“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).
David’s doxology about the wonder and beauty of the human body is one of the primary reasons we can justifiably believe in creation, as opposed to the incredible notion that life as we know it happened by chance. Each of our five senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing—demonstrate the marvel of God’s creative power.
Take the brain, for example. The brain is complex and fantastic. Much more than a heap of communicating cells, it brings meaning to life; it allows us to think about the past, learn new things, and build the future. This incredible organ tells us who we are, what we feel, and how we can be happy. It governs our existence in a wonderful way.
The brain’s circuitry is composed of about 86 billion nerve cells. At birth the brain already has most of the neurons that define what it means to be an individual. By the second year of life, a child’s brain is 80 percent the size of an adult brain.
Scientists admit that they are far from unraveling all its mysteries. Check out one of its capabilities by reading the jumble that follows:
ACDINCORG TO A SVREUY OF AN ELNISGH UVENIRISTY, NO MTATER WAHT ODRER THE LTETRES ARE, THE OLNY IPMROTNAT TNIHG IS TAHT THE FRSIT AND LSAT LTEETR ARE IN THE RHGIT PCLAE. THE RSET CAN BE A TAOTL MSES, AND YOU CAN SILTL RAED WIHTUOT ANY POEBRLM. THE RAOSEN FOR TIHS IS TAHT WE DO NOT RAED EVREY SGNILE LTTEER BUT THE WROD AS A WOLHE.
The brain’s fascinating abilities do not stop there. Did you know a woman’s brain grows after giving birth? Hormonal changes that occur after a baby’s birth are responsible for the anatomical changes observed in regions involving reasoning, motivation, and emotion. The main altered areas are: hippocampus (learning and memory), hypothalamus (associated with maternal motivation and feeling), substantia nigra and amygdala (reward and emotional processing), parietal lobe (sensory integration) and prefrontal cortex (reasoning and decision-making). Such changes give women a better ability to care for their newly born babies.1
In addition to controlling various functions of our bodies, such as food intake, sleep, and body temperature, the brain is also an expert in the task of making decisions. You may be thinking,
We already know that the decisions we make come from brain processes. What’s new?
What’s new is appreciating the elaborate analysis of situations required for making decisions. For example, deciding whether to accept a new job offer is performed by the prefrontal cortex (a portion of the brain located in the forehead region). Scientists at the University of Oxford have identified a portion of the prefrontal cortex that appears to be unique in humans. This area, called the lateral frontal pole of the prefrontal cortex, has been associated with strategic planning and decision-making as well as with multitasking. This area is exclusive in humans, without anything that corresponds to it in animals.2
An adult human brain weighs about three pounds (2 percent of a person’s body weight), yet it is capable of processing an infinite number of actions, calculations, emotions, and situations. For maximum performance the brain’s needs are quite simple: nutrition, water, oxygen, and rest. Let’s talk about rest.
Did you know that not getting enough sleep can be as detrimental to our brains as drinking alcohol? Studies at Stanford University found that people who stayed awake for 19 hours made more mistakes in attention tests than people with 0.8 grams of alcohol in their blood, a quantity equivalent to four glasses of beer, three glasses of wine, or three glasses of whiskey.3
That same study evaluated tomography scans of the brains of sleep-deprived young people and identified a reduction in brain activity that affects the frontal cortex (involved in decision-making, planning, and execution of tasks) and the cerebellum (responsible for motor coordination). This and many other studies only prove what we already know: quality sleep is essential for health in general and brain health in particular.
Yet research confirms that between 30 and 50 percent of the world’s population suffers from insomnia.4
A good night’s sleep is essential for the body, especially for the brain. While we sleep our bodies produce hormones, neurotransmitters are synthesized, and energy for activities is restored. Long-term, unsatisfactory rest tends to result in psychiatric, neurological, or other disorders such as restless leg syndrome, teeth grinding, sleep apnea, etc.
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland and involved with various neurotransmitter systems, is considered the “sleep hormone” because it works to lower blood pressure, glucose levels, and body temperature, allowing the body to relax. But when artificial light strikes the retina at night the optic nerves “warn” the brain that it is time to wake up, suppressing the production of melatonin.
And while melatonin production decreases by nighttime exposure to light, cortisol levels increase. Cortisol acts to keep our bodies awake and active and is closely related to the way we respond to stress, increased body fat, risk of diabetes, joint inflammation, etc.
The relationship of sleep to brain health is just as significant to other aspects of our health and well-being. Consider these factors:
The less we sleep, the greater our chance for cancer.Women exposed to a higher intensity of artificial night light have a greater chance of developing breast cancer. The involvement of melatonin with the female hormones perhaps explains these results. When melatonin is suppressed, important hormonal changes occur, making women more vulnerable to cancer.5
Lack of sleep affects the immune system.The increase of cortisol produced during the night because of exposure to artificial light (even at low intensity) increased the vulnerability of rats to diseases in general, especially when the light was blue. The results can also be applied to humans.6
Little sleep is linked with early aging and neurodegenerative diseases.Melatonin has antioxidant properties that are essential for preventing the body’s cells from damaging changes.
Sleep deprivation impairs decision-making.The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in communication, innovation, and evaluation, decreases in activity when exposed to sleep deprivation.7
Sleep deprivation decreases emotional intelligence and creativity.Subjects deprived of sleep for as many as 56 hours demonstrated a noticable decrease in empathy, assertiveness, and impulse control. Positive and abstract thinking is also hindered.
Our life experiences are infinite and indescribable. And all our experiences are processed through our brains. No wonder David spoke about being fearfully and wonderfully made.
The care we take to experience life in its fullness is as basic as eating simple, nutritious food; getting adequate exercise; and enjoying ample rest. Not only will we enjoy life as God intends it, we will have strength, energy, and vigor to be a blessing to those around us.
Rosana Alves, Ph.D., is director of the Neurogenesis Institute Center in São Paulo, Brazil.