The amount of misinformation regarding the human brain that exists on the Internet is overwhelming; but given how little we actually know about this complex organ, it’s not that surprising. Impressionable, though well intentioned, individuals overhear a cool faux-factoid, and before you know it, millions of armchair neuroscientists are giving misinformed lectures on the wonders of the central nervous system.
We recently published a blog post discrediting (or at least amending) five common myths about the brain, but in doing so, we ignored several other common fictions that we felt needed to be addressed. Therefore, we present you with a sequel to that article. It’s no Godfather II, but it blows Batman Returns out of the water!
Myth #1: Our Memories Are Accurate
One of the great mysteries of life is how, despite having unimpeded access to our own brains, we remain complete strangers to ourselves. One way in which this is exhibited is through our memories. Most of us incorrectly assume that we have an accurate understanding of our past experiences, but science has shown us repeatedly that our memories are surprisingly unreliable, even (and sometimes especially) when it comes to memories of extremely significant life events.
For instance, a 2003 study of 569 college students revealed that 73% of those questioned incorrectly remembered seeing news footage of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11. In reality, that footage was not aired until the following day.
Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal believes that the more we attempt to access our memories, the more information is lost. The theory goes that the truth of our recollections fades over time as our brains alter these memories to fit a more compelling narrative of our lives. Although this is unsettling for those of us who would rather claim a degree of truth regarding our personal and shared histories, the fallibility of memory might be a necessary cognitive function that helps us create our worldview and maintain a positive image of ourselves.
Myth #2: Our Ability to Learn Declines with Age
It’s true that children are veritable sponges when it comes to absorbing new information and using that information to build their conscious understanding of the world. Conversely, a great deal of scientific research has found that our ability to process new information, access memory, and consider novel approaches to the ways in which we understand and navigate the world sharply declines as we age. However, the intellectual dexterity of children doesn’t authoritatively deny the ability of older adults to utilize other avenues of cognition as they age.
One theory is that, as we age, we are no longer consistently engaged in critical thinking, as the blandness of our daily routine leaves little room for new learning. Still, while older individuals may not be advancing in traditional metrics of intellectual growth, there are several areas in which our brains continue to push the envelope and develop our cognition. Most of these are closely related to our social efficiency rather than our intellectual capacity.
For example, the older we get, the more we are concerned with our mortality, which helps us create “time horizons” that alter the way we perceive the world. We become much more concerned with creating meaning than ingesting information. We begin to place a higher premium on emotional returns rather than goal-oriented aspirations. This inspires more purposeful relationships and an increased awareness of the importance of social interaction. In this way, while our ability to process, convert, and adapt new information may fade over time, our social abilities continue to increase as we begin to place more value on our relationships.
Myth #3: Left Brain/Right Brain
Referring to people as either “left brain” or “right brain” thinkers to designate their intellectual strengths (creativity and linguistic aptitude for the right brain and rational and mathematical aptitude for the left) is a convenient tool, but the idea that people strongly rely on one of the two hemispheres of the brain is rooted in myth. The idea is known as lateralization – a concept that arose from the idea that individuals process language in the right hemisphere of the brain and emotional expression in the left. However, the truth of the matter is that we all use both hemispheres for a wide range of functions every day, and the key element is connectivity.
During the 1960s, Nobel Prize winner Robert Sperry studied patients who had their corpus callosum severed in order to treat epilepsy. The corpus callosum connects the two sides of the brain, meaning that the procedure eliminated the ability for the hemispheres to interact. This allowed Sperry and his team to isolate the various parts of the brain responsible for certain functions. Once these had been determined, psychology buffs began developing theories about personality types based on Sperry’s research. However, this was a classic exercise in reductive thinking.
As it turns out, our analytic and creative functions are not neatly located in either side of the brain. Scientists at The University of Utah have studied more than 1,000 brains and determined that there exists zero evidence to support the theory of lateralization. Examining more than 7,000 regions of the brain, Dr. Jeff Anderson and his team found that while most functions do originate from a specific source, our creative and analytical efficiency relies on a vast network of connectivity, a veritable matrix linking myriad areas of the brain.
Myth #4: Gender Dictates Cognitive Aptitude
While it may often feel that men and women are entirely different species, there are very few marked differences in how our brains work. According to Scientific American, “No research… has demonstrated gender-specific differences in how networks of neurons become connected when we learn new skills.”
Still, research has found that men and women do have a tendency to use different parts of their brain when performing certain functions. For instance, female brains are more inclined to access the cerebral cortex when navigating physical space, while men usually use the left hippocampus to perform the same activity. Additionally, recent studies have determined that the portions of the brain related to emotional inhibition are larger in women than in men, which might explain a slightly more common predisposition toward aggression among males.
Ultimately, there are far more similarities than differences in our brains, and it’s far more likely that the perceived distinctions between the sexes are created within a culture rather than existing in biology. For example, our perception of the differences between sexes likely leads to the creation of gender roles, which gradually morph into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Myth #5: The Mozart Effect
Mozart was a brilliant composer whose impact on musical composition cannot be overstated. That said, the belief that listening to his work (or the work of any classical composer) will improve your overall intelligence is a myth.
The “Mozart Effect” was a term first coined in 1991, but it gained traction after an article was published in Nature two years later that lent credence to the idea. Soon, parents were rushing to purchase CDs of Mozart’s music in the hopes of socially engineering toddler geniuses. Unfortunately, these parents didn’t bother to actually read that particular issue of Nature.
The original study never once used the term “Mozart Effect” and was actually conducted on just 36 young adult students. These subjects were assigned mental tasks to complete at three different intervals. Before each of these, they either sat in ten minutes of silence, received ten minutes of relaxing instructions, or listened to ten minutes of the same Mozart composition. The researchers found that after listening to Mozart, the subjects’ spatial reasoning was improved – for 15 minutes. Subsequent studies have also found that various forms of music can improve cognitive functions in the short-term, but there is no evidence to suggest that any music, Mozart or otherwise, has a lasting positive impact.
The Power of Myth
Throughout our shared history, mankind has used the art of mythmaking in an attempt to explain our world and our place in it. When viewed from this angle, the power of myth has unparalleled creative and constructive merit. However, in modern times, where untruths multiply at the speed of a keystroke, myths can actually prohibit the advancement of our species.
When we subscribe to pseudo-science as gospel, we lazily engage in the spread of ignorance. A vital deterrent to this is the simple recognition of the immense complexity of the human brain. Our understanding of this organ is constantly changing, so don’t believe everything you hear; there’s a good chance that your brain is just playing tricks on you again.
The Crosley Approach
If you have suffered a brain injury as a result of someone else’s negligence and are seeking the justice and compensation you deserve, contact Crosley Law Firm today. We always begin the attorney-client relationship with a complimentary case evaluation. To set up your free consultation today, call 210-LAW-3000 | 210-529-3000 or use the easy contact form on our website.
Carstensen, L. (2007). Growing old or living long: Take your pick. Issues in Science and Technology. Retrieved from http://issues.org/23-2/carstensen/
Hammond, C. (2013, January 8). Does listening to Mozart really boost your brainpower? BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130107-can-mozart-boost-brainpower
Helmuth, L. (2011, May 19). Top ten myths about the brain. Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/top-ten-myths-about-the-brain-178357288/
Miller, G. (2010, May). How our brains make memories. Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-our-brains-make-memories-14466850/
Wanjek, C. (2013, September 3). Left brain vs. right: It’s a myth, research finds. LiveScience. Retrieved from https://news.yahoo.com/left-brain-vs-myth-research-finds-140123613.html
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