Yes, it is true that mental activities like thinking, learning, and problem solving can burn a significant number of calories. The brain is an extremely active organ that uses up a lot of energy, even at rest. Here are some key points about how our brain burns calories:
How many calories does the brain use?
The brain accounts for about 20% of our daily calorie expenditure. The average brain burns about 300 calories per day. However, the exact number can vary significantly between individuals depending on factors like age, gender, and brain size.
During demanding mental activities, the brain can burn even more calories due to the extra neural activity required. Scientists estimate that doing challenging problem-solving activities for an hour can burn around 50 calories or more.
Why does the brain use so much energy?
The brain needs a constant supply of energy to keep all its functions going. Here are some reasons why it requires so many calories:
- Brain cells, called neurons, are constantly communicating with each other through electrical signals. This neural signaling requires energy.
- The brain is always active, even when we are sleeping. Unconscious activities like regulating breathing, heartbeat, and digestion use up energy.
- The brain only accounts for about 2% of our body weight but uses around 20% of our daily energy intake. It has very high metabolic demands.
- Our brains are three times more active than the brains of other primates like chimpanzees.
What kinds of mental activities burn the most calories?
Activities that require a lot of focused concentration and problem-solving ability tend to have the highest calorie burn for the brain. Some examples include:
- Learning new skills like playing a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language.
- Working on intellectually demanding tasks like mathematical reasoning, programming, or chess.
- Reading challenging material and recalling details.
- Having an intense debate or discussion that requires quick thinking.
In one study, chess players burned around 604 calories after playing chess for two hours – more than twice the calories burned by someone watching TV for the same time period.
How does thinking hard burn calories?
Mentally challenging activities stimulate the brain by activating billions of neurons and increasing neural connectivity. Here’s what happens in the brain during intense thinking that leads to more calorie expenditure:
- More glucose and oxygen are consumed as the brain cells ramp up their metabolism.
- Blood flow to the brain increases up to 50% to supply nutrients and remove waste.
- The frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes linked to concentration and problem-solving are activated.
- Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine are released.
This extra neural activity requires more energy. The glucose and oxygen consumed by the brain during intense thinking sessions get converted into the energy molecule ATP, which powers all cellular functions.
What other activities burn calories by using the brain?
Aside from demanding cognitive tasks, here are some other ways we can burn calories by engaging our brains:
- Learning a new language – Interpreting and producing foreign speech burns calories by activating brain areas related to listening, understanding, and vocalizing.
- Reading out loud – Reading aloud makes the brain work harder than reading silently, using up more energy in areas like the frontal lobe.
- Playing video games – The visual stimuli and hand-eye coordination of gaming engages the brain. Fast-paced action video games can burn 100+ calories per hour.
- Having conversations – The back-and-forth exchange of dialogue makes our brain work to comprehend, think of responses, and multitask. Intense debates can burn over 100 calories per hour.
- Driving – The intense visual attention, information processing, and coordination involved in driving ramps up brain activity and calorie burn.
Does the brain help burn calories during exercise?
Yes, the brain plays an important role during exercise in burning additional calories. Here are some of the ways it is involved:
- The extra sensory input from the muscles during exercise increases brain activity.
- More neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins are released, which takes brain energy.
- The brain coordinates signals from various parts of the body to optimize exercise performance.
- Concentrating on exercise engages many neural networks compared to passive activities.
- Listening to motivating music during workouts can enhance brain activity.
This increased brain activity during physical exertion burns extra calories on top of the work being done by the muscles. That’s why high-intensity interval training works well for weight loss – it challenges both the mind and body.
Does brain size affect calorie burn?
Yes, the size of different brain regions can impact how many calories it uses. In general, people with larger brains tend to have a higher resting metabolic rate because their brain uses more energy at rest.
Specific parts of the brain like the hippocampus, frontal lobes, and parietal lobes are activated during demanding cognitive tasks. People with a greater volume in these regions tend to have a higher calorie burn when doing challenging mental activities.
For example, London taxi drivers have larger hippocampus regions linked to spatial memory. Scientists found they burned more calories during spatial navigation tests compared to non-taxi drivers.
Can thinking harder lead to weight loss?
Incorporating mentally engaging activities into your daily routine can mildly increase calorie expenditure and contribute to weight loss over time. Here are some brain-boosting suggestions for losing weight:
- Do problem-solving puzzles or challenging sudoku/crosswords for 30 minutes daily.
- Read books on complex, unfamiliar topics to give your brain a good workout.
- Take free online courses on subjects you find intellectually stimulating.
- Learn to play “brain-burning” instruments like the violin or drums.
- Have intense discussions on meaningful topics instead of small talk.
- Play chess or trivia games that require strong focus and analytical skills.
However, to lose a significant amount of weight, a regular exercise routine and healthy diet are much more important than mental activities alone. But activating your brain can make a worthwhile contribution when done consistently.
Are there downsides to increased mental exertion?
There can be some downsides if mental demands become excessive. Intense brain exertion for too long can potentially lead to:
- Mental fatigue and burnout
- Greater oxidative stress
- Reduced cognitive performance
- Poor sleep quality
It’s important to take regular breaks when doing intense thinking tasks for extended periods. Getting good sleep and nutrition helps replenish the brain’s energy stores and offset any negative effects.
Our brains expend a lot of calories not just at rest, but even more so during demanding cognitive activities. Engaging in intense thinking, problem solving, focused skill acquisition, and similar mental exertion can burn upwards of 50+ calories per hour by ramping up neural activity.
While mental exertion alone won’t dramatically impact weight, including brain-stimulating activities as part of a comprehensive weight loss strategy can contribute to a mild calorie deficit over time. Combining a calorie-controlled diet, regular exercise regimen, and daily cognitive challenges gives the best chance for weight loss success.