Does Your Brain Ever Stop Developing?

The human brain is one of the most complex systems in the universe and is also one of the most misunderstood. We human beings are obsessed with our own brains, and our obsession with the strange organ between our ears (we’re still talking about the brain, not the nose) has led us as a species to come up with some undeniably strange myths about it.

There’s a commonly repeated maxim that the average human only uses 10 percent of their brain, but the DENT Neurological Institute argues that this idea is actually nonsense: “We actually use all of it. We’re even using more than 10 percent when we sleep. Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period.” Although false, the idea has taken hold in our collective consciousness thanks to the fact that it seems to say something uncanny and titillating about the sheer amount of untapped potential each one of us carries around inside our own heads — if only we were able to harness it.

But such untruths are made more believable by the sheer number of strange facts about the brain that have been verified by scientists in the last few hundred years: that the brain is mainly water and fat, that it contains more neurons than there are stars in the observable universe, that it’s electrically-powered (all verified by DENT). Alongside these barely-believable insights, it’s no wonder that we tend to believe in a lot of falsehoods, too.

The truth about brain development

But does a brain mature, like the rest of the body, in its early years, and then stay more or less the same after puberty? Can it be said to age? When, exactly, does the brain stop “developing” and begin “declining”?

The early stages of brain development are, in a way, easily measurable in terms of brain growth. As the DENT Neurological Institute points out, the human brain triples in size in the first 12 months: “A 2-year-old baby will have an 80 percent fully grown brain. It will continue to grow until you’re about 18 years old. It isn’t until about the age of 25 that the human brain reaches full maturity. The human brain is the largest brain of all vertebrates relative to body size.”

However, it would be a mistake to link brain size to brainpower: the same source explains that “There is no evidence that a larger brain is smarter than a smaller one,” but rather it is the maturity of the brain related to the number of neurons and the synapses connecting them that denotes strength of the brain as an organ. The connections in the brain are refined and made more efficient as we enter into neurological maturity thanks to a process known as neuroplasticity, according to the University of Washington.

Once maturity is reached, common knowledge tells us that the brain stops developing and loses brain cells — and “power” — as we age. But is this really the case?

The brain is always changing

The way we have tended to think about the life span of the brain has been around for decades, and says that, upon reaching maturity when you’re in your 20s, the brain begins its slow decline. Learning new things becomes a challenge as early as your 30s, according to The Healthy, while memory loss and the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s increases exponentially. It makes for grim reading.

However, according to a recent article by Harvard Health Publishing, thinking about the brain as if it were a performance machine that is gradually falling to pieces is no longer compatible with the latest research. “We now know this is not true,” the article claims. “Instead, scientists now see the brain as continuously changing and developing across the entire life span. There is no period in life when the brain and its functions just hold steady. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others actually improve.”

The brain is always changing, and rather than having a set timeline for its development, it is highly affected by the chemicals we treat it to — through food, hydration, but also alcohol and drugs — as well as physical activity. According to Business Insider, recent research has shown that aerobics can improve verbal recall, for example.

So if you’re ever feeling a little foggy, it might be worth putting your laptop away and going for a run instead.

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