28th September 2023 is National Ask a Stupid Question Day, where you can ask any questions you like, no matter how daft. At Braintastic! Science, we get asked loads of questions on the brain, and we have a secret for you... there’s actually no such thing as a silly question! In fact, you might find that some of the simplest-sounding questions can have the most interesting answers. Here are a few examples...
What colour is my brain?
There are two different kinds of tissue: grey matter and white matter. Most of the outside of the brain is made up of grey matter, which is pinkish-grey in colour, with red blood vessels running through it. If you cut into a brain (don’t try this at home!), you’ll find patches of white matter, which is – you guessed it! – white.
Why are brains wrinkly?
The outside of the brain is covered in folds and wrinkles, called the cortex. As your brain grows, it also gets wrinklier. These wrinkles give your brain a much bigger surface area, so more white and grey matter can fit inside your head. This means you can learn things faster, store more memories, and send messages from your brain to your body and back more quickly and in more detail.
Scientists have found that humans have much wrinklier brains than most other mammals. Dolphins, however, have almost twice as many wrinkles as humans – and we don’t know why!
If you want to find out more about how our brains compare to our animal relatives, why not check out our live science show for schools Amazing Animals?
Do girls and boys have different brains?
People used to think that girls and boys were “wired differently”, which meant that girls were naturally better at language and emotional processing, while boys were better at maths and science. Nowadays, we know that’s not true! There’s no real difference in the make-up of girls’ brains and boys’ brains – they contain the same grey and white matter.
As we grow up, though, our brains are constantly changing. Every new experience and every single thing you learn forms new connections in your brain. This changeability is called “brain plasticity”, and it explains why everybody’s brain is completely unique – because all the changes in our brains come from the things we experience in our lives. For example, if boys are given Lego to play with when they’re little, they’ll develop better spatial reasoning. Similarly, if caregivers talk more to baby girls than baby boys, then girls will learn language more quickly. But if girls are given Lego, and people chat to boys, they learn these skills at exactly the same rate!
For more about how learning shapes our brain, take a look at our blog post How Memories are Stored in the Brain. If you want to dive even deeper into the science of learning, we have a free learning and memory lesson plan available, or you can book us to come to your school and inspire your students directly with our shows and workshops about learning & memory.
Does a bigger brain make you cleverer?
Well, yes and no. As you get older, your brain will get bigger, enabling you to learn more things and store more memories. We also know that humans have much larger brains than other primates, such as chimpanzees, which could explain why we are generally more intelligent than chimps. But if it was as simple as that, surely the blue whale would be the cleverest animal in the world!
Scientists have found a slight link between brain size and intelligence in adult humans, but not enough to strongly support an argument either way. Instead, it’s more likely that the size of your brain relative to your body is responsible for intelligence. This makes sense, as humans have bigger heads compared to their bodies than other primates – and blue whales' brains make up far less of their overall body size.
Another reason for human beings’ intelligence is that the front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for a lot of emotional processing and rational thought, is much bigger than most other animals’. This might explain why humans can form complex emotional connections, write poetry, and invent the internet!
Can you do a brain transplant?
Not yet. The brain is very, very delicate, and severing it from the rest of the body, moving it to another body, and then re-attaching it without damaging it is currently impossible. Another reason is that the immune system might recognise the strange new brain as a threat and attack it. This is a risk with all organ transplants, but doctors know more about how to prevent that with other organs than they do about the brain.
Perhaps a bigger question is this: considering your brain holds all the thoughts, feelings, and memories that make up who you are, would it be a brain transplant at all? Or would it be a body transplant?