September 13, 2023 | by Catrina Hacker, PennNeuroKnow and IAES Collaboration
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Many people find neuroscience fascinating because learning about our brains teaches us about ourselves. Unfortunately, popular interest in brain research has led to several pervasive myths that misrepresent how our brains work. Combatting these neuromyths is difficult because the truth is often much more complicated than the myth and buried in intimidating scientific literature. However, correcting misconceptions about how our brains work can have important benefits for our everyday lives. In this post I’ll break down what some of these neuromyths claim, where they came from, whether there’s any truth behind them, and why we should care about correcting them.
Myth #1: Humans only use 10% of our brains.
This is arguably the most common neuromyth1, inspiring movies like Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014) in which characters gain superhuman abilities by tapping into the large unused portions of their brains. It’s appealing to think that we all have potential superpowers sitting in our brains waiting to be unleashed, but there’s nothing to support this claim. The reality is that neuroscientists observe activity throughout the entire brain.
While nobody is certain where it came from, some believe that this myth originates from work done by neuroscientist Wilder Penfield in the 1930s1. Penfield was a neurosurgeon who studied the effects of stimulating the brains of patients undergoing neurosurgery to learn what each part of the brain was responsible for. He found that stimulating a large portion of the brain didn’t cause any noticeable effect2, meaning he could not learn what its function might be. However, new and less invasive methods of recording brain activity show that these “silent” parts of the brain are actually active. In fact, a network of brain regions called the default mode network is even active when we are at rest3.
The bottom line: We use 100% of our brains.
Why it matters: The number of drugs and treatments that claim to enhance brain function, collectively called neuroenhancers, is on the rise. While we can always learn and grow, understanding that there is no “hidden” brain waiting to be unlocked can protect you from wasting your money.
Myth #2: Right-brained people are creative while left-brained people are analytical.
The idea that you can be either right-brained or left-brained has captured the attention of people on social media and even teachers in classrooms. It’s tempting to think that people can be categorized so easily and that differences can be attributed to our brains, but the truth isn’t that simple. While people can tend to be more creative than analytical or vice versa, those differences cannot be explained by dominance of one half of the brain over the other4.
This myth has been tricky to combat because there is some important truth behind it. There are some differences between the two halves of your brain, but creativity versus logical reasoning isn’t one of them. Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right, that communicate via a bundle of neural connections called the corpus callosum. While almost everything we do involves communication between the two halves of our brain, sometimes one half of the brain contributes a little more than the other. For example, the left hemisphere typically takes the lead in language processing5, the right hemisphere seems to play an especially important role in visual attention6, and the left and right hemispheres might do slightly different things to aid in face processing7. Things like creativity and emotional processing rely on both hemispheres and complicated networks of brain activations8,9.
The bottom line: Being right-brained or left-brained can’t explain why some people are more creative than others, but there are some differences in what your left and right hemispheres do when it comes to things like language, attention, and face recognition.
Why it matters: Categorizing people as one thing or another (left-brained or right-brained) is restrictive and ultimately harmful. Many “logical” tasks require creativity and “creative” tasks require logic. If teachers, mentors, and bosses make these assumptions about members of their teams or classrooms they risk mischaracterizing people or preventing them from working up to their true potential.
Myth #3: Listening to Mozart makes babies smarter.
This neuromyth, sometimes called the “Mozart effect”, started in 1991 when Alfred Tomatis shared his thoughts about how listening to Mozart could help children with speech and auditory disorders10. When a group of researchers showed in 1993 that listening to 10 minutes of Mozart’s K. 448 improved college students’ ability to visualize and manipulate mental images11, the media took this result and ran with it. The effects in the original study only lasted 10 to 15 minutes and only impacted mental manipulation of images, but the media wrote about general boosts to intelligence and implied that they lasted much longer. Despite the original study being done with college students, the myth was somehow generalized to include babies. Several studies published since 1993 have provided alternate explanations for the original result or have failed to replicate it while studying the same or different skills12.
Although listening to Mozart can’t make you smarter, there is some truth behind this myth. Stimulating an infant’s brain helps with their development, but activities like direct interactions with a parent, reading a book, or talking and singing with an infant are much more effective13,14. When it comes to music, passively listening might not impact development, but learning to play an instrument positively impacts a child’s cognitive abilities and their performance in school15.
The bottom line: Listening to Mozart doesn’t make babies smarter, but stimulation from things like singing to your child is an important part of their development, and children who learn to play an instrument tend to perform better in school.
Why it matters: Belief in the Mozart effect and similar claims led many people to show their children the popular Baby Einstein videos in the early 2000s. However, in 2007 a study showed that not only did viewing these baby DVDs not improve children’s intelligence, children who watched the videos tended to have a worse vocabulary than other children16.
Myth #4: Everybody has a distinct style in which they learn best.
Many people have memories like mine of being asked if they are a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner as a child. You may even have filled out a survey to learn what your learning style is. Even today, many teachers collect this information and personalize their teaching to each student’s supposed learning style. While this seems logical, there is no evidence that each person has a specific learning style in which they learn best17,18, and some research suggests that teaching to learning styles is more harmful than helpful19. While it’s true that people vary in ability on different kinds of tasks and that teachers should work with students as individuals to help them succeed, when “visual learners” are tasked with learning through auditory tasks, they do just as well19.
The bottom line: Everybody has different preferences, but matching teaching to a preferred learning style does not improve learning.
Why it matters: It is a waste of time and resources to focus on tailoring education to preferred learning styles when it has no impact on learning. In fact, teaching based on learning styles might actually harm students by limiting them to certain modalities and subjects that match their learning style and discouraging them from exploring20.
Myth #5: Your handwriting reveals aspects of your personality.
The use of handwriting to learn about someone’s personality is called graphology. Graphology became popular in the late 1800s, with German scientist William Preyer commenting that handwriting is “brain writing”21,22. Despite its dubious scientific validity, graphology was used to make decisions about a person’s value to society, such as in determining whether a person was trustworthy or a criminal. Fortunately, modern experiments have conclusively shown that handwriting cannot predict a person’s personality. In controlled settings, graphologists are no better at using a person’s handwriting to make judgments about them than if they were guessing23. However, many people still believe that aspects of a person’s personality can be learned from their handwriting, and some computer scientists are still trying to build computer models that can predict things like criminality and work ethic from handwriting24, repeating the mistakes of the past.
Despite the dubious link between handwriting and personality, there are some reliable links between handwriting and brain health. Our brains control the muscles that move as we write, and some neurological disorders can cause changes in the brain that impact handwriting21. For example, one early symptom of Parkinson’s Disease can be small, cramped handwriting25. For this and related disorders, handwriting can act as a window into brain health and an early warning sign that can lead to faster care and better outcomes.
The bottom line: A person’s handwriting cannot reliably predict their personality, but changes to handwriting can be early signs of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s Disease.
Why it matters: Despite there being no connection between a person’s handwriting and their personality, in 2017 then President Donald Trump tweeted about being able to tell from his handwriting that former United States Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, “is secretive”22. Some scientists are still trying to build tools that can determine a person’s personality based on their handwriting to help with hiring decisions24. Without widespread acceptance that handwriting cannot predict personality, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past and using handwriting to unfairly discriminate against certain people.
Myth #6: A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.
Dyslexia, characterized by difficulty reading, affects an estimated 20% of the population and is the most common neuro-cognitive disorder26. It is a popular misconception that a common sign of dyslexia is seeing words and letters backwards. People with dyslexia don’t see words and letters backwards, but they do have difficulty naming letters and words (think saying “was” while reading “saw”)27. When it comes to writing, there is some evidence that dyslexic children may be more likely than others to write letters and words backwards, a phenomenon called reversals. However, reversals are common in all children learning to read and write28, and not all children with dyslexia make reversals29.
There are many other reliable indicators that a person may have dyslexia. The signs of dyslexia change throughout a lifetime and range from preschool children who struggle to identify the letters in their names to high school students who struggle to read unfamiliar words30. Visit this fact page from the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity for a full list of signs of dyslexia for all age groups.
The bottom line: Dyslexic children don’t see letters backwards, although they may read and write letters backwards. However, not all dyslexic readers write letters backwards and not all children who write letters backwards are dyslexic.
Why it matters: If parents and educators expect dyslexic children to describe seeing letters backwards or adults think they must see letters backwards to have dyslexia, then many people could go undiagnosed and not get the support they need to succeed.
Myth #7: Human memory works like a camera, perfectly recording what you experience.
As a child, one of my favorite book series starred Cam Jansen, a fifth grader who solves mysteries utilizing her flawless photographic memory. Any time she wanted to remember something she would say “click” and it would be perfectly captured in her memory. As an adult, I’ve watched plenty of TV shows and movies featuring similar characters who can use their perfect memory to save the day. Unfortunately, this kind of memory doesn’t exist outside books and other media.
For the rest of us here on earth, our brains forget and fill in details of our memories, even when we feel certain we remember things perfectly. A great example of this is the visual Mandela effect, wherein people consistently report strong false memories of things like whether Curious George has a tail or the Monopoly man wears a monocle (neither is true, but people consistently believe that they are)31. In general, it’s a good thing that our brains work in this imperfect way. We don’t want to get bogged down with irrelevant details of memories, so our brains act as a filter, prioritizing memory for the things that matter most and filling in the details and moments that are less important.
If our memory is so imperfect, where does the idea of photographic memory come from? This myth might have started after psychologist Ralph Haber noticed that a small percentage of children seemed to be able to hold pictures in their mind’s eye for seconds or minutes after they were removed from sight32. He called this kind of memory eidetic memory (often used interchangeably with “photographic memory” in popular media). However, these studies only looked at memory for short periods of time, and later research demonstrated that this “memory” is far from perfect33.
The bottom line: Some people can remember things better or longer than others, but nobody’s memory works like a camera.
Why it matters: Our criminal justice system still relies heavily on eyewitness reports. If police officers, lawyers, and jurors don’t realize that memory is flawed, they risk inflating the value of this kind of testimony and incarcerating innocent people34.
Myth #8: People with bigger brains are smarter.
We’ve all heard or used the term “big-brained” to describe someone who does something smart, but the size of their brain has nothing to do with their intellect. If size was all that mattered, then elephants, whose brains are 3x heavier than ours, would be 3x smarter than us35. Even if we’re just looking at human brains, Albert Einstein’s brain was no bigger than average, and despite years of studying his brain, neuroscientists haven’t found any clear differences in its structure compared to other human brains36.
The myth that smarter people have bigger brains has a particularly harmful history. In the 1800s, scientists measured the skulls of people of different races and genders as an estimate of brain size to provide “scientific” evidence that Caucasian men were superior to women and other races. There are many reasons this approach was flawed, not least of which is that correcting for body size can account for many of the reported differences37. In 1898, a woman named Alice Lee challenged this idea by storming into the all-male meeting of the Anatomical Society at Trinity College Dublin, measuring the skulls of several prominent men in the audience, and demonstrating that many of these supposedly intelligent men had rather small skulls38.
Read my previous post, “The Problem of Brain Size”, for a more detailed look at this myth.
The bottom line: Brain size has nothing to do with intelligence.
Why it matters: Flawed measurements of brain size have historically been used as scientific “proof” that women and racial minorities are not as intelligent as Caucasian men. Dispelling this myth is critical to reverse the harm done by the claims made in these studies and to prevent making the same mistakes in the future.
Myth #9: Playing brain games makes you smarter.
We’ve all seen ads for games that claim to train your brain to make you smarter, or measure your IQ. However, these claims are misleading and overinflated. One study conclusively proved this by having over 11,000 people play online brain games for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, people had gotten a little better at the specific games that they played, but they were no better at any other tests39. In other words, playing one memory game could make people better at that game, but it didn’t improve their memory overall.
In 2016, the brain game company Lumosity paid a $2 million settlement to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) who filed false advertising charges against them40. The FTC asserted that Lumosity’s claims that playing their games could improve performance on everyday tasks, delay age-related cognitive decline, and reduce the effects of brain injuries like stroke were unfounded. Since the settlement, Lumosity has been forced to alter their claims so that they do not mislead consumers.
The bottom line: Playing brain games makes you better at those particular games, but not any smarter overall.
Why it matters: Before investing time and money into products that claim to improve brain function by playing fun brain training games, it’s important to understand that these effects are often small and improve performance on specific tasks, but don’t generalize.
Myth #10: Different regions of your tongue are specialized for different kinds of tastes.
There are five basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami41. The myth goes that there are different parts of your tongue that are specialized to sense different tastes, so sweet and salty tastes are sensed on the tip of your tongue, while bitter tastes are sensed toward the back. I remember learning this myth for the first time at a girl scout meeting where we tasted different foods by placing them on different parts of our tongue. Since then, I heard it repeated many times in school and even in some of my neuroscience classes as an undergrad. In fact, many textbooks that are still being used today include this false claim. However, the truth is that although some parts of the tongue might be more sensitive to one taste or another, all five basic tastes are sensed across the entire tongue42.
The tongue map myth started with a 1901 paper in which German scientist David Hänig measured how much taste sensitivities changed across the tongue. He noticed that some parts of the tongue were more sensitive to a particular taste than others, and he drew some graphs to show how those sensitivities changed across the tongue. In 1940, another scientist adapted these graphs for a book about the different senses. In his adaptation, he simplified things by showing a single taste that was most sensitive on each part of the tongue rather than the relative sensitivities of each taste. This gave the false impression that each region of the tongue could sense just one taste, and this oversimplified figure has been copied thousands of times into science textbooks to teach the neuroscience of taste.
The bottom line: Sensitivity to each taste varies somewhat across the tongue, but each part of the tongue senses all the basic tastes.
Why it matters: The negative consequences of this myth might not be as harmful as the others, but it’s always worth correcting our understanding of ourselves and our bodies.
Now that you’ve learned the truth behind 10 popular neuromyths, it’s worth asking how so many neuromyths have leaked into popular press and what we can do to prevent them in the future. Preventing the spread of disinformation about the brain starts at all levels. Scientists should be careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify their findings and to always consider alternative explanations and how their work might be misinterpreted. Journalists and science communicators should carefully report the results of scientific studies and not overstate what a given experiment shows. Non-scientists should think critically about what they read, and fact check things they read from unknown sources on social media. And most importantly, now that you know the truth behind the myth, the best thing you can do is to teach it to others who still believe in these popular neuromyths.
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