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Three Myths About the Brain

Brain Myth #1:

You only use 10 percent of your brain

The 10 percent myth has been around for a long time. Many people have jumped on the idea, writing books and selling products that claim to harness the power of the other 90 percent. Believers in psychic abilities such as ESP point to it as proof, saying that people with these abilities have tapped into the rest of their brains.

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.

Brain Myth #2:

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.

Not true.

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.

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“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.”

How, then, did the left-brained/right-brained theory take root?

Experts suggest the myth dates back to the 1800s, when scientists discovered that an injury to one side of the brain caused a loss of specific abilities. The concept gained ground in the 1960s based on work by Roger W. Sperry who studied patients with “split brains” (a severed corpus callosum, the structure that connects the two brain hemispheres).

But it’s important to remember that in healthy people the two brain hemispheres are well-connected. The fictional doctor Gregory House called the corpus callosum that joins the hemispheres the “George Washington Bridge” of the brain, and in most of what we do, the hemispheres operate together, sharing information across this bridge.

Brain Myth #3:

Brain damage is always permanent

It used to be believed that each person was born with a finite number of brain cells, so if you damaged any of them you operated on a deficit for the rest of your life. Less than 20 years ago, even major players in the neuroscience community believed that the brain could not generate new cells. Similarly, many scientists believed that the brain was unalterable; once it was “broken,” it could not be fixed.

But recent discoveries have convinced most scientists to think differently. Evidence now shows that the brain remains “plastic” throughout life: it can rewire or change itself in response to new learning. Under certain circumstances, the brain can even create new cells through a process called neurogenesis.

Many of these newborn cells die shortly after their birth. In fact, more die than survive. To live and become part of the working brain, a new neuron needs not only support from neighboring glial cells and nutrients from blood, but also, and more important, connections with other neurons. Without these connections, neurons wither and die.

Research to date suggests that the most active area of neurogenesis is the hippocampus, a region deep within the brain involved in learning and memory. Research has shown that thousands of new cells are produced in the hippocampus each day, although many die within weeks of their birth.

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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.

Bushak, L., “Adults can grow new brain cells: How neurogenesis works,” Medical Daily, November 24, 2015, http://bit.ly/1P4cxvb

Jarret, C., “Why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die,” Psychology Today, June 27, 2012, http://bit.ly/1K33AfX

Radford, B., “The ten-percent myth,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999, vol. 23.2.