Most of the time, we are so used to our brain functioning smoothly and automatically that we don't take a lot of time to think about what is going on underneath. Walking, eating, discussing a book…all of these things seem very natural and easy, but in truth, each and every one is done through a series of functions that the brain performs. In order to really understand the abilities of the brain, as well as the limitations, you can try brain teasers and games…but it is also important to look at some of the things you probably didn't know about:
1 -- Working Memory
Think about math class for a moment. Whether you love math, or hate it, you definitely will be familiar with working out a problem in your head. When your brain holds multiple units of information and manipulates them to actually solve that problem in your head, you are using a mental capacity known as working memory. In other words, working memory is a way to not only remember something you already knew, like the formula to solve the math problem, but to interpret and apply information "real time" to solve the problem by using that formula, so it is a critical ingredient for learning and for decision-making.
2 -- Regulate Emotions
If you are like many of us, at some point or another, you need to work as a team. However, at times, you might find that a member of your team is doing something that you don't agree with and it makes you angry. Are you going to release the full wrath of this anger onto this person? No, hopefully you won't thanks to the brain function known as emotional self regulation…as long as you have exercised this "mental muscle" enough and it's ready for you to flex.
3 -- Interpret Sensory Information
When you smell a sweet, smoky, buttery scent, do you recognize it as chocolate? Could you recognize that you are petting a cat versus a dog? In both cases, yes, you will and this is because your brain is able to interpret sensory information.
4 -- Theory of Mind
How would you feel if your friend suddenly announced their promotion at work? You would probably be extremely happy and be able to imagine exactly what they were thinking. This is due to the brain function known as theory of mind meaning you have insight into other people's worlds.
5 -- Sequencing
Perhaps you have a project you need to complete for work. Before you start, you will need to figure out what step to take first, then the rest of the steps in sequence. The ability of your brain to do this, and put steps in order from most to least important is known as sequencing.
Are you on a diet? How do you keep yourself from eating a chocolate bar? Actually, your brain does it for you with a function known as inhibition.
7 -- Attention
Imagine being on the beach. There are people around you, children playing and laughing, the waves beating against the shore. Yet, you are still able to block all of that out and focus your attention on the book you are reading. This is using another brain function known as attention. This is the ability to focus on a certain thought, action or deeds.
8 -- Working Memory vs. Long Term Memory
When you can recall a phone number that you have just been given and remember what you were doing three summers ago, you might think you are simply using your memory, but in truth, you are using two different types of memory. Remembering the new phone number uses working memory, which is limited storage that you will soon forget and remembering your summer from years ago is using long term memory, which is practically unlimited.
9 -- Motor Function
When you walk down the street, type on a computer or shake a hand, you are using the motor function of your brain. This is the ability for us to move our bodies and manipulate objects.
10 -- Visual and Spatial Processing
Last but not least. When you see a large M in the corner of a major city, you recognize that as the sign for a metro stop, right? This is because your brain is using its visual abilities.
As you can see, we need much more than "memory" or "intelligence" in order to enjoy our lives, so it is important to learn how to enhance and maintain a variety of brain functions, not just one.
The brain is working constantly -even though we don't realize it all the time- and you are now aware that there are many important functions that occur that you probably didn't know about. What you do with this knowledge now is up to you.
This is an adapted excerpt from the new book by educator Alvaro Fernandez and neuroscientist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, titled "The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age" (April 2013; 284 pages), a Preventive Medicine bestseller. You can learn more at SharpBrains.com