9 Clever Ways to Hack Your Brain Today


We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event hosted by Bryant Gumbel. The special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.

From relieving pain to winning games, these 11 tricks have got you covered.


The doctor’s office, the needle, the pain … nobody likes getting shots. We can’t do anything about the needle or the doctor, but there is a really easy way to reduce the pain: just cough. Scientists in Germany administered two rounds of shots to a group of 20 people. The first time, the test subjects just sat there. The second time, they were instructed to cough as they got the shot. Nineteen out of 20 test subjects reported feeling less pain during the second shot.


Wearing perfume or cologne makes you more attractive to the opposite sex—even when they can’t smell it. Researchers asked women to rate the attractiveness of men in photos and on video. The guys in one group had sprayed themselves with a super-manly scented deodorant, and the other guys were unscented. In still images, the results were as you might expect: those with more attractive features were rated as more attractive. But once the women saw the guys moving around on videotape, they consistently rated the men wearing body spray as hotter. What’s behind this? Attitude. The men who thought they smelled good behaved more confidently, which made them more attractive.


Our brains may be incredibly complex, but in many ways, we’re all just overgrown toddlers. When we see something we like, we want to touch it, but touching things just makes us want them more. Stores and salespeople know this; it’s why display models and test-drives exist. But the problem runs even deeper: once we’ve got something in our paws, we’re even willing to pay more for it. So if your wallet has seemed a little emptier these days, try practicing what we teach preschoolers: keep your hands to yourself.


Did you ever wonder why olde-tymey European pirates wore eye patches? It’s not just because they look cool (although they do). Sailors move between a ship’s decks many times a day. Each time they go below deck, their eyes have to adjust to the dark, and vice versa. This can take a while, and we all know pirates were on a tight schedule. Historians believe they made do with a brain hack that you can use today: keep one eye in the dark by covering it with an eye patch or your hand. By the time you move below deck (or into the dark bathroom at night), you’ll have one eye ready. 


Everybody gets angry, and once in a while, everybody snaps. But some people snap a lot more than others. Scientists say the difference between frequent exploders and everyone else isn’t that the exploders have more anger; it’s that they have less self-control. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Researchers found that simply by using their nondominant hands for mundane tasks (eating cereal, opening doors, etc.) for two weeks, their self-control improved. The theory is that self-control is like a muscle. It can be strong or weak, energized or tired. And just like a muscle, it can be strengthened. Each time a person has to deal with the aggravation of pouring a drink with the wrong hand, it strengthens their self-control. Like any exercise, the process can be painful at first, but over time, the work pays off. 


Whether it’s love or war (or sports, anyway), wearing red will increase your chances of victory. Both men and women are consistently rated as sexier when they’re wearing red. In close matches, athletes wearing red are far more likely to beat their opponents. The advantage is so marked that some researchers have suggested a ban on red uniforms, which may give one side an unfair advantage. The reason for these phenomena may be embarrassingly simple. In many primate species, certain relevant body parts flush red when an animal is ready to mate. In other species, redness is a sign of dominance or aggression. Humans are primates too, so it’s not too surprising the signals have translated. 


There are two surefire ways to deal with drowsiness or flagging energy. The first is coffee, and the second is a power nap. But what if you combined them? It sounds like a really bad idea, but if you do it right, it can put your afternoon sleepies to bed. The trick is to have a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage, then go straight to sleep for no more than 15 minutes. Scientists who tested the method say the one-two punch of caffeine and power nap completely eliminated test subjects’ sleepiness. Why? Well, caffeine takes a little while to start kicking in—about 15 minutes, in fact. You can squeeze in a little bit of shut-eye and wake up just in time to maximize your power-up. 


What’s the first thing you say when you stub your toe? If you’re like most people, it’s not something we can say here. From an early age, we’re taught that obscenities are inappropriate. But what if they serve a physiological purpose? Scientists instructed test subjects to plunge their hands into buckets of ice water. As the pain took hold, the participants were told to say one of two words: a neutral word, or the F-word. The results were pretty clear: “Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.” There’s a catch, though: it didn’t work for potty mouths. Swearing every day lessened the effect of swearing in a painful situation. The researchers concluded that like any other treatment for pain, cussing is most effective when used in moderation. 


It’s super weird, but it works. Your thumb has its own heartbeat. When you’re anxious, stressed out, or hyped up, your heart rate will speed up, which makes you feel even more wired. Slowly blowing air over the pad of your thumb does two things. First, it helps cool your hot hands, which should encourage your heart to slow down. Second, it forces you to take slow, deep breaths, which tells your nervous system that the danger has passed.

Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?

If you close your fingers in a car door or slam your funny bone into a wall, you might find your first reaction is to suck on your fingers or rub your elbow. Not only is this an instinctive self-soothing behavior, it's a pretty effective technique for temporarily calming pain signals to the brain.

But how and why does it work? To understand, you need to know about the dominant theory of how pain is communicated in the body.

In the 17th century, French scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that there were specific pain receptors in the body that "rang a bell in the brain" when a stimulus interacted with the body, Lorne Mendell, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Mental Floss. However, no study has effectively been able to identify receptors anywhere in the body that only respond to painful stimuli.

"You can activate certain nerve fibers that can lead to pain, but under other circumstances, they don't," Mendell says. In other words, the same nerve fibers that carry pain signals also carry other sensations.

In 1965, two researchers at MIT, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack, proposed what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Mendell, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of pain and who worked with both men on their pain studies, explains that their research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers.

"The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate," Mendell says. "So you have this idea of a gate control sitting across the entrance of the spinal cord, and that could either be open and produce pain, or the gate could be shut and reduce pain."

The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage.

Of the two main types of nerve fibers—large and small—the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).

Mendell explains that in studies where electric stimulation is applied to nerves, as the current is raised, the first fibers to be stimulated are the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increases, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. "When you do this in a patient at low intensity, the patient will recognize the stimulus, but it will not be painful," he says. "But when you increase the intensity of the stimulus, eventually you reach threshold where suddenly the patient will say, 'This is painful.'"

Thus, "the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced."

Now back to your pain. When you suck on a jammed finger or rub a banged shin, you're stimulating the large fibers with "counter irritation," Mendell says. The effect is "a decrease in the message, or the magnitude of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You basically shut the gate. That is what reduces pain."

This concept has created "a big industry" around treating pain with mild electrical stimulation, Mendell says, with the goal of stimulating those large fibers in the hopes they will shut the gate on the pain signals from the small fibers.

While counter irritation may not help dull the pain of serious injury, it may come in handy the next time you experience a bad bruise or a stubbed toe.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]


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