Brains show up everywhere these days. Ever since humans peeked into our skulls and glimpsed the tiny worlds-unto-themselves inside, we’ve been obsessed. From commercials to movies to games to food and drinks — anywhere you look, you’re bound to see or hear something about brains. Unfortunately, most of what your own brains see or hear about themselves is 99% nonsense.
Now, I’m not saying Hollywood and other industries have gone too far, because they were already past the event horizon of unethical behaviour since like, their inception, but they have gone too far. See, that “event horizon” comment was an example of a harmless scientific joke used to make a good point. But the level of inaccurate and flat out false information about the brain out there is starting to make my eye twitch. Or that might be the coffee.
So here’s a list of 10 myths about the brain, just so you can be as annoyed as I am when you next hear them:
1. You only use 10% of your brain
1%, 10%, 20%, 50% — whatever the figure is, you’ve heard this before. Not only do people say this, but sometimes they add the whole “if we could tap into the other 90% we would be god-like, telepathic geniuses.” Neither of these things are even remotely true. We use all of our brains. Some of us use certain regions more than others, and depending on particular activities we do, regions of our brain will be more or less active.
Have you ever seen an fMRI scan? Unless you’ve suffered brain damage, or you’ve been malnourished, or socio-emotionally deprived from a young age, most of your brain will be used in pretty much everything you do. Anyway, let me breathe before I throw my coffee on the floor.
2. You can change your brain
This one is definitely less infuriating, but it still gets the classic eye-roll when I hear it. Here’s the problem: the brain is always changing, typically at a very slow pace unless you experience some kind of trauma or ecstasy. Every particle of air you breathe technically ‘changes’ your brain. Anything you see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and so on will, in some way, change your brain.
Of course this largely depends on what you mean by ‘change’. Your brain, as complicated as it is, is an incredibly interactive organ that not only communicates with your entire body, but everything outside of it too. You have neurons literally linked up to your environment, which send signals back and forth between it and your brain, moulding it, teaching it, influencing it with every passing second. In many ways, you are your brain and nervous system, so the whole “you can change your brain,” is actually redundant.
What we should be saying is: you can change. That’s a nice sentiment. Stick with that.
3. Brains are like computers
I don’t mind this one so much because as humans, we tend to compare certain things in order to understand them. People talk about brains as having storage capacities, circuits, processing speeds, and so on, but this is actually misleading as an analogy.
Brains are made up of living cells that respond to different internal and external signals, and most certainly do not have a storage limit. A computer is static and only changes by our input. A brain is fluid (something called neuroplasticity) and changes regardless of our input, and continues (for better or worse) to do so until we die. Computers don’t create new circuits or kill ones that don’t work. They just slowly degrade until repaired or replaced.
4. The brain is a hard-wired organ
This one is a follow up to 2 and 3. How can you change your brain if it’s hard wired? What does that even mean? Who the hell wired it in the first place? Seriously, someone tell me, because I want a replacement. Evolutionarily speaking, the human brain has shrunk over the past 10-20,000 years, and continues to shrink. Not only this, but the brain’s plasticity allows specific regions to take over others’ functions in instances of damage (though this depends on the region and the damage).
So your brain can’t possibly be hard-wired if it can change (but don’t you dare say “you can change your brain” now, goddamn it!).
5. Everyone has either a left brain or right brain personality
FFS. I’m annoyed just writing this one out. I know some of you have taken those online personality tests. You know, the ones which tell you whether you’re more dominant in the left or right side of your brains because you’re ‘more artistic’, or ‘more analytical.’ Whatever it is, it’s wrong.
Yes, you have left and right hemispheres in your brain. Yes, there is even something called lateralisation where your brain dedicates specific functions or processes to one hemisphere more than the other. This does not mean that someone who likes maths has a more dominant left hemisphere, or someone who is creative has a more dominant right hemisphere. The brain still works in concert. Linguistic functions are lateralised, but it still takes the whole brain to process and utilise language.
6. Men and women have different brains
This is just getting ridiculous. First of all, brains vary from person to person, so when we say there are gendered differences in the brain, let’s remember that two women will have different neural structures and functions. And you read earlier about how brains respond and change according to environmental stimuli, right? So think about it: if there are similarities in the brains of women, or similarities in the brains of men, one might argue that they’re receiving a set of common stimuli.
We know that gender is not biological, and that there are more than two genders, so what about people outside of the binary? The main problem with this myth is that it relies on classical and outdated notions of gender, and attempts to fit them in with biology. We simply don’t have studies large enough (think global) to ascertain whether there are gendered differences in the brain, especially when the people who would perform these studies have their own social biases.
Now, you might argue back that the correct version of this is “the differences in the brain are based on sex, not gender.” Well, it’ll be a similar argument, I’m afraid. There are more than two sexes in human biology (actually, there are 6 common karyotypes, and various sizes and combinations of genitalia), and most people on this planet don’t even know empirically whether they are XX or XY or XXY or XYY and so on. Biological sex is more of a spectrum than anything.
The point is, we have so much more to learn, and a lot of people are jumping the gun with assumptions, not hard evidence.
7. Big brains = more intelligence
Neandertals had bigger brains than us, and look what happened to them.
Earlier, I mentioned that our brains are shrinking. So you should have already been wondering why, if that was the case, humans seem to be more intelligent. One might argue we’re not as intelligent as we were though. From 10,000 BCE onwards, humans have waged war against one another, created global systems of inequality, and I don’t know if you’ve ever scrolled through Yahoo answers, but that shit…just wow.
Also, not to go to ‘galactic brain meme’ levels of philosophical, but we should examine what intelligence actually means. Humans are obsessed with trying to find ‘intelligence’ in other animals, but really, a lot of the time they’re searching for ways in which animals are similar to us. But as someone — not Einstein — said, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Case-in-point, the blue whale has the largest brain in the world, but what makes it more intelligent than, say, a mouse? Nothing if that mouse is Pinky I guess.
The blue whale and the mouse both have vastly different environments, social structures, and methods of survival. There’s simply no way to measure intelligence in this way. If intelligence can’t be measured universally, then it would be difficult to draw connections between it and the structure or function of an organ.
8. Your brain ‘lights up’ when doing a certain activity
I’m getting less irritated now. This is good. I don’t mind this myth so much because it’s not that wrong. The issue with it is the dramatic sense people always give it when they mention it. Sure, neurons will fire when doing one thing or another, and perhaps on an fMRI scan you might see particular regions being much more highlighted than others.
The thing about fMRI scans is that all they’re doing is showing where particular regions are experiencing more or less blood flow (and thus oxygen usage). That doesn’t even necessarily correlate with something meaningful, however. It’s entirely possible that someone can have a brightly lit region — for example, their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, but not experience any noticeable health or behavioural benefits of it using more oxygen than other areas.
9. Dopamine/Oxytocin/Serotonin are ‘happiness’ chemicals
Never mind, I’m annoyed again. And I’d bet my bank account balance that you’ve heard of this one (if you haven’t then congratulations, you have negative ten pounds). Maybe the whole “hugging will release dopamine and make you happier,” or doing yada yada yada will release x neurotransmitter and make you happy.
I’m not saying these chemicals aren’t responsible for elevated mood or feelings of happiness. They can be. I know, because I’m on SSRIs and they certainly make me feel better. However, the idea that any one of these neurotransmitters is the sole cause of happiness or elevated moods is an exaggeration. The brain is far too complex for it to be broken down to one or two neurotransmitters (out of hundreds) that cause something as general and multi-layered as happiness. Maybe you do release more oxytocin when you’re in love. But you also release a hundred other chemicals too (that was not an innuendo (okay it was)).
You can’t ascribe one single emotion to one single neurotransmitter or hormone. Just like ‘cortisol’ is not the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol can secrete when in non-stressful circumstances too. Complex bio-psychological processes cannot be understood by looking at the circuitry of the brain (whoops, I just did a number 3).
10. Brain damage is permanent
This is the most understandable myth, and I mean it’s not so much a myth as a common misunderstanding that stems from fear more than anything. However, brain damage as a whole is related to the death or degeneration of brain cells.
As I mentioned earlier, the brain is plastic. Not literally; it’s more like 60% fat. But it’s plastic in that it changes, and in some cases repairs itself when it suffers certain damage. The brain also kills potentially dangerous cells (through processes called apoptosis and autophagy), as well as creates new cells (through a process known as neurogenesis) in order to maintain its functions.
However, serious trauma to the brain has a much lower chance of being repaired through these functions. Plasticity isn’t magic. So don’t go headbutting a wall relying on synaptogenesis to save you. It won’t.
The age of neuromania is one in which corporations have latched on to historic myths and scientific misunderstandings about the brain, and manipulated them to better sell their products. Whether it’s the latest Neuro drink, or a film about someone who can tap the rest of their brain power (*cough* Limitless *cough*), the pseudoscience is everywhere. So be cautious, fellow small brains.