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Top 10 Myths About The Brain

Updated on June 4, 2013

What we Know and What we Don't

Our brain is the most remarkable organ in the human body. It is vastly complex, and there is still so much we don't know about exactly how it functions.

But that hasn't stopped a number of false beliefs slowly integrating themselves into popular opinion. This page is here to set the record straight, to seperate the fact from fiction. So read on, and you just might be surpised when you discover the truth about what you thought you knew!

Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page, I'd love to hear what you think!


Myth 1 - We use only 10 percent of our brains.

This ‘fact has been circulating in popular culture for more than a hundred years, and appears in countless self help and personal development books. Implying that we have huge reserves of untapped mental powers, it is certainly an idea we find appealing.

But unfortunately it just isn’t true. It takes a lot of energy for our body both, to build our brain during childhood, and then maintain it as an adult. Evolutionarily, it just would not make sense to carry around surplus brain tissue. Experiments using MRI scans show that so much of the brain is being sued even during simple tasks, and injury to even a small bit of brain can have profound consequences for language, sensory perception, movement or emotion.

It is true, we have some brain reserves, and our brains have huge degree of plasticity meaning we can always adapt to learn new skills and information, but as for 90% of our brain just sitting up there doing nothing, that’s nonsense!


Myth 2 - "Flashbulb memories" are precise, detailed and persistent.

We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking or dramatic event; perhaps a painful or traumatic childhood memory, or a major world event such as the 9/11 attacks. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard.

People tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. In recent years several experiments have tested people's memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. Whilst the memories may be vivid, the memories also decay over time just as all other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they're recreating a muddled scene in their minds rather than recalling a picture perfect reproduction.


Myth 3 - We only have 5 senses

Sure, sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch are the big ones. But we have so many more ways to sense the world around us. There are at last count, depending on which definition of sense you are inclined to agree with between 10 and 17 recognised human senses. Here are just a few of them:

Proprioception is a sense of how our bodies are positioned.

Nociception is a sense of pain.

Thermoception is the sense of heat and the absence of heat (cold)

Equilibrioception, or the vestibular sense is the sense that allows us to sense our bodies; movement, direction, and acceleration.


Myth 4 - A bump on the head can cause Amnesia

This belief, now surprisingly common, has come straight from the world of the Soap Opera, where it can be a useful plot tool. In the real world, there are two main forms of amnesia: anterograde (the inability to form new memories) and retrograde (the inability to recall past events), neither of which can be caused by a bump to the head.

Retrograde amnesia can be caused by Alzheimer's disease, a genuinely traumatic brain injury, or thiamine deficiency. But a brain injury doesn't selectively impair autobiographical memory, and much less bring it back.


Myth 5 - It's all downhill at 40 (or 50, 60, 70)

It is true that some cognitive skills decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults, young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster to count backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills actually improve with age. Older people almost always have superior vocabularies, and they don't just know more words butunderstand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they're better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.


Myth 6 - Brains are like computers

We speak of the brain's processing speed, its storage capacity, its circuits, of inputs and outputs. But this metaphor in inaccurate and misleading at pretty much every level: the brain doesn't have a set memory capacity that is waiting to be filled up; it doesn't perform computations in the way a computer does; and even basic visual perception isn't a passive receiving of inputs because we actively interpret, anticipate and pay attention to different elements of the visual world.

There's a long history of likening the brain to whatever technology is the most advanced, impressive and vaguely mysterious. Descartes compared the brain to a hydraulic machine. Freud likened emotions to pressure building up in a steam engine. The brain later resembled a telephone switchboard and then an electrical circuit before evolving into a computer; lately it's turning into a Web browser or the Internet. These metaphors and idea integrate themselves into our language and linger as clichés: emotions put the brain "under pressure" and some behaviours are thought to be "hard-wired."

Myth 7 - Your Brain is 'Hard Wired'

As with a few of these myths there is an element of truth behind it: the brain is organized in a standard way, with certain areas specialized to take on certain tasks.

But one of the biggest recent discoveries of neuroscience is that the brain is remarkably plastic. In blind people, parts of the brain that normally process sight are instead devoted to hearing. Someone practicing a new skill, like learning to play the violin, "rewires" parts of the brain that are responsible for fine motor control. And people with suffer brain injuries can reassign entire other regions of the brain to compensate for the lost tissue.


Myth 8 - We know what will make us happy

We routinely overestimate how happy something will make us, whether it's a birthday, free pizza, a new car, a victory for our favourite sports team, even winning the lottery. We think these things will make us a lot happier than they actually seem to.

Money for example, does make people happier, but only to a point, poor people are less happy than the middle class, but the middle class are just as happy as the rich. A recent study in the UK found £19,000 per year, to be the peak earnings for happiness. We also overestimate the pleasures of solitude and leisure and underestimate how much happiness we get from social relationships.

In case this is all getting a bit depressing, there's always the other side of the coin; the things we worry about happening, don't make us nearly as unhappy as expected. Monday mornings aren't as unpleasant as people predict. Seemingly unendurable tragedies; paralysis, or the death of a loved one, cause grief and despair, but the unhappiness doesn't last as long as people think it will. Both as a species and as individuals, we are remarkably resilient.

Myth 9 - We see the world as it is

We are not merely passive recipients of external information that enters our brain through our sensory organs. Instead, we actively search for patterns, turn ambiguous scenes into ones that fit our expectations (see the ‘it's a vase; it's a face’ image above) and completely miss details we aren't expecting.

We have a limited ability to pay attention and plenty of biases about what we expect or want to see. Our perception of the world isn't just "bottom-up" (built of objective observations layered together in a logical way), It's also "top-down," (driven by expectations and interpretations).

Do you want to prove to yourself this is true, just watch the video below!

Can You Pass This Test?


Myth 10 - Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Though there are some differences between male and female brains, there are virtually no statistically significant correlations between behaviour and gender. Following on from #9 on the list, it might not surprise you to know it isn't whether you are a man or a woman that impacts your mental abilities, but rather what your expectations are.

Women are thought to outperform men on tests of empathy. And they do, unless test subjects are told that men are particularly good at the test, in which case men perform as well as or better than women. The same pattern holds in reverse for tests of spatial reasoning. Whenever stereotypes are brought to mind, even by something as simple as asking test subjects to check a box next to their gender, sex differences are exaggerated. Women college students told that a test is something women usually do poorly on, do poorly. Women college students told that a test is something college students usually do well on, do well. Across many countries, the more prevalent the belief is that men are better than women in math, the greater the difference in girls' and boys' math scores. And that's not because girls in Iceland have more specialized brain hemispheres than do girls in Italy.

When it comes to most of what our brains do most of the time; perceive the world, direct attention, learn new skills, encode memories, communicate, and judge other people's emotions, men and women have almost entirely overlapping and fully Earth-bound abilities.

Want to Improve Your Brain?

Here's some sites with infromation adn resources on how to improve the power of your mind.

More Brain Myths!

These didn't quite make the top ten, but still are worht knowing so you don't get caught out!

1.) People are 'Right Brained' or 'Left Brained'. This has been a favourite of office training days and the online quiz for years, the theory goes that if you are Right Brained you are analytical and good at problem solving while the left brainers are the creative types. But it just isn't true, both analytical and creative processes use both sides of the brain, and we can all do both. What determines how good we are at problem solving or a creative art is a combiantion of what we think about or our own ability in that area and how much practice we get at it!

2.) A bigger brain makes you smarter. At the level of different species this is true, a person is definitely smarter than a hedgehog, and this is in a large part down to the different sizes of brain. But from person to person, genetics, nutrition and environmental factors are far more important. For example Einsteins brain is actually slightly smaller than average but you certainly couldn't accuse him of being a bit slow!

Do You Know Some More Brain Myths? - Or just let me know what you think of these, i'd love to hear from you!

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      7 years ago

      this is a very interesting lens, through the years and more studies, we learn more and more information on how our brains work

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Lots of useful information, well researched and explained!


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