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What’s that other 90 percent of our brains for?

TODAY’S question, inspired by a breakthrough in research in Japan:

If we really use only 10 percent of our brains, what’s the other 90 percent doing?

My answer to that would be either watching TV or playing Angry Birds.

And my hope is that this Japanese research doesn’t lead to bosses monitoring employees’ brain activity at work.

About 10 percent of our brains consist of neurons, the part of the brain involved in thinking, or at least transmitting thoughts.

The rest was once believed to consist of the kind of stuff that makes up 90 percent of the packaging we throw away after children unwrap toys on Christmas morning—perhaps there to keep a walnut-sized bag of neurons from rattling around in our giant, oversized skulls. If not for that, all the other mammals might make fun of the tiny heads on our big, fat bodies.

Actually, about 90 percent of the brain is made up of glial cells, once thought to be little more than filler, but now believed to play a role in imagination, creativity and learning.

Anyway, most of those neurons are almost constantly in use, when we’re involved in complex tasks like chewing gum and walking at the same time and even when we’re asleep and dreaming.

So actually, we’re doing OK in terms of putting our brains to use.

Most of us, anyway.

My neurons were firing up this week because of a report in Current Biology about research at Japan’s National Institute of Genetics.

Scientists there have recorded real-time video of the brain of a zebrafish stalking its prey. Zebrafish have translucent heads and fluorescent proteins were introduced to illuminate neuron activity.

The video of the fish’s brain tracking its prey looks like an intense electrical storm on a summer night. Far more than 90 percent is active, so let’s hope that:

a) Zebrafish are not smarter than humans.

b) We only use more than 10 percent of our brains when we are thinking about doughnuts.

This breakthrough, they say, could lead to more effective ways of monitoring brain activity in other species. Like us. Which could be a great thing for medicine.

It could also be a boon to workplace productivity.

For now, however, I’m just glad I don’t have a translucent head.

Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163

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