Canadian Firefighter Magazine

From the Editor: The utterly awesome brain

October 13, 2020
By Laura Aiken

It seems as though the fire service has the brain on the mind as more than one of this edition’s columnists submitted material focused around this astounding mass of matter. Patrick Mathieu’s Recipe Rescue is on nutrition for brain health. Sean Kingswell’s Tools of the Trade discusses keeping your brain healthy for the long-term in considering aging, retirement and cognitive decline.
There are many great reads about the brain and an endless array of fascinating facts. Science is discovering that the brain is an organ of incredible plasticity but the origins of consciousness still elude us from a scientific point of view.

Author Bill Bryson, noted for his ability to synthesize vast amounts of detail into highly digestible reading after his bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything, penned The Body in 2019. In it, he made a most clever observation: “The great paradox of the brain is that everything you know about the world is provided to you by an organ that has itself never seen that world…To your brain, the world is just a stream of electrical pulses, like the taps of Morse code. And out of this bare and neutral information it creates for —quite literally creates —a vibrant, three-dimensional, sensually engaging universe.”

Bryson’s book is full of striking tidbits that inspire awe of the miraculous brain. For example, just sitting and doing nothing your brain goes through more information than the Hubble telescope has in 30 years. Your brain is a three pound, spongy awesome organ unlike any other in the universe. Bryson notes the research of Brazillian neuroscientist Suzana Herculan0-Houzel who redefined the number of neurons in the human brain to be about 86 billion. This is less than the 100 billion previously assumed, but still — it’s kind of an unfathomable number.

And, just to pull one more fun fact from Bryson’s book, these neurons go on to create trillions of connections, leading neuroscientist David Eagleman to remark that there are as many connections “in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way.”


Has your brain blown your mind yet? The complexity is astounding.

In Mathieu’s column on nutrition he asks us to think about the brain as an expensive car requiring premium fuel. Think of putting crummy fuel in a Ferrari. Who would dare? It’s a great parallel Mathieu has drawn.

A study in Frontiers of Medicine called Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health (Mintzer, J. et al), which conducted an overview of evidence from current research and expert opinion on the factors known to be relevant in keeping brain health through aging concluded that mental well-being, exercise, cognitively stimulating activities, sleep, nutrition, and social connectedness all offer opportunities for individuals in mid-life and beyond to make lifestyle changes that will have a positive effect on their brain health.

An interesting element that would fall under cognitively stimulating activities is music. The research around music’s ability to help us retain and retrieve memories, to soothe us when we are anxious and exercise our mind in learning and practicing and playing an instrument is fascinating. If you haven’t read Daniel J. Levitin’s bestseller This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, this 2006 book put music on the brain health radar for many. It’s a fascinating read for music lovers and the neuroscience inclined alike.

Between the articles in this edition of Canadian Firefighter and the many books out there on the brain, you’ll find no shortage of motivating text to keep the health of your brain top of mind.