The brain is one of the most amazing organs in the human body. It controls our central nervous system, keeping us walking, talking, breathing and thinking. The brain is also incredibly complex, comprising around 100 billion neurons.
There’s so much going on with the brain that there are several different fields of medicine and science devoted to treating and studying it, including neurology psychology and psychiatry.
After thousands of years of studying and treating every aspect of it, there are still many facets of the brain that remain mysterious. And because the brain is so complex, we tend to simplify information about how it works in order to make it more understandable.
Both of these things put together have resulted in many myths about the brain. Let’s look at 5 myths that have been circulating about the brain:
You only use 10 percent of your brain
It is not certain how this falsehood began, but it has been strengthened over the past century by misinterpretations of neuroscience discoveries and unsubstantiated quotes by both scientists and laypeople alike.
The truth is that we use virtually all of our brain every day. Brain scans have shown that no matter what we’re doing, our brains are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but unless we have brain damage, there is no one part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning.
The brain is hard-wired
This is one of the most enduring legacies of the old “brains are electrical circuits” metaphor. There’s some truth to it, as with many metaphors: the brain is organised in a standard way, with certain bits specialised to take on certain tasks, and those bits are connected along predictable neural pathways (sort of like wires) and communicate in part by releasing ions (pulses of electricity).
But one of the biggest discoveries in neuroscience in the past few decades is that the brain is remarkably plastic. In blind people, parts of the brain that normally process sight are instead devoted to hearing. Someone practising a new skill, like learning to play the violin, “rewires” parts of the brain that are responsible for fine motor control.
Listening to Mozart makes you smarter
The term “Mozart effect” was first coined by Alfred A. Tomatis who used Mozart’s music as the listening stimulus in his work attempting to cure a variety of disorders. The approach has been popularised in a book by Don Campbell, who trademarked the term after a 1993 experiment published in Nature suggesting that listening to Mozart temporarily boosted students’ IQ by 8 points.
While the sentiment is appealing, the so-called “Mozart Effect” is dubious.
Kenneth Steele, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, and John Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, claim that there is no real intelligence enhancing or health benefit to listening to Mozart. Steele and his colleagues could not “find any kind of effect at all,” even though their study tested 125 students. They concluded: “there is little evidence to support intervention programs based on the existence of the Mozart effect.”
A person’s personality displays a right-brain or left-brain dominance
Chances are, you’ve heard the label of being a “right-brained” or “left-brained” thinker. Logical, detail-oriented and analytical? That’s left-brained behaviour. Creative, thoughtful and subjective? Your brain’s right side functions stronger.
In a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One, University of Utah neuroscientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring their functional lateralisation – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and while they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralised, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.
People learn better when the teaching is matched to their learning style
The notion of the existence of learning styles has been around since the 1970s, with there now being more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood to higher education. It has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops.
The claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred learning style, however, is simply not supported by science and of questionable value. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, said that “from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense”.
References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their existence. “When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that ‘it doesn’t matter’, said Professor Stephen Dinham, from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. “But it does matter because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorisation and labelling. These can lead to negative mindsets in students and limited learning experiences through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles, not to mention the time and money wasted. We might as well teach students according to their horoscopes.”
Anderson, J. S., et.al., “An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging,” Plos One, August 14, 2014.
Helmuth, L., “Top ten myths about the brain,” Smithsonian.com, May 19, 2011.
Jarret, C., “Why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die,” Psychology Today, June 27, 2012.
“Myths about the brain,” Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center, University of California San Diego.
Radford, B., “The ten-percent myth,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999, vol. 23.2.
Vaughan, T. “Tackling the ‘learning styles’ myth,” TeacherMagazine.com.