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Debunking Myths About the Brain

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

We have often been told that we only use about 10 percent of our brains. Famous people such as Albert Einstein and Margaret Mead have been quoted as stating a variation of this theory. This myth is probably one of the most well-known myths about the brain, in part because it has been publicized in the media for what seems like forever. The origin of this theory dates back to an American psychologist of the early 1900s named William James, who said that "the average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential". Somehow, that statement was converted into the myth we know today.


According to a survey from 2013, around 65 percent of Americans believe that we only use 10 percent of our brains. But this is just a myth, according to neurologist Barry Gordon. He explained that the majority of the brain is almost always active. In addition to the 100 billion neurons, the brain is also full of other types of cells that are continually in use. We can become disabled from damage to just small areas of the brain depending on where it is located, so there is no way that we could function with only 10 percent of our brain in use.


Brain scans have shown that no matter what we are 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 part of the brain that is not functioning. Here is an example. If you are sitting at a table and eating a sandwich, you are not actively using your feet. You are concentrating on bringing the sandwich to your mouth, chewing, and swallowing it. But that does not mean that your feet are not working -- there's still activity in them, such as blood flow, even when you're not moving them.


Subsequently, there are several other popular myths about the brain that we will discuss next. Many believe that a person is either left-brained or right-brained, with right-brained people being more creative and left-brained people being more logical. However, research suggests that this is a myth — people are not dominated by one brain hemisphere or the other. A healthy person is constantly using both hemispheres. The hemispheres indeed have different tasks, but people use both hemispheres of the brain frequently.


Long-term alcoholism can lead to several health problems, including brain damage. It is not, however, as simple as saying that drinking alcohol kills brain cells — this is a myth. The reasons for this are complicated. If a woman drinks too much alcohol while pregnant, it can affect the brain development of the fetus, and even cause fetal alcohol syndrome. The brains of babies with this condition may be smaller and often contain fewer brain cells. This may lead to difficulties with learning and behavior.


Recently, research suggests that subliminal messages can provoke an emotional response in people unaware that they had received emotional stimulus. But can subliminal messages help a person to learn new things? A study found that hearing recordings of vocabulary when sleeping could improve a person’s ability to remember the words. This was only the case in people who had already studied the vocabulary. Researchers noted that hearing information while asleep cannot help a person to learn new things. It may only improve recall of information learned earlier, while awake.


Lastly, the human brain is covered in folds, commonly known as wrinkles. The dip in each fold is called the sulcus and the raised part is called the gyrus. Some people believe that a new wrinkle is formed every time a person learns something. This is not the case. The brain starts to develop wrinkles before a person is born and this process continues throughout childhood. The brain is constantly making new connections and breaking old ones, even in adulthood.


Like any other organ, the brain is affected by a person’s lifestyle, diet, and the amount that they exercise. To improve the health and function of the brain, a person can do the following things.


Eating well improves overall health and well-being. It also reduces the risk of developing health issues that may lead to dementia, including cardiovascular disease, midlife obesity, and type 2 diabetes. The following foods promote brain health:

  • Fruits and vegetables with dark skins. Some are rich in vitamin E, such as spinach, broccoli, and blueberries. Others are rich in beta carotene, including red peppers and sweet potatoes. Vitamin E and beta carotene promote brain health.

  • Oily fish. These types of fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may support cognitive function.

  • Walnuts and pecans. They are rich in antioxidants, which promote brain health.

Regular exercise also reduces the risk of health problems that may lead to dementia. Cardiovascular activities, such as walking briskly for 30 minutes a day, can be enough to reduce the risk of brain function decline. Other accessible and inexpensive options include bike riding, jogging, and swimming.


The more a person uses their brain, the better their mental functions become. For this reason, brain training exercises are a good way to maintain overall brain health. A recent study conducted over 10 years found that people who used brain training exercises reduced the risk of acquiring dementia by 29 percent. The most effective training focused on increasing the brain’s speed and ability to process complex information quickly.

There are many things that we do not know about the brain. As the years go by, researchers continue to develop new techniques in order to better observe the brain. With the help of fMRI scans, researchers are starting to develop new theories about the true capabilities of our brains. So, there is no hidden, extra potential you can tap into, in terms of actual brain space. But there is still so much to learn about the brain.

References:

1. Michael C. Corballis. Left Brain, Right Brain: Facts, and Fantasies. PLOS Biology. 2014.

2. Suzana Herculano-Houzel. The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2009.

3. Thomas Schreiner, Mick Lehmann, Björn Rasch. Auditory feedback blocks memory benefits of cueing during sleep. Nature Communications. 2015.

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