Brain myths are my topic today – there are so many myths about the brain that are incredibly popular; so much so, that many are considered fact and many people struggle to believe that they are a myth when questioned.
In my professional field and related fields, this is important. Understanding the brain and how it works is of course important to the field of mental health. Those familiar with my teaching and my work know that critical thinking is at the heart of how we do things here and so examining the evidence to support statements people make about the brain is important. Therefore, I have wanted to write something about brain myths for a while – especially as within my field neuroscience gets cited so much these days.
Despite major technological advances in how we can examine it (Pet scans, fMRI, neuroimaging etc), the brain is still a great mystery to us.
Due to the complexity of the brain, we tend to simplify information about how it works in order to make it more understandable. Throughout the years, by attaching pieces of information together we have created many myths about the brain. There are so many brain myths that there are books written about them which do a much better job at explaining than I can do here in a single, simple article.
Over the last decade neuroscientists have shown us that many things we thought we knew about the brain were nothing but myths. Yet many of these myths persist. Today, I’m covering some of the most common and widespread myths that have been circulating about the brain; most of which find their way into my professional field, such as; we only use 10% of our brains, adults can’t grow new brain cells, we all have preferred learning styles, we are all either left brained or right brained, memory capacity is fixed and limited, IQ is set in stone, brain size determines intelligence, alcohol kills brain cells and a couple of others along the way. Ok, let’s get to it….
Debunking common myths of the human brain:
Brain Myth 1: We only use 10% of our brains.
According to Wired, around 45% of teachers in the UK and 65% of the US public believe this 10% of the brain myth is true.
The notion is pretty ridiculous of course, especially when you consider that just a small amount of damage can leave people with devastating long-term impairments. Or perhaps you believe that we only use 10 per cent of our neurons at any given time.
Brain scans have found that you use your entire brain all the time. Of course, some parts of your brain are sometimes working a lot harder than others and some people have developed better neural pathways for specialised types of thinking such as those required for specific types of careers, sports, skills etc.
Even when they are not firing action potentials themselves, our nerve cells may still be receiving signals from other neurons. The truth is that we still know relatively little about the brain and how it works, but it is highly improbable that we would have developed such a large and complex organ if it didn’t provide a clear evolutionary advantage.
We use virtually every part of the brain, and most of the brain is active almost all the time. In other words, if you were to scan your brain over 24 hours, you’d find most of its regions are continually active, and over the course of the day you would have used around 100 per cent of your brain.
Brain Myth 2: Adults can’t grow new brain cells.
It’s a common neuro-myth. Researchers at Columbia University find evidence that healthy older adults can generate as many new brain cells as younger people.
For well over a decade, research has shown that the brain is able to form new connections; a process referred to as neuroplasticity. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate over whether the aging adult human brain can also produce new cells (neurons).
In fact, a 2018 study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell shows that ageing brains are capable of generating new cells, suggesting that many older adults can remain more cognitively and emotionally intact than recently believed.
Brain Myth 3: We all have preferred learning styles.
Neuro-bloggers usually cite what is called the VARK model designed by a guy called Fleming in 2001 who thinks that learning styles can be split into four basic types:
• Visual – seeing something like PowerPoint
• Aural – hearing something like a lecture
• Reading/Writing – reading a book or writing things down
• Kinaesthetic – doing stuff like an experiment
Unfortunately, other people (Coffield and Martinez) have found, identified in the literature, as many as 70 different ways of getting information in or out of the brain which makes Fleming’s model look a little underdone. The reason it is all in your head is because regardless of what you think your preferred learning style is there are some subjects that are best taught in one particular way. If the subject is geography, then that is best done visually – end of story. If the subject is dance, then it is needed to teach that kinetically and so on. So preferred learning style is irrelevant!
The fact is learning styles are subject dependent, they are teacher dependent, they are temperature dependent, emotion dependent… in fact they are dependent on so many things that they just cannot be measured. I find that many of my students and clients and professional peers who have had some NLP (neuro linguistic programming) training and learned their VAKOG model of representational systems, often make similar conclusions about preferred learning styles that are incorrect (e.g. “I’m a visual learner so I need to see a demonstration and can’t learn just by being taught auditorily”).
Brain Myth 4: Left or right brained.
In reality, according to scientific evidence, this conceptualisation is based on a complete misunderstanding of the “concept of laterality.” Which is nothing new. The craze began when the concept of laterality was first introduced. In 1978, Bryden reported that the idea of laterality initially met skepticism—but not for long!
The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of left-dominant or right-dominant personality types. https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/left-brain-right-brain-myth/ Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be really inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other. It’s an old-fashioned view of intelligence that teaches many of us early in life that we’re either ‘creative’ or ‘logical.’ And when a 12-year-old fills out an online personality test that pegs her as a right brained, and decides to skip her maths homework because she thinks her brain is just no good at numbers, that myth starts to become destructive.
Our brain is not a computer. It has an amazing ability to reorganise itself by forming new connections between its different components, allowing you to continually learn new things and modify your behaviour. It is one of the most complex organisms we are aware of, and gives you a deep wellspring for scientific thought, wild bursts of creativity, abstract reasoning, and astounding acts of love and kindness.
To suggest some people are right or left brained, is simply wrong despite how majorly well invested so many people, companies and schools of thought are in this notion.
Brain Myth 5: Brain capacity is finite.
All humans have similar brain capacity. Many People say that they have weak memory but the truth is that the concept like weak memory does not really exist (I move on to memory myths next). It all about that how we have trained our mind to memorise information (what strategies we use, how much belief we have in it, our state when we attempt to memories etc). The only difference exists in the formation of our memory, not in the integrated capacity. Our brain potential is infinite. I simply added this one because of the way it leads me into a collection of brain myths that I have bunched together here…..
Brain Myth 6: Memory Myths.
Memory fades with age?
Many people also believe that with age they have started losing their memory. It is true that neurons diminish with age but memory improvement exercises you can keep developing new cells. Brain activity helps keep the memory functioning sharp.
Truth: New Learning Improves Memory.
In many studies it has been proven that memory works like our body muscles. The way our body muscles need exercise to increase strength, similarly our memory capacity can also be developed through brain exercise. Here you can use your prior knowledge to learn new information and continue to learn more and more new information.
The more and more you learn and use your brain, your memory capacity would increase.
When you learn new information, and form a memory, it creates new neuron connections and strength your memory capacity.
The human brain is designed in such a way that it is easy for us to memorise information represented in form of story. Learning in form of story which engages the imagination and encourages visualisation should be encouraged. Lessons should be designed in such a way that interesting characters can mimic the key elements in the form of a story. Thus, metaphor and stories are effective ways for us to learn and develop.
Truth: Sleeping is crucial for Memory development.
Scientists have found that sleeping is an essential thing for a healthy memory as it facilitates storage and the retrieval of long-term memory.
Truth: Human memory does not work like a video tape.
It is a myth that once you have experienced an event and have formed a memory of it that memory does not change. Our experiences are not perfectly recorded. We all have our own different way to remember the things differently even though it is from the same lesson. In fact, each time you play it back, it could be played back differently.
I have written and spoken on this subject often in relation to the therapeutic application of regression therapies, and memory retrieval using hypnosis – memory is reconstructive and therefore is not necessarily an accurate account of what truly occurred.
Brain Myth 7: IQ cannot be changed.
We now know the brain has “plastic” qualities. That is, it is capable of changing at any age. Since IQ is simply a measurement of cognitive skills, stronger abilities translate into higher IQ.
“Our brain is more plastic than we think,” researcher Susanne M. Jaeggi said. According to the research team, most IQ tests attempt to measure two types of intelligence – crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence relies on existing skills, knowledge and experience to solve problems by accessing information from long-term memory. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, relies on the ability to understand relationships between various concepts to solve the problems. It is independent of any previous knowledge, skills or experience and accesses information from short-term memory or “working memory”. The researchers concluded that this part of intelligence can be improved.
Brain Myth 8: Brain size determines intelligence.
I joke that my huge head is actually a blessing and claim that it means it houses an equally huge brain making me more intelligent….. If only! It is today well established that the cranial capacity of Homo neanderthalensis, (our caveman cousin), was 150 to 200 cm3 bigger than that of modern humans. Yet despite their larger brain, Neandertals became extinct between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, while us Homo sapiens were sharing their European environment. So what is the point of having a bigger brain if your small-brained cousins outcompete you? Scientific studies across several animal species (humans included), are challenging the notion that brain size determines intelligence. Rather, scientists now tend to suggest, it is a brain’s underlying organisation and molecular activity at its synapses (the communication junctions between neurons through which nerve impulses pass) that dictate intelligence.
Great apes, whales, dolphins and elephants have the same neurons in their frontal cortex that humans have. So it is not necessarily brain size, relative brain size or absolute number of neurons that distinguishes us. It may be a more streamlined wiring, more efficient metabolism or more sophisticated synapses, but it is probably not the size of our brain.
Brain Myth 9: Alcohol kills brain cells.
Those of you that like a drink or two here and there may be cheering right now, but it is not all good news this one….. It’s not that brain cells are being killed off by excessive alcohol consumption, it’s that the dendrites (which help cells communicate) are being damaged.
Alcoholics can experience brain damage related to drinking, but it’s not because alcohol kills brain cells. There are a few things that can happen when people drink a lot of alcohol over a long period of time. While it can’t kill brain cells, it can damage the dendrites, which are the branch-like ends of the brain cells. Dendrites are key for passing messages from one neuron to another, so a degradation of the dendrites can cause cognitive problems. Recent research shows that dendrite damage can be reversed with certain kinds of therapy and training.
Brain Myth 10: Brains of males and females differ in ways that dictate learning abilities.
Differences do exist in the brains of males and females, and the distinctive physiology may result in differences in the way their brains function. No research, though, has demonstrated gender-specific differences in how networks of neurons become connected when we learn new skills. Even if some gender differences do eventually emerge, they will likely be small and based on averages—in other words, they will not necessarily be relevant to any given individual.
Why is it so easy to believe these myths about the brain? There’s a grain of truth running through some of them. Others seep into our own brains through repetition, and we fail to question their validity, especially when told them by someone we trust or respect.
If you previously bought into some of these brain myths, take heart. You weren’t alone.
As much as scientists know about the human brain, there’s a long way to go before we come close to fully understanding the mysterious organ that makes us human.