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Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind

Updated on November 24, 2007

10. Sweet Dreams

If you were to ask 10 people what dreams are made of, you'd probably get 10 different answers. That's because scientists are still unraveling this mystery. One possibility: Dreaming exercises brain by stimulating the trafficking of synapses between brain cells. Another theory is that people dream about tasks and emotions that they didn't take care of during the day, and that the process can help solidify thoughts and memories. In general, scientists agree that dreaming happens during your deepest sleep, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM).

9. Slumber Sleuth

Fruit flies do it. Tigers do it. And humans can't seem to get enough of it. No, not that. We're talking about shut-eye, so crucial we spend more than a quarter of our lives at it. Yet the underlying reasons for sleep remain as puzzling as a rambling dream. One thing scientists do know: Sleep is crucial for survival in mammals. Extended sleeplessness can lead to mood swings, hallucination, and in extreme cases, death. There are two states of sleep--non-rapid eye movement (NREM), during which the brain exhibits low metabolic activity, and rapid eye movement (REM), during which the brain is very active. Some scientists think NREM sleep gives your body a break, and in turn conserves energy, similar to hibernation. REM sleep could help to organize memories. However, this idea isn't proven, and dreams during REM sleep don't always correlate with memories.

8. Phantom Feelings

It's estimated that about 80 percent of amputees experience sensations, including warmth, itching, pressure and pain, coming from the missing limb. People who experience this phenomenon, known as "phantom limb," feel sensations as if the missing limb were part of their bodies. One explanation says that the nerves area where the limb severed create new connections to the spinal cord and continue to send signals to the brain as if the missing limb was still there. Another possibility is that the brain is "hard-wired" to operate as if the body were fully intact--meaning the brain holds a blueprint of the body with all parts attached.

7. Mission Control

Residing in the hypothalamus of the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or biological clock, programs the body to follow a 24-hour rhythm. The most evident effect of circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle, but the biological clock also impacts digestion, body temperature, blood pressure, and hormone production. Researchers have found that light intensity can adjust the clock forward or backward by regulating the hormone melatonin. The latest debate is whether or not melatonin supplements could help prevent jet lag--the drowsy, achy feeling you get when "jetting" across time zones.

6. Memory Lane

Using brain-imaging techniques, scientists are unraveling the mechanism responsible for creating and storing memories. They are finding that the hippocampus, within the brain's gray matter, could act as a memory box. But this storage area isn't so discriminatory. It turns out that both true and false memories activate similar brain regions. To pull out the real memory, some researchers ask a subject to recall the memory in context, something that's much more difficult when the event didn't actually occur.

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