52xTED in 2016: Begin With the Brain

My colleague Errol Mazursky is the Executive Director of the Environmental Leadership Program. He is one of those incredible people who always seem to be smiling and laughing and finding the silver lining on the edges of a Category 5 hurricane. At the start of 2015, Errol resolved to watch a TED talk every day for the next 365 days, sharing what he learned through the occasional post on Facebook. This year I figured, “If it’s good for Errol, it’s good for me too.”

I’m tweaking the resolution to accommodate for the dissertation that I’m trying to write in 2016. Instead of 365 TED Talks, I’m only committing to 52—one per week. Instead of posting my take-away on Facebook, I’ll do it here and simultaneously get more blogging done in the new year. And, in the style of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog, I’ll add a few links to complimentary books, videos, or articles when I can easily dredge them up from memory. And so here goes…


52 TED TALKS, Take 1: What Is So Special About the Human Brain?

From TED: The human brain is puzzling — it is curiously large given the size of our bodies, uses a tremendous amount of energy for its weight and has a bizarrely dense cerebral cortex. But: why? Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel puts on her detective’s cap and leads us through this mystery. By making “brain soup,” she arrives at a startling conclusion.

My Take:  Human brains are caloric hogs, burning at least a fourth of the energy we get from eating a 2,000 calorie diet each day. Cooking food makes more of its energy available to us in digestion, which means we don’t have to spend all 24 hours of the day shoving raw kale down our throats to keep the lights on in our noggins. Human brains have an abnormal density of neurons for their body size in comparison to other primates—especially in our cortexes, where all that fun higher-order thinking happens, like making plans to take a vacation in New Orleans or worrying about whether you left the stove on before you left the house. More neurons, more connections, more thinking… and more calories burning. I love the link this scientist makes between cuisine and cognition and anyone who does work in a wet lab will appreciate her clever method for tallying up the number of neurons the brain.

Also check out: Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (2009) by David Rock—an accessible introduction to making the most of your brain in even the most stressful of circumstances.

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