After millennia of research, experts still don't know very much about the human brain. As such, most of what you have picked up on the subject from pop culture is just laughably wrong.
In fact, we'll bet you even heard some or all of these brain myths in school at some point ...
6"Alcohol Kills Brain Cells!"
What you heard:
It's the reason Homer Simpson gets stupider every season, and it's what your mom warned you about when you got caught sneaking a beer from dad's stash when you were 13: Every beer you drink kills something like a million brain cells and makes you permanently stupider.
"Goodbye, Algebra 2!"
Let's get this out of the way now -- too much alcohol does a whole host of horrible shit to just about every organ in your body. It's just that your brain isn't really one of them. Your alcoholic uncle doesn't actually get any stupider when he drinks. Meaner, but not stupider.
"Asleep" isn't the same as "brain damaged."
The whole idea of alcohol destroying your brain actually dates back to the temperance movement in America, circa 1830. Using the now familiar tactic of "It's OK to lie as long as it's for a good cause," the writers of the time claimed that alcohol would do everything from destroying your brain to making you catch fire if you drank too much. Though the latter, if true, would make losing a few brain cells seem fairly minor.
Plenty of people believed it -- it just seems like common sense that beer destroys the brain. Have you ever seen a drunk person before? And listened to his jokes?
"So this guy, he turned and said ... and said ... shit. It was something about priests, or bears. Hey -- QUIT LAUGHING AT ME!"
Yet, according to scientific studies, the dopiness associated with being drunk has nothing to do with dying brain cells and everything to do with the alcohol blocking them from doing their work, inhibiting cognition and motor function. Your brain cells are fine, as long you don't walk into too many walls while you're trashed. Another point of confusion stems from the fact that there is a brain disorder that's linked to alcoholism called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which makes you dumb and destroys your memory. But this isn't actually caused by the alcohol; it's malnutrition stemming from the fact that alcoholics often have really crappy diets because the booze kills their appetite and eats up their disposable income.
Of course, the "alcohol kills brain cells" myth was always paired with ...
5"You Can't Regrow Brain Cells -- Once They're Gone, They're Gone!"
What you heard:
The story that alcohol -- or anything -- kills your brain cells was scarier because you always heard that brain cells never grow back. When you're horsing around with your brother and hit your head on the coffee table, you just busted yourself down a whole IQ point you're never going to recover. Show off on the field too many times by headbutting the soccer ball, and wave goodbye to college. Except this, too, is thankfully bullshit.
These are the few children lucky enough to avoid head injuries, marijuana and falling acorns in their youth.
First, studies from back in the '90s show that adult human brains actually contain stem cells. These are cells that can turn into any other kind of cell on demand, including brain cells. Basically, they're like the blank tiles in Scrabble. When you damage the brain, these cells scramble to rebuild what's broken.
More than that, your brain is incredibly adept at patching itself up in a fix, and can even repair itself after a major event like a stroke, quickly creating new blood vessels to restore oxygen flow, and rewiring brain cells (called neurons) to work around the blockade of dead tissue. Neurons are constantly born through a process called neurogenesis, and can migrate anywhere in the brain that they're needed.
Maryam Faiz , Laia Acarin , Bernardo Castellano and Berta Gonzalez
Above: Neurogenesis. Or that trippy scene from 2001. We're not doctors.
Rather than some monolithic lump of cells that gets battered and broken after years of ill-advised partying, the brain is actually changing all the time. The neural pathways in your brain never stop developing, even well into adulthood, constantly forming and reforming new connections. This happens whenever you learn anything or develop a new memory. It also happens over the course of just a few hours, several times a day.
To reiterate: too much alcohol is bad for you. And too much brain trauma is really fucking bad for you -- ask anyone who played pro football. But give the human brain a little credit.
And while we're on the subject, we probably have to address this one ...