In every lab I worked in, the mentioning of Luc Besson’s 2014 sci-fi movie “Lucy” caused a wide range of reactions, most of them between an exhausted sigh and a badly concealed bulging of the forehead veins. And not everyone has even even watched it! So, what’s the reason for such a strong dislike? While the movie itself might be entertaining and all, it further perpetuates the myth saying that we only use 10% of our brain capacity (after increasing her usage up to 90%, Scarlett Johansson’s heroine gains abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis and uhm …defying gravity?). Seeing misconceptions about your field of work being promoted is just such a downer. So I wanted to debunk some hard-to-kill myths about the most fascinating thing in the Universe (okay, I know, will tone down fangirling, sorry).
1) We only use 10% of our brain capacity.
TL;DR: NO no no no NO no. No.
It is amazing that this one is so hard to kill. I suggest media stories about people starting to speak a completely new language after stroke is partly what makes people believe we have all the knowledge in the world hidden somewhere deep in our brain. If it just comes out! Then we will be math geniuses! And polyglots! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. In a waking state, most of the brain is active almost all the time. First of all, there is always an activity in your brain regions concerned with such basal functions as breathing, heart rate, posture and balance (which are collectively known as brainstem). Second of all, even such a simple task as pouring a cup of tea includes activation in planning areas, motor areas, areas responsible for comparing the planned action with the outcome, memory regions (what did I wanna do just now? where is the coffee mug?). Third of all, even without a task at hand, when you’re resting or daydreaming, a network called default-mode network which is thought to be responsible for introspection, sense of self, planning, mind-wandering and plenty of other stuff, is continuously active.
We surely use far more than 10% of our brains but it’s clear that we understand about 10% of it. (Btw, speaking a foreign language is a Foreign Language Syndrome and is just as puzzling as it is little researched. But it most likely has to do with damage or restructuring in language areas of the brain, not all languages of the world being buried in your head. Unfortunately.)
2) There are left- and right-brained people.
TL;DR: Some brain functions (like language) are preferentially processed in a specific hemisphere, yet complex cognitive tasks require activity of the whole brain.
Creative people just have a more active left brain and mathematicians are born with a more wired right brain, right? Right? Unfortunately, it is not just as simple as that (this we will hear a lot in this section). Shakespeare’s left brain wasn’t more developed and Feynman’s right hemisphere wouldn’t excessively lighten up in a MRI scanner. There are no findingssupporting the idea that different thinking styles depend on a specific hemisphere and no evidence for a correlation between creativity and the activity of the right brain. On the contrary, research has shown that people are using their entire brain equally: Both sides of the brains did not differ in terms of connectivity or activity independent on their creativity or logical skills.
There are, indeed, findings and theories which can be remotely connected to this myth (note the “remotely” though!). For example, there is a thing called lateralization which means that some functions are usually associated with either left or right hemisphere: You have probably already heard something about language being in the left brain. Yet hold your horses, left/right dichotomy supporters, it’s not that simple — it appears now that some language aspects, such as intonation, are actually processed in the right hemisphere. Moreover, some hypotheses say that information is processed differently in both hemispheres: Left one being more specialised for details and the right seeing things in a more holistic way (like closely examining this fruit you found versus scanning for the predators in the entire environment around you). However, let’s repeat it again: Not that simple. Complex cognitive functions require communication across both hemispheres.
So next time someone proudly says they’re creative because of her outstanding right hemisphere development, frown, shake your head and send them to Google.
3) Listening to Mozart will make you smarter.
TL;DR: Listening to Mozart can help you to rotate imaginary objects (but only as you keep the music on).
“Mozart for babies! Awake your child’s creativity! Make it smarter! Give us your money! Buy our stuff!”: a quick scroll through Amazon provides you with all kinds of CDs to make your baby (and you) smarter. There is this prevailing notion that listening to classical music (especially Mozart, therefore the name “Mozart effect”) makes you smarter, and more creative. People’s belief in this stretches so far that some Italian mozzarella farmer was playing Mozart to his buffalos to make them produce better milk. I mean, if it was so easy then tying Trump to a chair and forcing him to listen to Mozart would solve a lot of problems. So what’s really up with this myth?
Whatever little effects were observed as effects of listening to Mozart, it was grossly exaggerated and generalised. The only effect (which couldn’t even be completely reproduced!) was a short-term improvement of the spatial reasoning (meaning understanding and remembering the relations among objects in your environment) which lasted only for the duration of the experiment. So nothing really helpful preparing your baby for the hard life out there (even though it is a curious finding). General intelligence of the participants was not affected whatsoever. Moreover, some studies have shown a similar effect after people listening to Schubert, Blur (Britpop effect! Now we’re talking!) or even a Stephen King novel being read aloud. The important thing seemed to be the enjoyment and engagement, rather than the exact combination of notes people heard. So unless you want to appear like very classy and snobby parents by letting your kids only listen to Mozart, don’t count on his sonatas to make them more intelligent. Give them a good book instead.
4) Memories are stored in the brain like stuff is stored in the cupboard drawers.
TL;DR: Memories are dynamic, can be changed by all kinds of different influences and not always reliable.
Some think, memories are similar to objects in your drawer. You put them in, they stay there, unchanged but for a layer of dust, you put them out and use them, as good as new. Doesn’t work like that — memories can be manipulated and you are not necessarily aware of this. Take eyewitness testimony. Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in the field of false memories, has shown that the wording of the questions asked about an accident or crime people witnessed actually changed their memories without them noticing. Imagine you and your friend see a car accident and later a policeman asks you whether you saw any broken glass when the cars smashed into each other, whereas your friends is asked whether she saw any broken glass when the cars contacted each other. Guess what? You are more likely to remember seeing broken glass than your friend is (even if it wasn’t actualy there), just because the question suggested that is must have been present. In another experiment participants were shown photoshopped pictures with childhood versions of them and their parents on a hot air balloon and were asked to describe that day (which never happened). Half of the participants could actually describe how excited or scared they felt up there or what kind of ice-cream they had. Moral of the story: Memory is fragile and can be corrupted. So… What about this birthday party you had when you were seven? You sure it happened? You actually sure? Just checking.
P.S. So far I gathered some suggestions as to what to write about next and the list includes neuroimaging for dummies, taking some well-known papers and explaining them in laymen’s terms (like the grid cell Nobel Prize winner), predictive coding and artificial networks. Do you have any other ideas or suggestions of what you’d be interested in? Let me know!