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Our brains are so much bigger than we think

Our brains are possibly the most baffling, mysterious, amazing, incredible, impossible organs ever to have evolved – and they are far bigger than we think.

The brain is like a tree.
Let me start by inviting you to imagine yourself standing in a beautiful, sunny garden caressed by a gentle breeze. The whisper of wind on your face has kissed millions of cheeks before; it is born of gases that have swirled around the world since before humans walked the earth. The warm touch of sunlight has travelled across space about 93 million miles (slightly fewer in January and more in July); we absorb it through our skin and, via food, through our digestive system. In the lilac’s scent is the blossoming, so far, of evolution – of the flower, of our ability to smell it, and of the many species that have appeared and transformed or disappeared as nature explores alternative forms of life. And in each lung full of sky, we breathe in harmony with the earth – the oxygen (about 20pc of what we inhale and 16pc of what we exhale) a gift from her for the blood to our brains, and a part of us (in the carbon dioxide – about 4pc of what we exhale) our gift back to the earth.

Whether we are in a real or imagined garden, what I find most awe-inspiring is the fact that we can appreciate it at all: that we can see colours and shapes, be aware of what we see, make sense of these waves of reflected light, interpret them or give them meaning, respond emotionally, and recreate sights, sounds, smells and tastes in our imaginations.

A flicker of shadow on the lawn dancing upside down on the retina is set right by one bit of the brain which, via another bit, suggests there is a gust in the trees (I can’t see the wind, but I can see the effect it is having on things which I can see). A scent on that wind may evoke a memory in part of the brain which may then send a message to another bit to breathe deeply. All this within milliseconds – in an organ weighing 3lb, made up of 78pc water, plus fat, protein, carbohydrate, salt and a few other chemicals (How the Brain Works by John McCrone).

As you read this, electrical activity is speeding along the highways of your brain, which is a web of 100 billion neurons with about 1,000 trillion connections – a biological internet encased in a skull. Or so we think, as we peer out through two slits in the shell.

But this separateness is an illusion.

The brain needs the spinal cord and the rest of the nervous system to tell it what is going on. So, the brain actually extends beyond the skull through the nervous system, the roots of the human tree. Through the senses we reach out into the universe and absorb what is going on, our senses transmitting their findings to the brain for interpretation. This triggers electrical activity in parts of the brain, changing their make-up. Through habit, well-used connections become like motorways, while others remain country lanes, and so we tend over time to respond in similar ways to similar stimuli – unless we consciously choose a different route. 

Our brains are changed by what we perceive but, more importantly, by how we perceive it. Everything we think, say, do and experience alters our brain in subtle, and sometimes dramatic, ways. And alters the world and the people around us, too. When we meet someone, we are already touching long before we even shake hands. 

It is a great responsibility, and a huge opportunity for us all to go beyond the apparent limitations set by the illusory egos which keep us trapped inside our skulls – because our brains are so much bigger than we think.


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