Brains are amazing. Everyone’s got one (despite the fact that so many people refuse to use theirs) and yet it remains the most mysterious organ in our body with so much about it yet to be fully understood. This general air of brain mystery has opened the door for many myths and misconceptions to pop up around the brain’s inner workings. In an effort to fit in better with the way people absorb information online these days, I present to you a top 5 list, the top 5 myths about the brain. Citations at the end!
5) Creative people are right hemisphere dominant while logical people are left hemisphere dominant. We start this list with a myth I was actually taught in school growing up. As the nerdy kid who was into math and science I was branded as a “Left Hemisphere” kid which I was told meant I was more logical as opposed to the “Right Hemisphere” kids who were more into art and literature. As somebody who also loved reading and theater I thought I was just an exception to the rule but it turns out there is no rule. Many studies have been done on the topic but one of the most thorough I have read came out of the University of Utah in 2013. They studied the brains of over 1000 people to see what how the brain worked. The study concludes:
“our analyses suggest that an individual brain is not “left-brained” or “right-brained” as a global property, but that asymmetric lateralization is a property of individual nodes or local subnetworks.” (Nielsen et al, 2013)
Basically, while there are processes that happen more in one hemisphere of the brain, this certainly isn’t an indicator to a person’s personality or cognitive preferences.
4) I’m just not a “math person.” I actually heard this one a bunch recently having just had parent teacher conferences at my school. I would hear things like “Well it makes sense that my child isn’t doing well in your class, they just aren’t a science person.” While it is absolutely true that some people just do not like certain subjects (like Joel Schumacher doesn’t like making good Batman movies) no one is lacking the ability to learn or do anything (like Joel Schumacher could have made a couple of great Batman movie if he kept things like the Batman credit card out of them).
Don’t just take my word for it either, there has been a ton of research done by Dr. Carol Dweck on the topic of the growth mindset and how we physiologically change our brain through learning and practice. It’s really cool stuff check out her website here: https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/. If you are looking for some great summer reading I highly recommend her book “Mindset.” It’s a critical read especially if you are an educator.
3) You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This myth is sort of science’s fault because for years scientists couldn’t detect any brain cell growth in adults. There were two major studies done that changed all that. The first in 1998 published in Nature Medicine showed that not only do adults grow new cells in the hippocampus (a region of the brain responsible for memories) but that humans never stop (Erikson et al, 1998). For a while scientists believed that the only place in the brain that showed signs of neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) was the hippocampus, until 2014 when an article was published in Cell showing that other parts of the brain including the stratum (an area involved with motor functioning) also created new neurons (Ernst et al, 2014). The moral of the story here is no matter how old you are, you can still teach yourself that sick solo from November Rain, your brain can handle it.
2) Male and Female brains are drastically different. This myth is an interesting one because although there is no biological difference between the brains of men and women, there seems to be differences that are caused by social constructs. Typically the female brain has a slightly larger hippocampus (that part of the brain involved with building memories, remember?) and the male brain typically has a bigger amygdala (a part of the brain involved with emotions) but a study out of the University of Waterloo concluded these are most likely due to societal expectations. The study involved giving people math tests but priming them with a stereotype about their race or gender. For instance when Asians were primed by being told they were better at math tests than other races, they scored very high. When women were told that they probably wouldn’t do as well on the test as men because men are better at math, they under performed, showing their view of stereotypes is what influenced their performance, not any physiological differences (Shih, Pittinsky, Ambady, 1999).
1) Humans only use 10% of their brainpower. If you know me, you know one of my huge rage triggers is the movie “Lucy.” Few things have started my rants like the tag line: “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%”
Spoiler alert everyone uses their entire brain. There is so much evidence that this “10% capacity” claim is wrong, from brain scans showing all parts of our brain are active during different tasks, to studies on the energy consumption of your brain. There are some great resources if you want to learn more. Check the source list below:
Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, Anderson JS (2013) An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071275
50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. Copyright © 2010 by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Eriksson, Peter S., Ekaterina Perfilieva, Thomas Björk-Eriksson, Ann-Marie Alborn, Claes Nordborg, Daniel A. Peterson, and Fred H. Gage. “Neurogenesis in the Adult Human Hippocampus.” Nature Medicine 4 (1998): 1313-317. Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, 01 Nov. 1998. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.
Ernst, Aurelie, Kanar Alkass, Samuel Bernard, Mehran Salehpour, Shira Perl, John Tisdale, Gapran Possnert, Henrik Druid, and Jonas Frison. “Neurogenesis in the Striatum of the Adult Human Brain.” Cell 156.5 (2014): 1072-083. Web.
Shih, Margaret, Todd L. Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady. “Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance.” Psychological Science 10.1 (1999): 80-83. Web.