The brain is one of the most amazing organs in the human body. It controls our central nervous system, keeping us walking, talking, breathing and thinking. The brain is also incredibly complex, comprising around 100 billion neurons.
There’s so much going on with the brain that there are several different fields of medicine and science devoted to treating and studying it, including neurology psychology and psychiatry.
After thousands of years of studying and treating every aspect of it, there are still many facets of the brain that remain mysterious. And because the brain is so complex, we tend to simplify information about how it works in order to make it more understandable.
Both of these things put together have resulted in many myths about the brain. Let’s look at 10 myths that have been circulating about the brain:
You only use 10 percent of your brain
In the Hollywood action-film Lucy, actor Morgan Freeman — playing a world-renowned neurologist — speaks to a packed auditorium. “It’s estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brains’ capacity,” he says. “Imagine if we could access 100 percent.” You may have heard that claim before. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.
It is not certain how this falsehood began, but it has been strengthened over the past century by misinterpretations of neuroscience discoveries and unsubstantiated quotes by both scientists and laypeople alike.
The truth is that we use virtually all of our brain every day. Brain scans have shown that no matter what we’re doing, our brains are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but unless we have brain damage, there is no one part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning.
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You are born with all the brain cells you will ever have
Research over the last decade has produced growing evidence that the adult human brain creates new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis. New neurons are constantly being born, particularly in the learning and memory centers.
The finding that the adult human brain regenerates new cells suggests new therapies for repairing the aged or damaged brain. Degenerative brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s, are defined by the loss of neurons.
The brain is hard-wired
This is one of the most enduring legacies of the old “brains are electrical circuits” metaphor. There’s some truth to it, as with many metaphors: the brain is organized in a standard way, with certain bits specialized to take on certain tasks, and those bits are connected along predictable neural pathways (sort of like wires) and communicate in part by releasing ions (pulses of electricity).
But one of the biggest discoveries in neuroscience in the past few decades is that the brain is remarkably plastic. In blind people, parts of the brain that normally process sight are instead devoted to hearing. Someone practicing a new skill, like learning to play the violin, “rewires” parts of the brain that are responsible for fine motor control.
Brain injury is always permanent
When you hear the words “brain injury” or “brain damage,” it is an extremely scary thing – it means the destruction or degeneration of brain cells. To many people, this conjures images of permanent physical or mental disability. But that is not always the case; in many cases, the brain can repair itself. Areas of the brain that aren’t associated with certain functions can take over and allow the patient to relearn how to do things. The fact that the brain has an ability to learn by adding or removing connections, or adding cells, gives doctors and patients more hope of patients’ abilities to regain functioning after brain injury.
The brain is vulnerable to many types of injuries that can be caused by anything from an infection to a car accident. How it affects someone depends on many factors, such as its location and how severe it is. The extent of injury and subsequent impairment to functions such as memory, judgment, reflexes, speech, balance and coordination cannot be easily predicted. The resulting disabilities can be treated by a number of methods, including medication, rehabilitation, surgery, physical implants, and psychotherapy. For example, stroke patients can often regain speech and motor skills through therapy.
It’s all downhill after 40 (or 50 or 60 or 70)
It’s true, some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults — and never play a game of concentration against a 10-year-old unless you’re prepared to be humiliated. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster to count backward by sevens.
But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Vocabulary, for instance — older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they’re better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.
Listening to Mozart makes you smarter
The term “Mozart effect” was first coined by Alfred A. Tomatis who used Mozart’s music as the listening stimulus in his work attempting to cure a variety of disorders. The approach has been popularized in a book by Don Campbell, who trademarked the term after a 1993 experiment published in Nature suggesting that listening to Mozart temporarily boosted students’ IQ by 8 points.
This myth spread so wide that the state of Georgia began distributing classical-music CDs to the families of newborns in 1998. Each CD included a message from the governor: “I hope both you and your baby enjoy it—and that your little one will get off to a smart start.” While the sentiment is appealing, the so-called “Mozart Effect” is dubious.
Kenneth Steele, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, and John Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, claim that there is no real intelligence enhancing or health benefit to listening to Mozart. Steele and his colleagues could not “find any kind of effect at all,” even though their study tested 125 students. They concluded: “there is little evidence to support intervention programs based on the existence of the Mozart effect.” Their research appears in the July 1999 issue of Psychological Science.
A report published by the German Research Ministry and analyzing presumably all the scientific literature on music and intelligence, concluded that “… passively listening to Mozart — or indeed any other music you enjoy — does not make you smarter.
A person’s personality displays a right-brain or left-brain dominance
Chances are, you’ve heard the label of being a “right-brained” or “left-brained” thinker. Logical, detail-oriented and analytical? That’s left-brained behavior. Creative, thoughtful and subjective? Your brain’s right side functions stronger.
In a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One, University of Utah neuroscientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring their functional lateralization – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and while they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralized, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.
“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain,” said lead study author Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., in a University of Utah news release. “Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right.”
But the brain isn’t as clear-cut as the myth makes it out to be. For example, the right hemisphere is involved in processing some aspects of language, such as intonation and emphasis.
Also true, there are personality differences. “Some people are more analytical, other people might have more creative thought processes,” Anderson said, “but they aren’t really using one side of the brain or the other.”
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Creative people are naturally ‘right-brained’
It is not necessary to either be born a genius or to drive yourself ‘mad’ in order to think creatively.
Professor Martindale studied the brain scans of people writing creatively and, in Psychology, in August 2007, he reported that the most creative writing was done by people who could deliberately shift their brain activity from their rear brain parietal sensory cortex to the front brain lobes of their cerebral cortex. Although it was true that the right-hand sides of their brains were involved, so were the left-hand sides of their brains.
The myth that creative people are those who are naturally ‘right-brained’ is mistaken. You can train your brain to shift from back to front and from left to right.
People learn better when the teaching is matched to their learning style
The notion of the existence of learning styles has been around since the 1970s, with there now being more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood to higher education. It has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops.
The claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred learning style, however, is simply not supported by science and of questionable value. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, said that “from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense”.
References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their existence. “When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that ‘it doesn’t matter’, said Professor Stephen Dinham, from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. “But it does matter because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorization and labeling. These can lead to negative mindsets in students and limited learning experiences through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles, not to mention the time and money wasted. We might as well teach students according to their horoscopes.”
You can learn through subliminal messages
A subliminal message is a message embedded into images or sound meant to penetrate into our subconscious and influence our behavior. The first person to coin the term was James Vicary, a market researcher. In 1957, Vicary stated that he inserted messages into a showing of a movie in New Jersey. The messages, which flashed for 1/3000th of a second, told moviegoers to drink Coca-Cola and eat popcorn.
According to Vicary, Coke sales in the theater increased by more than 18 percent and popcorn sales by more than 57 percent, proving that his subliminal messages worked. Turns out, Vicary actually lied about the results of his study. Subsequent studies, including one which flashed the message “Call now” during a broadcast on a Canadian TV station, had no effect on viewers.
The infamous 1990s Judas Priest trial, in which the families of two boys who committed suicide claimed that a song told the boys to do it, ended with the judge stating that there was no scientific evidence in their favor. Yet some people still claim that music, as well as advertisements, contains hidden messages.
Anderson, J. S., et.al., “An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging,” Plos One, August 14, 2014.
“Brain myths busted,” Deccan Chronicle, February 27, 2015.
Bushak, L., “Adults can grow new brain cells: How neurogenesis works,” Medical Daily, November 24, 2015.
Dinham, S., “The lack of an evidence base for teaching and learning: fads, myths, legends, ideology and wishful thinking,” Australian Education Union.
Helmuth, L., “Top ten myths about the brain,” Smithsonian.com, May 19, 2011.
Jarret, C., “Why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die,” Psychology Today, June 27, 2012.
“Myths about the brain,” Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California San Diego.
Radford, B., “The ten-percent myth,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999, vol. 23.2.
Vaughan, T. “Tackling the ‘learning styles’ myth,” TeacherMagazine.com.
Wootton, S. & Horne, T., Training Your Brain (McGraw Hill, 2008).