Engage the brain

Your brain, by the numbers:

The human brain is remarkable in its ability to learn, grow and reason. It has plasticity, meaning it can change structure or function as needed our entire lives. Check out these astounding facts about the brain:

  • 3 lbs. – your central processing unit weighs just under three pounds.
  • 20% – at roughly 1/40th of your body weight, your brain consumes 20% of your oxygen intake.
  • 220 mph – that’s how fast neural impulses travel across synapses.
  • 86 billion – the number of neurons (nerve cells) in your brain.
  • 10 trillion – the brain’s synapse count, where impulses pass from neuron to neuron.
  • 10 quadrillion – that is 10 plus sixteen zeroes, ladies and gentlemen — the number of calculations your very own brain makes per second. (1) No wonder you are so tired! Go ahead and schedule a day at the spa. I’ll wait.

Brain weight gain (that’s a good thing)

Did you know that as we learn new skills or practice a skill for a long period of time, our brain gains volume, because more neurons form? Musicians, athletes and bilingual persons have more gray matter in the areas of the brain that pertain to their particular skill. (2)

Researchers found that training older adults to juggle over 90 days increased brain volume in three regions of the brain. If the new skill was not continued, neural volume shrunk back to pre-juggling levels. (3) Buddhist monks with much experience in mindfulness meditation were discovered to have a similar strengthening of connections in the areas where empathy and maternal love is processed. (4)

Engage the brain

In order for our brain volume to increase and new neurons to form, we must try new things or maintain a hobby. Skills that involve both manual dexterity or a physical element along with mental exercise are especially helpful, like quilting, music, biking, cooking, golfing, swing dance, etc. (5) Try juggling, meditate, take a banjo class — all will help maintain brain health.

Engaging the brain is only one part of keeping our brain in top shape. Exercise, good nutrition, low blood pressure, moderate alcohol use (if at all), not smoking, social engagement and adequate sleep all correlate strongly with brain health. (6) To quote the ancient Romans, mens sana in corpore sano: a sound mind in a sound body.

More resources on the brain:

A brain primer or two

Brain games, courtesy of the AARP

Some funky brain challenges that will surprise you, like turning your computer screen upside down, or dressing with your eyes closed. http://www.keepyourbrainalive.com/nuerobic-exercises/


  1. Godwin D. Your brain by the numbers. Scientific American. Nov 1, 2012. Accessed Nov 18, 2016.
  2. Maquire EA. Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus  drivers: A structrural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 2006;16:1091-1101.
  3. Park DC and Bischof GN. The aging mind: neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013;15(1):109-119.
  4. Lutz A, Brefcynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS ONE. 2008;3(3).
  5. 12 ways to keep your brain young. Harvard Health Publications: Harvard Medical School. Accessed Nov 18, 2016.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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