The Persistence Of Brain Myths

once-upon-a-time-719174_640In the recent movie blockbuster Limitless, the hero (played by Bradley Cooper), stumbles across a seedy character who introduces him to a super neuro-drug with a dubious provenance called NZT. Never mind that the tiny clear pills resemble flattened bubble bath beads from Victoria’s Secret – these little elixirs supposedly hold the secret to unleashing the human brain’s “limitless” (get it?) potential. Without such psychotropic intervention, claims the dope(amine) pusher, normal humans will be doomed to use only 10% of their total, innate brain potential. Our hero, sucked in by the pitch, takes the pills and cinematic chaos ensues.

While this brand of unsupported urban mythology makes for an intriguing movie premises, it doesn’t hold up well under the scrutiny of real neuroscience. Yet, the premise of this movie is convincing to most watchers because bogus claims like the “10% myth” have been around so long, they’ve actually earned credibility within our popular culture.

So, in the best MythBusters tradition, NeurOptimal® presents: myths about our brains: Why they are nothing more than silly science. Let’s start with:

  1. We only use 10% of our brains. OK, if this were really true, we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything. We can be engaged in a chess match that requires intense concentration, but that does not mean the rest of our brain shuts down. While different parts of your brain may be employed more than others, it’s not as if you are underutilizing any part of your brain. You need your entire noggin just to function, much less walk and chew gum at the same time.
  1. Righties vs. Southpaws. The idea that creativity emerges exclusively from the right brain and logic emanates from the left brain hemisphere is only half right. In truth, both sides of the brain come online for creative tasks just as both sides are engaged in practical problem solving. Here’s a fun test: go to this link and take the simple visual test to determine if you are primarily a “lefty” or a “righty”. Then see if you can reverse your perception by changing the direction of the moving figure.
  1. Magical “neuro-drugs” are the only way to enhance brain function. Chemical cognitive enhancers or nootropics have become all the rage on college campus for their ability to increase stamina and concentration for the typical procrastinating undergraduate. While these drugs can provide an increase in focus, their effects are temporary. The adverse effects of these “brain steroids” are also unknown and potentially dangerous. Future hope for sustainable enhanced cognitive function lies with non-invasive methods, such as cognitive therapy, meditation and, yes, neurofeedback training. (hint, hint).
  1. After 39, it’s all decline. Yes it is annoying to watch a nine year old American pick up Chinese as if s/he were born in Macau while you the adult must resort to an iPhone translation app. Some cognitive abilities (like language) definitely decline with age. But don’t you look back at some of the impulsive decisions of your youth and wince? Everyone does; because with age comes improved self-awareness, emotional intelligence and an ability to more accurately judge character. Stuff that in you skate shoes and smoke it, Whipper-Snapper! (Just kidding; don’t smoke!).
  1. Listening to the music of a genius transforms you into one. The so-called “Mozart Effect”, based on some shoddy 1950s “research”, has convinced a whole generation of parents to practically implant Mozart’s symphonies on their children’s brains from the time they are in the womb. The hope is that their efforts will be rewarded with a Harvard degree. Sorry, but while learning an instrument can help enhance concentration and coordination, you’re not going to transform into Einstein just by listening to the Jupiter Symphony.
  1. Brain lock is a fact of life. This myth emerges from the premise that our brains are like the electrical system of the car after emerging from assembly line: this neuron “switches on the lights”; that neuron plugs into the radio, etc and the twain never shall meet. The truth is that we are only now discovering how pliable our brains are. We aren’t “hard wired” like a machine; our 100 billion neurons can pick up new skills – like learning an instrument or unfamiliar skill. Neurons can also adjust beyond their initial intended use to compensate in the case of a traumatic brain injury, for example.
  1. Pink Floyd killed my brain cells. You probably attended your share of rock concerts in your youth and ingested some intoxicating substances (legal and/or illegal). With the exception of extreme cases of substance abuse, a little rowdy behavior won’t impair you from balancing your check book (wishful thinking does that). Alcohol, for example, doesn’t kill brain cells, but it can damage the brain’s dendrites, or the message-carrying portion of the brain’s neurons. But for hardcore alcoholics, brain function only becomes truly impaired when the body is so damaged it can no longer absorb B vitamins, which are critical to normal brain function.
  1. “I don’t know who I am!” One movie got something right about brain trauma. The indie classic MEMENTO follows a man bent on revenge, but who is hamstrung by a rare form of amnesia that prohibits him from forming new memories. This type is amnesia is real. The kind of amnesia where someone gets hit on the head and doesn’t remember people around them? – not so much. It’s also possible to forget past memories, but biographical information isn’t going to disappear just because someone clonked you on the head.
  1. Men and Women’s brains work “differently”. In a word, um, “no”. No matter what the disposition of our “Y” chromosme, we all have the same bio-matter upstairs. On the other hand, auto manufacturer MINI has discovered through market research that guys prefer to manually shift their transmissions, while girls would rather go shiftless with an automatic. Scientists however, are still baffled by the degree of male memory impairment when it comes to remembering to return the toilet seat to its lowered position.
  1. “I remember it like it was yesterday”. No you don’t. Not unless it actually WAS yesterday. In spite of Salador Dali’s iconic claim, memory is not persistent. It fades over time; even for the most traumatic of memories. Our brains can even embellish our most important memories without us even being aware we are doing it.

So the good news is: your brain is incredibly pliable and durable. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. And while you can’t add brain mass, you can definitely make better use of what you already have. New, exciting methods like neurofeedback offer the potential for enhanced concentration, focus and well-being without the use of drugs. While you might not be able to rule the world like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, making the most of your grey matter is no longer just fodder for science fiction.

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