The human brain is a wonderful thing. Especially when you consider the things it’s willing to believe about the human brain. Here they are—those common, oft-repeated claims, revealed to be totally untrue by just a little investigation. Such as finding out what actual scientists who deal with the human brain have to say about it, rather than asking that guy at the end of the bar who knows all the verses to “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Which just goes to show, even the human brain of a complete idiot is a wonderful thing.
1. We use only 10 percent of our brains
Easy enough to accept for anyone who has followed the proceedings of the 112th United States Congress. But quite wrong. Scans show your entire brain is in use almost all the time, much of it simply to keep your basic body functions and everyday actions going, before you even start thinking about things.
When you do, consider that the human brain is so big, the female body hasn’t yet caught up with it, in evolutionary terms, requiring mothers to push a baby’s dome through a passage better adapted to, say, a modestly sized zucchini. Nature wouldn’t put them through that for something that’s 90 percent packing peanuts. It’s the brain myth equivalent of dreaming your house has a whole new floor you’ve never discovered. It doesn’t. You should try making better use of the available space.
2. Mozart improves brain performance
Irrefutable proof that looks really don’t matter if you can make good music.
This is one of those rare myths that can be traced right to the source. In 1993 the respected scientific magazine Nature published a study in which students who listened to Mozart beforehand did better—marginally—on spatial reasoning tests than those who had listened to a relaxation tape or nothing. Next thing you know, network television would have you believe playing Mozart to babies will improve their intelligence, and the state of Georgia is handing out the works of the Austrian wunderkind on CD to the mothers of newborns.
Just two catches. One, nobody bothered to mention that the effect disappeared after 15 minutes; so unless those Peach State kids took their SATs in the cradle, it wasn’t going to help much. And two, further studies showed that any stimulating music—Insane Clown Posse, say—has the same, brief impact. Still, we suppose, having a Mozart album around the house might make you look smarter…
3. You are either left-brained or right-brained
Your brain has two halves, and they are indeed different. Just how different, those brain scientist types are still trying to ascertain. Here’s what they do know: the idea that the left side is where reason and math hang out, playing chess with grammar, while the right is all poetry jams, watercolors and unicorns, is—to employ the technical term—crap. Although there’s a reason why we believe it.
In the early days of neuroscience it was noted that people who lost brain function on a particular side also tended to lose specific abilities. But very few of those abilities are solely contained on one side. The two hemispheres are interdependent and constantly interact. If someone says you can train up one side or the other to make yourself more logical or more creative, chances are they’re trying to sell you something. Something you probably shouldn’t buy.
4. Alcohol kills brain cells
Where starving zombies go to die.
Nope. Woohoo! Line ’ em up! Not so fast. Alcohol may not do away with the lil fellas what does yer cogitatin’, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for your brain. It won’t cause permanent damage to the structure of that remarkable organ, but it will affect its function. Now, to be clear, we’re not saying drinking doesn’t make you dumb—of course it does; that’s the whole point of it—only that it won’t make you dumber, for good.
The main short-term effect of alcohol on the brain is to juice up your neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine—which makes you feel better, more quickly. (You may have observed this phenomenon during your own doubtless meticulous double-blind tests.) The long-term effect is that your brain won’t let the serotonin and dopamine do their job without a drink first. And that, kids, is what we call addiction. Those undestroyed brain cells will make you pay for it.
5. Sexual differences are hard-wired into the brain
“You didn’t even notice I changed my hair, did you?”
Yeah, right. Which is why women can’t vote or be doctors… hold on. Time was when that was the explanation given for such opinions, and similar ones on race, too. So what does the actual science say? There’s no evidence for it, other than in the most minor ways. The different-brain stuff is based on cognitive tests, and these are invariably skewed by the testing itself. Results match expectations. In countries where boys are thought to be better at math, for instance, that’s what the tests show.
So unless brain structure varies from place to place as well as between sexes, that’s clearly no indicator. Meanwhile, scans of brain activity during various tasks do little to demonstrate hard-wired difference. So if you ridicule your girlfriend because she can’t read maps, that may be not because she lacks the brain structure for it, but because it’s hard-wired into you to act like an asshole. Not that you should tell her that or anything…