If you consider yourself a “left-brain” or a “right-brain” person, have experienced a “senior moment,” you may have been influenced by often-repeated myths about the human brain.
Neurological researchers have expanded their understanding of how our brains work, upending some old beliefs. Researchers have uncovered facts that can help everyone understand more about how their brains do – and don’t – work.
Here are seven common myths about brains and the scientific evidence that dispels them:
1. You only use 10 percent of your brain.
Researchers have traced this myth back to 1907, when multiple sources pushed the idea that everyone could improve themselves if they only used their brains. Repeated throughout the past century, the myth became belief. Numerous scientific studies, in part due to the rise of modern brain scans, show that no area of the brain is completely inactive. No researcher has found that missing 90 percent. According to an article in Scientific American, “Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period.”
2. Brain function declines as you age.
It’s not a myth that some cognitive skills slow down as people age, but the good news is that aging also improves your brain function in some ways. There’s a difference in brain function between fluid intelligence, which refers to logical and creative thinking and problem-solving, and crystallized intelligence, which refers to facts and data and skills that can be measured on a standardized test. Older brains sometimes process things more slowly, researchers have found, and many older people experience an occasional moment of memory loss, which impacts crystallized intelligence. But neurologists and other experts have found positive impacts of aging, too. For example, researchers have found that older people have increased problem-solving skills and do things like make better financial choices than younger people. Other studies find that older adults are more likely to focus on positive thoughts than younger people—which can lessen symptoms associated with depressions—have sharper reasoning skills and bigger vocabularies, and are more in control of their emotions.
3. The brains of men and women are innately different.
While there are certainly examples of men and women reacting in different ways to the same information, these differences are not entirely evidences by physical differences in the brain. Research has found that although some physical brain features (such as gray matter and nerve pathways) are found more often in one sex than the other, some are found in both, and most people have a mix of brain features. Researchers in one study found that only about six in every 100 people had features consistently associated with a single sex. The study also found evidence that sex differences in the brain are influenced by your family, your culture, and your life experiences. “When your brain processes the same signals over and over, those networks will get stronger, like working out a muscle,” WebMD notes. “So even if male and female brains start out similar, they may become different over time as boys and girls are treated differently with different expectations.”
4. Everyone is a “right-brain” or a “left-brain” person.
The pop-psychology notion that the human brain is divided into a rational left brain and a creative, intuitive right brain makes for fun self-analysis, and has influenced educators to explore different methods of teaching, such as de-emphasizing memorization for students with “left brains” and trying more creative approaches to teaching those students. However, brain imaging research shows that everyone uses both the left side and the right side of the brain for reading and math. Neuroscience doesn’t indicate that people only use one side of their brain for creative pursuits, either. Decades of research using behavioral and neuro-scientific techniques do reveal fascinating and systematic differences across brain regions.But no one uses just one side, all the time.
5. Computer games keep your brain fit.
Playing brain-enhancing games on the computer and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku puzzles are often touted as the equivalent of physical exercise for your brain. Researchers found that while you might get better at specific games or puzzles with practice, there’s no evidence that you’ll improve your general cognitive skills, such as your memory, attention span, use of language or ability to follow directions. Although it’s healthy to engage in creative thinking to stay sharp and to keep your mind agile, brain-training exercises aren’t likely to help you improve your overall memory or your attention span.
6. Getting hit on the head causes severe amnesia.
You’ve seen this in countless movies, books and even cartoons: Someone gets banged on the head and loses their memory, setting the narrative in motion. In reality, head injuries rarely cause severe amnesia. Concussions are the most common outcome from hurting your head in an accident or from a sports injury. Although a concussion often causes confusion and can impact the ability to remember new information initially for a few days or weeks, it’s not associated with severe amnesia. Amnesia is typically caused by a stroke, a seizure, or brain inflammation, but remains a rare condition.
7. Your brain stops growing after childhood.
Many people think that their brain doesn’t grow. It’s true that most of your brain cells are formed in the womb, but researchers have found that at least one part of your brain continues to grow cells during your entire life: the hippocampus, one part of your brain that is associated with memory, learning and emotions. Even in old age,the brain still produces about 700 new neurons in the hippocampus per day, according to a 2013 study.The fact that your brain can grow new cells offers hope for people with brain disease and injuries — researchers are focusing on ways to use this knowledge to develop new treatments.
Yes, there’s sometimes an element of truth behind brain myths, but many times, they arise from miscommunication and misinterpretation. Try not to get caught up in the pop-psychology hype.
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