Common Brain Myths (or are they real?)

The previous post listed some startling but true facts about the brain. This post does the opposite – let’s put some common brain myths to the test.

Many people believe these myths. Many others are quick to point out their serious flaws. However, like many myths, most of these brain myths have at least a grain of truth behind them.

As an example, let’s take a look at what must be the most common brain myth out there:

Myth #1: You only use 10% of your brain.

Why it’s mostly Untrue. From the many different types of brain scans that we can do, it’s very clear that most parts of our brain are being used almost continuously. The brain is a finely tuned machine and it wouldn’t make sense to have bits lying around taking up valuable space and not being used.

Grain of truth #1: In any brain part that is being used, usually only a very small number of brain cells (neurons) are active at any given time. The rest really are doing nothing at any particular moment. So in a sense, at any given moment we are only using a tiny portion of our brain! But the neurons that are active change rapidly from moment to moment, and any single neuron doesn’t stay inactive for very long. So over a significant period of time (anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or two), it is safe to say that pretty much every single neuron in our brain is used.

Grain of truth #2: Our brains are made up of thousands of interconnected components that interact in very complex ways. Some parts of our brain actually inhibit other parts.  For example, there is a condition called savant syndrome, where people with some forms of mental disability or brain damage nevertheless exhibit extraordinary abilities in music, memory, art or other fields. Savant syndrome seems to be caused by the failure of other parts of their brains to inhibit the parts that are giving them these amazing talents. In fact, savant syndrome can be induced in healthy people by temporarily shutting down these other brain parts! (We can temporarily shut down parts of our brains using powerful electro-magnets – strange but true!!). So it seems we all may have savants inside us, they are just being inhibited by other parts of our brain.

Grain of truth #3: There is another brain condition called alien hand syndrome, where another inhibition mechanism is damaged. People with alien hand syndrome find that one of their hands will often do its own thing, like pick up a cup that is in front of them and try to pour the contents into their mouths, or pick up a pencil and start writing. Parts of our brain are ready at any moment to perform common actions like this, but they are stopped by inhibition from other parts, and are usually only released when they are needed. So these inhibited parts are temporarily unused portions of our brain (of course they will usually spring into action when they are needed).

Grain of truth #4: Finally, recent research has shown that people who learn new skills faster are actually able to do so by shutting down competing parts of their brains! By shutting down these parts, they let the skill-learning parts of their brains do what they do best, which is learn the skill, without interference from the other parts that often have a tendency to ‘over-think’ the problem.

SO there you have it. This myth is mostly untrue, but it does have some grains of truth. In particular, we all may have some extraordinary talents hidden inside us that are being suppressed by more mundane parts of our brains!


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