all …

“If I got pain in my hand the pain is not actually in the hand, the pain is my brain.

My brain creates a three-dimensional model of the world and associates the nerve impulses coming from the pain receptors in my hand with pain in the hand and it create this illusion that the pain is actually in the hand itself, and it isn't. The more you look into neuroscience the more strange and confusing it becomes.”5

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We ‘Can’t Even Begin to Explain’ How Consciousness Works

Your body is capable of generating electricity, and this allows your nervous system to send signals to your brain. These signals are actually electrical charges that are delivered from cell to cell, allowing for nearly instantaneous communication.

The messages conducted via electrical signals in your body are responsible for controlling the rhythm of your heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body, and much more. So it’s not a stretch to consider yourself an electrical being.

Marsh even describes his thoughts as “electric chemistry,” but even though we understand cells are transmitting electrical charges and signals back and forth… we’re nowhere near understanding the complexities of human brain function. Marsh told NPR:6

“I find it quite a consoling thought that our modern scientific view of the world which has explained so much, we can't even begin to explain how consciousness, how sensation arises out of electric chemistry, but the fact of the matter is it does...

The sense of awe and mystery, for some reason, has gotten greater as I've got older. I'm not sure why.
Maybe because many of us, as we get older, we start thinking more about the fact our life is going to come to an end, and we become a bit more religious and philosophical. 

If you don't have conventional religious belief, as I don't, I think in a way thinking about the mystery of one's own consciousness and the universe is a sort of compensation for that in some ways.”

Top 5 Mysteries of the Mind

Your brain contains billions of neurons. No one knows exactly how many, but it’s estimated there may be about 86 billion (for comparison’s sake, there are thought to be 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way). About half of those neurons are located in your brain’s cerebellum, which is about half the volume of your central nervous system.7

How these neurons interact with each other, forming trillions of connections, forms the basis for how your brain works, but there are more questions than answers. Some of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the mind include:8

  1. Consciousness: You are aware of your surroundings, capable of self-evaluation, thoughts, emotions, and other experiences. How consciousness works, in particular how the brain leads to subjective experiences that are unique to each of us, is a mystery.
  2. Personality: How do personalities develop? Are they a result of your environment or are you born with one? Personalities can be drastically altered by brain surgery or trauma, but the brain’s role in personality is poorly understood.
  3. Memories: How your brain creates, stores, and retrieves memories is largely a mystery, particularly how you’re able to recall a memory at will.
  4. Intelligence: How your brain’s neurons work together to solve problems, and why people have different levels of intelligence and styles of learning is another mystery.
  5. Sleep and dreams: Sleep loss results in the loss of neurons, and proper sleep is important for brain detoxification. During sleep, your brain cells actually shrink by about 60 percent, which allows for more efficient waste removal. However, what exactly occurs in your brain while you sleep, and why you have dreams, is not well understood.

There is so much yet to be discovered about the mind that the US government launched the BRAIN Initiative in 2013 to “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind.”9 Among the goals of this program are to help:

  • Uncover patterns of neural activity that produce cognition
  • Understand how brain activity leads to perception, decision-making and ultimately action
  • Understand how information is stored and processed in neural networks
  • Unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function
  • Uncover the mysteries of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury

It’s Now Known Your Brain Is Malleable and Constantly Changing

It used to be thought that your brain was static, except during some critical developmental periods, but today, we know this isn’t true. This is one area of brain research that has come a long way in recent decades. This concept is called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity—meaning, you are literally reforming your brain with each passing day. Your brain possesses the remarkable ability to reorganize pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons throughout your entire lifetime.

There are two types of brain plasticity—functional plasticity (your brain's ability to function moves from a damaged area to undamaged areas) and structural plasticity (its ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning).10Think about what happens when you’re learning a new skill. The more you focus and practice something, the better you become, and this is a result of new neural pathways that form in response to your learning efforts. 

At the same time, your brain is undergoing “synaptic pruning”—elimination of the pathways you no longer need. Until recently, it was believed the human brain could not generate new neurons. The old model assumed that you were born with a finite number of brain cells, and when a cell died, no new cell grew in its place. This old model is no longer relevant, as it’s been proven that certain areas of your brain can generate new cells (neurogenesis), as well as creating new neural pathways.

Environment plays an essential role in the process, but genetics can also have an influence. These neural processes have been well documented in people recovering from stroke-related brain damage, for instance. This phenomenon even applies to emotional states. For example, if you have a history of anxiety, your neural pathways become wired for anxiety. If you develop tools to feel calm and peaceful more of the time, those anxiety pathways are pruned away from lack of activity—“use it or lose it” really applies here. As explained by neurologist David Perlmutter:

"We interact with our genome every moment of our lives, and we can do so very, very positively. Keeping your blood sugar low is very positive in terms of allowing the genes to express reduced inflammation, which increase the production of life-giving antioxidants. So that's rule number one: You can change your genetic destiny. Rule number two: you can change your genetic destiny to grow new brain cells... You are constantly growing new brain cells into your 50s, 60s, 80s, and 90s – throughout your lifetime – through a process called neurogenesis."

Brain ‘Hacks’ to Keep Your Mind Strong

While much of your brain remains a mystery, there are some factors that are known to be good for brain health. If you want to learn more about the mysteries of your mind, check out “The English Surgeon” documentary, which goes into even more detail about Henry Marsh’s fascinating career. However, if you’re wondering what you can do, starting to day, to make the most of your brainpower and mind, use the tips below:

Stimulate Your Mind

In a study of people aged 85 and older, those who engaged in artistic, craft, and social activities in mid- and late life, and who used a computer late in life, had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).11 Another study, published in 2014, found that taking part in "cognitively demanding" activities was also beneficial. This would include learning to quilt or take digital photography, which researchers found enhance memory function in older adults.12

Get Regular Exercise

During exercise, nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning. A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys.13

This is a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well. In a separate one year-long study, individuals who engaged in exercise were actually growing and expanding the brain's memory center 1 percent to 2 percent per year, where typically that center would have continued to decline in size. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training (especially super slow workouts), stretching, and core work, along with walking about 10,000 steps a day.

Eat a Proper Diet

The foods you eat – and don't eat – play a crucial role in your memory. Fresh vegetables are essential, as are healthy fats and avoiding sugar and grain carbohydrates. You can find detailed information about nine foods for brainpower here. Increasing your animal-based omega-3 fat intake and reducing consumption of damaged omega-6 fats (think processed vegetable oils) in order to balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is important.

In addition, there is a close connection between abnormal gut flora and abnormal brain development, and just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut -- including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain and is linked to mood. Along with avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume beneficial bacteria. You can use a probiotic supplement for this, but I'm particularly fond of using fermented vegetables, because they can deliver extraordinarily high levels of beneficial bacteria.

Consider Intermittent Fasting

If you really want to jumpstart your brain health, you might want to also try intermittent fasting. Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones, which is the fat that your body mobilizes when you stop feeding it carbs and introduce coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats into your diet. A one-day fast can help your body to "reset" itself and start to burn fat instead of sugar. Further, it will help you to reduce your overall calorie consumption, which promotes brain cell growth and connectivity.

Get Proper Sleep

Sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity. Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber. Among adults, a mid-day nap was even found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.14

As with most aspects of health, it’s not one factor but many that create or destroy a healthy brain. Just like your physical health, your mental health will flourish with a balanced healthy lifestyle of eating right, exercising, tending to stress, stimulating your mind and, last but not least, sleeping well. For the latter, you can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.