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Brain myths

Brain Fact or Brain Myth
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"

Every mind is creative
How much of the prevailing "common knowledge" about the brain is really factual? What do you really know about your brain? Much of what we believe and hear is simply not true.

This brief list is an introductory survey only. You may be wondering whether other information you think you know about the brain is fact or myth. Why not try this Discovery brain myths quiz and find out:

Myth #1 - We use only 10% of our brain. 

The answer in this video is consistent with modern neuroscience. Click on this video by Dr Constantine Hatzis:


Transcript: Dr Constantine Hatzis
"People have believed that we use only 10% of our brains for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, all that means is that people have been wrong for MORE than 100 years. This is probably one of the most oft-repeated factoids about the brain, in part because it's been endlessly publicized in the media. Here's the thing, though; it's NOT true. Brain scans show that the vast majority of the brain does NOT lie fallow. For any given activity, like eating, walking, kissing, or reading naughty novels, you use a few specific parts of your brain. So where did the myth come from? Many sources point to an American psychologist from the early1900s, named William James, who said: "the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential. Over the course of a whole day, however, just about ALL of the brain is used at one time or another. You are, in fact, using 100% of your brain."

Myth #2 - Brains are like computers.

The idea that the brain is like a machine or "hardwired" like a computer with permanent circuits has long prevailed. The comparison fails at several levels. For example, memory is a complex process, not a set capacity waiting to be filled. Perception is an active, interpretive process, not a passive receiving of inputs. And an injured brain can reorganize itself. Unlike a machine or computer, when one part of the brain is damaged, another area can often substitute. This is the phenomenon of sensory substitution and evidence of brain plasticity.

Myth #3 - Listening to Mozart makes you smarter.

The "Mozart effect" traces back to a controversial study in the 1990s which claimed that 36 students who listened to a Mozart sonata before taking an IQ test increased their scores about 8 points. The researchers stated they never claimed the students became smarter, just that their scores on certain tasks improved. Also, scientists have been unable to replicate the original results. Some studies have suggested that learning an instrument improves concentration, self-confidence, and concentration, but there is no evidence Mozart, or classical music, actually makes you smarter.

Myth #4 - Brain damage is always permanent.

Sometimes brain damage is permanent, but that's not always the case. There are different types of brain damage, they occur in different parts of the brain, and injuries range from mild to severe. Therapies based on neuroplasticity are helping many individuals recover from brain injury. For example, nowadays stroke patients can usually expect to regain speech and movement through therapy.

Myth #5 - A individual's personality displays a right-brain or left-brain dominance.

It was taken as a science-based fact that a right-brain person is generally creative and intuitive, while a left-brain person was usually a more linear and logical problem-solver. Modern brain imaging technology has revealed that the right and left hemispheres of the brain are more interdependent and complementary than was previously known. Personality and brain function cannot be so simply generalized as this myth misleadingly suggests.

Myth #6 - The brain can multitask.

Multitasking continues to be regarded as a required and prized skill because the idea that the brain can focus on more than one task at a time still prevails among students, employees, and employers in various settings and workplaces. However, modern neuroscience and numerous studies have shown multitasking is a fallacy. Although we can walk, talk, and breathe at the same time, the brain can focus attention on one higher-level task at a time. When we think we're multitasking, we are in fact task-switching - i.e., interrupting our attention from one task to pay attention to another. Driving while talking on the phone is one example. While task-switching may be a requirement of managing our responsibilities at home, on campus, and in the workplace, research shows there's a 50% increase in error rate, and it takes twice as long to finish tasks. In the workplace, the result is higher costs, inferior results, and more stress. On the roadways, driving while talking - like drinking and driving - often yields tragic consequences.

Myth #7 - There are biological disadvantages to being left-handed

Here are some interesting facts about handedness from neuroscientist Sam Wang (2010):
Only humans predominantly favour right-handedness. Other species have no preference, or favour one hand for one skill, and the other hand for another skill.
1 in 10 people are left-handed. Neuroscientists believe left-handedness is the outcome of a combination of genetic and environmental causes.
There are no known biological disadvantages to left-handedness.
Left-handers are more variable than right-handers at both the high and low end of achievement: lefties are more likely to have unusual math skills and get high scholastic scores, and there are more lefties in the creative arts; but lefties are also more likely to be criminals and academic underachievers.
A right-handed world encourages lefties to become divergent thinkers – “outside-the-box” creative problem-solvers.

Lefties dominate interactive sports – perhaps because better developed right hemispheres give lefties an advantage, or perhaps because right-handed and left-handed athletes have less experience facing left-handed opponents.

Most people process language in the left hemisphere. However, a study showed that 10% of lefties processed language in the right hemisphere, and another 15% processed language in both left and right hemispheres – very rare for right-handers. Perhaps using the left hand early in life allows both sides of the brain to process language.
These interesting facts and theories by neuroscientists remind us that neuroscience is a relatively new science, and that what we now know about the brain enables further study of fascinating topics like handedness. But they also remind us that certainty is not characteristic of this field.
For more on handedness, read this New Yorker article titled Sinister Minds: Are Left-handed People Smarter?

Recommended Resources

TVO - Brain Myths

Posit Science - Brain Mythology

InfoWorld - The end of multitasking as we know it