The month is

25 2014

Brain Drain: 10 “Facts” About the Brain You Got All Wrong

“Lucy,” the new sci-fi thriller from Universal starring Scarlett Johansson, opens today. It’s based on the famous “truism” that people only use 10% of their brain power and asks the question, “What if a person used all 100%?”

Actually, there’s no reason to ask that question, since science already knows the answer. Want to know what it is? Then read on, as we take a Friday Fun Facts look at Brain Myths.


1. Humans use just 10% of their brain power. This “fact” has been traced back to American writer Lowell Thomas who, when writing the forward to Andrew Carnegie’s 1936 best seller “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” apparently misinterpreted earlier research into child prodigies done at Harvard 40 years earlier. The fact is, humans, like all animals, use 100 percent of their brains all the time. Even when we’re sleeping. Some areas become more active when we engage in certain activities, but we have no “unused” potential.

We're as smart as we can ever be. Damn.

2. Artistic people are “right-brained,” and logical thinkers are “left-brained.” Again, certain areas of the brain are associated with certain activities, and this includes emotions and logic. And, yes, the capacity for emotion tend to reside in the right side of the brain, the capacity for logic in the left. But there’s no evidence that any one side is ever “dominant.” Unless damaged, all sections work in concert.

Unless you're a psychopath, in which case all bets are off.

3. Alcohol kills brain cells. Good news, lushes. Alcohol does not kill brain cells. It does interfere with the neurons’ ability to communicate with each other, but even this effect is mostly temporary. What alcohol DOES kill is liver cells, leading to cirrhosis, which can be fatal.

Nothing wrong with these brains.

4. Drugs turns your brain into Swiss cheese. More good news, drug fiends. Drugs don’t put holes in your brain. The only thing that can do that are projectiles (bullets, arrows, railroad spikes, etc.) and prions, the nasty rogue proteins that cause Mad Cow Disease and its human equivalent, Jakob-Crueutzfeldt Syndrome. Which isn’t to say that drugs can’t rewire the brain, which is a primary cause of addiction. But holes? Nope.

On the other hand, a bullet WOULD be quicker.

5. We have five senses. In school, we all learned about the Five Senses: Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. But guess what? There are a lot more. There’s the sense of balance, pain, temperature, pressure, hunger, thirst, time and even proprioception, which is your ability to sense where your body parts are in relation to one another. All of these senses are essential to our ability to work, interact with our environment, and survive.

And let's not forget the most important sense of all: the sense of humor.

6. Listening to classical music makes you smarter. This belief was started in the 1950s by an ear, nose and throat doctor named Albert Tomatis who claimed listening to Mozart helped his patients with speech and auditory disorders. Then, in the 1990s, 36 students at the University of California-Irvine reportedly boosted their performance in IQ tests by 8 points by listening to a Mozart sonata before their exams. But although concerned parents have spend tens of millions of dollars on “Baby Einstein” products designed to boost their infants’ brainpower, subsequent research has shown that Mozart — or any other classical composer — isn’t the answer.

On the other hand, listening to some musicians has been known to LOWER IQ points significantly.

7. The bigger the brain, the smarter the animal. Yes, humans have relatively big brains. But some whales have brains four times larger than ours, and while intelligent, they’re not four times smarter. What seems to be important to intelligence is brain mass in relation to overall body weight. In these areas, we’ve got our aquatic cousins beat by a mile.

Does this mean getting fat makes you stupid?

8. The brain can be influenced by “subliminal messages.” Subliminal messages are visual or audio communications that happen so fast or at such weird frequencies that we’re not even consciously aware of them. That they can influence our behavior was first suggested by a MAD MEN-era market researcher who reportedly boosted theater concession stand sales by flashing the messages “Drink Coke” and “Buy Popcorn” during movie trailers using just single frames for each communication. It turns out the researcher lied about his results — What? An ad man lied??? — but ever since then many advertisers have convinced themselves that subliminal messaging is actually effective.


9. We can learn in our sleep. In the mid 20th century, marketers promised people they could learn foreign languages and other academic subjects effortlessly by listening to taped lessons while they slept. Anyone who has fallen asleep during high school French class can attest to the fact this technique does NOT work. But that still didn’t stop millions of people for plunking down hard-earned simoleons for such “scientific” hokum.

All you're likely to get are nightmares about high school French class...

10. Brain injury is permanent. For more than a century, it was believed that all brain injury was permanent. But discoveries made over the past indicate that 1) Many brain cells do regenerate, and 2) The brain is continuously rewiring itself, growing new neural pathways between surviving cells. These discoveries bring new hope for people who have suffered strokes, severe concussions, and other forms of brain damage.

So there's still hope...

Think happy thoughts, and have a great weekend!