5 Things We Learned About Our Brains in 2016

Hitting the snooze button isn't worth it; sleepy drivers are just as bad as drunk drivers; dinosaurs were smarter than we thought and more.


We try to learn three things about our bodies every month, but as 2016 draws to a close, we’re taking a look at some of the year’s biggest stories involving our favorite and most important body parts. With that in mind, keep an eye out for our other pieces focusing on our hair, our general bodies and, yes, our genitals, but for now, here are five remarkable things we learned about the brain this year.

Hitting the Snooze Button Messes with Your Mind

That beloved snooze button is confusing your brain. As behavioral scientist Dan Ariely wrote in an October 2016 Wall Street Journal column, an alarm clock should function as a type of conditioning to help you wake up more easily. Much like Pavlov’s dog drooling at the sound of a bell because it knew it indicated the arrival of food, regularly getting out of bed when the alarm first goes off helps you learn to associate the alarm with the act of waking up, meaning that the process eventually becomes less of a struggle. All the snooze button does is disorient your brain, since there’s no clear expectation of how much longer you might go on sleeping. As Fast Company explained, it’s better to set the alarm for when you’re actually going to get up, since snooze sleep is barely even sleep anyway.

Ticklish Rats Helped Explain Why Humans Experience Joy

German neuroscientists found out this year that rats are ticklish. This is cause for celebration in and of itself, naturally, but more importantly, the research identified exactly where the tickling response occurs in the brain. It also highlighted the fact that you can’t tickle rats when they aren’t in a good mood—something that’s also true of humans. As you can see in the video below, these particular rats seemed to be in a very good mood.

If you sleep only five to six hours in a given night, your risk of causing a traffic crash doubles.

Or at least so says a December study from AAA. The crash rates continue to spike with every hour of lost sleep, too, so if you only got four or five hours of sleep, your risk of crashing quadruples compared to drivers who got a full night’s sleep (around eight hours for adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation). At that point, you might as well pour yourself a stiff one, since you’re almost as impaired as driving while legally drunk. The CDC says 35 percent of adults in the U.S. usually sleep less than seven hours a night, but the good news, according to AAA’s Jake Nelson, is that naps count. “Taking a 10- to 20-minute nap (but not to exceed 30 minutes) every couple of hours on a long drive has huge safety benefits in terms of your ability to drive without crashing.” Provided you don’t nap while driving, that is.

Dinosaurs Probably Weren’t a Bunch of Dumb-Dumbs After All

An amateur fossil collector found a brown, pebble-sized object in a rock pool on a British beach that turned out to be fossilized dinosaur brain tissue. Belonging to an Iguanodon—a beast which lived around 125 million years ago—this was the first time fossilized brain soft tissue has been discovered for any land-living vertebrate. Even more excitingly, the size of it suggests dinosaurs had much larger brains than previously thought, presumably meaning they may have been smarter than we generally give them credit for being (not difficult when we’ve always assumed them to be about as smart as a very dumb mouse).

Dirty Offices Were Found Guilty of Making Your Brain Less Effective

You may think your “system” of organizing papers by spreading them out amongst towering stacks of empty coffee cups and containers of half-eaten Ramen bowls “works” for you, but a 2016 study reveals otherwise—at least cognitively. Researchers analyzed the data of 4,963 adults and found their ability to pay attention, complete tasks, and remember things declined in a dirty working environment. Turns out your nagging mom was right all along.