Your brain is an amazing organ. It generates enough electricity to power a lightbulb. It’s believed to operate at one exaFLOP, which is said to be of a scale of “a billion billion calculations per second.” It may have a storage capacity in the range of one petabyte, or 500 billion printed pages of standard text. And as amazing as that all seems, there’s still a stunning number of things it can’t do that you may not even realize.
10. Your Brain Doesn’t Sense Wetness
Imagine you’re outside taking a walk. It’s a warm day and slightly cloudy. You feel something cold and wet hit you in the face and you realize it has started to rain. What exactly did you feel? The nerves in your flesh will have registered the pressure of the drop and the change in temperature. But what about the wetness?
Despite what our senses tell us, our brain does not have the ability to sense wetness. What we perceive as wetness is a combination of sensations that includes texture, pressure, temperature, and so on. When they happen together, our brain is able to identify them as wetness because, in our experience, that is what wetness feels like. It is an illusion based on our prior experience. But no doubt you have had experiences in which you felt something you thought was wet and it turned out not to be, like a trick of the senses. It’s all just your brain trying to process sensations.
As it happens, our brain is not good at processing that feeling of wetness differently from one spot on the body to another but you can at least rate what you perceive as a level of wetness.
9. You Don’t Perceive Black in the Absence of Light
When you need to draw a picture of what you see when you close your eyes, you’re going to use the color black. That’s not necessarily what you actually see, however. The color you view is a shade of very dark gray. The Germans have a name for it – eigengrau. It means “own gray” or “intrinsic gray.”
There are a couple of things at play that cause us to never truly see blackness with our eyes closed and they deal with contrast. You need light to understand darkness. Devoid of that, you settle on something less dark, that intrinsic gray that plays out behind your eyelids. Also, there’s brain chemistry afoot.
A protein called rhodopsin helps convert light signals to electrical ones in that brain. This is what allows your brain to make sense of what you see. The protein is activated by photons. Photons cause the rhodopsin to experience isomerization and that begins the process of “sight” as we understand it. But in the absence of light, spontaneous isomerization also occurs, allowing us to see, in a very limited way, when there is no light at all. And that produces intrinsic gray.
8. Your Brain Has the Ability to Detect Magnetic Fields
The mystery of how birds know how to migrate sometimes thousands of miles every year can be chalked up to their remarkable ability to follow the magnetic fields of the Earth. Other animals, ranging from sharks to flies, also have the ability to sense magnetic fields. The ability to do this is related to proteins called cryptochromes.
The weird thing about cryptochromes is that humans have them, too. Studies show they are active in some people’s brains and when they are exposed to changes in magnetic fields, those proteins react just like they would in an animal that might use them to navigate. So the human brain can theoretically sense changes in magnetic fields. But the problem is your brain has no idea what to do with that information.
Though research indicates that your brain can do it, it doesn’t do anything with it. There’s no discernible effect on behavior, either consciously or unconsciously, that we can determine.
7. When Drunk Your Brain Can’t Form New Memories
Many people enjoy a drink of alcohol now and then, and some people enjoy more than their fair share. This can become a problem if you drink so much that you can’t even remember what you did the night before. Drinking until you forget everything is generally considered bad. But it might not be what’s happening when you drink, at least not technically.
Drinking doesn’t make you forget so much as it doesn’t allow you to remember. What’s the difference? Forgetting implies you had the memory in the first place. But alcohol impairs your brain’s ability to form new memories. If you drink a significant amount, you can reach the state of being blackout drunk, which means you did whatever you did when you were drunk, but your brain had no way of saving those memories. So you didn’t do something and forget it, you just never made a memory in the first place.
When your blood alcohol hits 0.18 to 0.30, your hippocampus becomes impaired. This is significantly higher than what is generally considered the legal blood alcohol limit if the police pull you over, and is getting close to alcohol poisoning.
6. Your Brain Can’t Relax in Unfamiliar Places
If you’ve ever found yourself in a hotel room or even at a friend’s house and sleep was as elusive as the mighty sasquatch, you’re not alone. Sleeping in unfamiliar places is not easy for most people and it’s all your brain’s fault. Or half of your brain, anyway.
Blame it on our ancient ancestors who had to worry about predators and maybe attacks from rival clans, but when we try to sleep in unfamiliar settings, our brains are less inclined to relax. The right side of your brain will have a better time shutting down and getting to sleep, but the left side seems to stay alert. The same behavior can be seen in animals like dolphins that literally can’t fully go to sleep because they’ll drown. You may not drown at a Motel 6 but your brain isn’t sure, so it needs to stay on guard.
The phenomenon happens so frequently it has its own name – First Night Effect. It leads to your brain reacting more readily to noises in the night and waking you up faster if something happens. But it usually only happens for one night. Brain imaging techniques used to monitor how it works also show that, upon sleeping in that same place for a second night, many brains will chill out and both sides are able to shut down and get rest at the same time. However, some people take up to four days to finally relax in a new place.
5. Your Brain Reacts the Same to Physical Pain and Emotional Pain
One of the worst feelings in the world is having your heart broken. But have you ever burned your hand on the stove? That hurts, too. Could you reasonably say which one hurts more? Or, even harder, can you tell how they hurt differently? If you’re finding it harder to tell the difference between your understanding of physical pain and emotional pain, don’t worry. Your brain doesn’t know the difference either.
It’s not just a flowery metaphor to say heartache hurts like real, physical pain. Research using an MRI has shown that a human brain reacts the same to emotional pain as it does to physical pain. That means, in a physiological sense, you hurt the same and your brain doesn’t draw any distinction between those two pains. Even worse, emotional pain actually makes you dumber. You take an immediate hit to your reasoning skills when dealing with heartache, and your IQ may drop around 25%.
4. Your Brain Can’t Map Altitude
If you’ve ever been in an airplane, you know that, at some point, the captain typically comes on the intercom to let you know your cruising altitude. You may never have thought about it before,but next time you’re up there, so if you can guess your altitude before you’re told. Chances are you can’t because our brains are very bad at mapping altitude.
Research into the brains of rats as they climbed up indicated that the part of their brains responsible for mapping space and distance barely register at all when the animal is just moving upward. The cells that measure distance just don’t know how far up an animal goes when it’s climbing because our brains seem to understand how things work in three dimensions, in particular being able to go up vertically, differently than it understands working on the ground. It’s a bit like having two different maps by which to navigate. Your brain is pretty good at reading the horizontal one, not so much the vertical one.
3. Your Brain Can’t Function Well on Social Media
Did you find the link to this on social media? We’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, you’re being entertained and educated at the same time. Isn’t that great? The bad news is that social media is ruining your brain.
According to research, the average person puts themselves through over two and a half hours of social media every day. This is changing how your brain processes information and makes you fall victim to something called variable-ratio reinforcement, where you constantly expect to see new information and feel rewarded when you do. This makes it hard to focus on any one thing for long periods of time and makes you easily distracted.
Those who are heavy social media users perform more poorly on cognitive tests. It takes actual effort for them to focus on single tasks. Worse, your brain reacts to social media much the same as it does to drugs. You crave it and it can become an addiction.
2. Your Brain Can’t Surprise Itself
No doubt you’ve heard you can’t tickle yourself. If you haven’t heard of it, give it a try right now. For most of us, it’s a nonstarter. You just can’t do it, even if someone else tickling you leaves you in a writhing, laughing mess on the floor. But it’s not necessarily because your brain is a buzzkill.
To start with, ticklishness is actually a defense mechanism. The sensation and our visceral, twitchy, squirmy reaction is born from our reaction to things like spiders or other weird little critters crawling over us. By the same token, it’s potentially a response to aggression. Our ancestors may have laughed even when uncomfortable to show they had no interest in fighting. But we can’t do it to ourselves because our brain sees us coming, so to speak.
Surprise is key to tickling working. If a person is tickling you, you don’t know where their fingers will go next. The entire experience is uncomfortable, and the laughter is generally not really that joyful. But your cerebellum knows where your hands are going for a self tickle, so the sensation of surprise can’t take root.
1. Your Brain Can’t Multitask
Some people pride themselves on their ability to multitask. If you’ve been in the job market at all for the past 30 years or so, you’ve probably seen how most job ads say they want employees who can multitask. It’s how we get things done these days. Except that it isn’t. This may come as a shock to you, especially if you think you’re a good multitasker, but neuroscience says you’re not. The human brain is not good at multitasking.
No one is discounting the sense of accomplishment you might feel when you get three jobs done in quick succession, but the fact is you’d do better handling each task individually. And honestly, when you think you’re multitasking, are you? Neuroscientists say most of us are task switching. You’re not doing two things at once, you’re switching quickly between two things. The reason is that your brain is not wired to focus on more than one thing at a time.
For an example, neuroscientists suggest trying to write an email while talking on the phone. You may think you can do that, but try it for real. Pay attention to whether or not you can speak in full, coherent sentences, listen to the other person, and type a readable email at the same time. In reality, most of us would talk, then type, then talk. Your brain can’t split up those two communications tasks at the same time. In fact, the more tasks you try to accomplish at the same time, even with task switching, the worse you’ll perform overall.