10 Misconceptions of the human brain

The Bob Pritchard Column 

The human brain is notoriously complicated, and much of the organ remains a mystery.  Here are 10 of the biggest and most widely believed misconceptions about the human brain, and why they’re wrong.

1. There are ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ people

According to popular culture, logical, analytical people have a “left brain” while creative and artistic types think with their “right brain.”  But this isn’t true. An extensive study by the University of Utah examined the brains of more than 1,000 people and found by looking at MRI scans of brain activity, both sides of the brain were more or less equal in their neural networks and connectivity.


2. We only use 10% of our brain

In reality, the idea we only use 10% of our brains is totally untrue. In fact, we use pretty much all of it – studies have shown how our brains are engaged in even the smallest cursory tasks.  There is evidence we do have brain reserves, though. For example, people can lose significant portions of their brains and still function relatively normally.


3. We all have a ‘learning style’

Many people were taught they had a “learning style” at school, the idea that some people are better at retaining information orally, visually, or by listening.   There is no scientific evidence that learning styles exist.


4. It’s all downhill when you turn 40

Some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. For example, young children are the best at learning new languages because their brains are still developing  and they are essentially built to absorb information.  Research shows that older people experience more “tip of the tongue” moments too, which is where you know the word you want, but your brain can’t quite get to it.  But older people tend to have a better vocabulary and are better at differentiating between the nuances of language. Also, they are better judges of character, know how to deal with conflict better, and can more easily keep their emotions in check – all of which result in “wisdom.”


5. Men and women learn differently 

Science journalist Angela Saini says that many assumptions made about how men and women learn are based on lazy observation. Men do tend to have bigger brains, for example, but this is purely because of relative body size not an evolutionary advantage. No research has ever found any significant gender-specific differences in how our neurons connect to each other, or in how male and female brains function.


6. There are only 5 senses

We are taught about the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. But neuroscientists list up to 21 ways of sensing things.  For example, touch is actually an amalgamation of a few different senses. We have the perception of pressure, heat, and pain – called nociception.  Proprioception is a sense of where our bodies are and the position we are in – like when we walk along a line touching our nose as a test for sobriety. There are also some interoceptive senses which are balance, hunger and thirst.


7. Drinking alcohol kills your brain cells

Too much alcohol can make us slur and fall around, so it’s not an uncommon assumption that it hurts our brain cells.  However, the amount of alcohol required to kill brain cells would actually poison the person drinking it.  Too much alcohol may cause brain damage though, but that’s because it can damage the ends of neurons, called dendrites, which makes it harder for them to send messages between one another.


8. Brain damage is permanent

The brain controls everything in your body, and it’s where your consciousness lives, so damaging it is a big deal. But if you get a brain injury, it’s remarkably good at compensating for any losses.  We now know the brain is relatively “plastic,” and can generate new cells. It can also repair itself or recruit other parts of the brain to help out with different functions if damage is irreparable.


9. We know what will make us happy or sad

We actually have no control over what scenarios and experiences make us happy or sad in the moment.  Research shows we overestimate how happy social and leisure activities will make us. We also overestimate how miserable things will make us. Our brains are more resilient than we think.


10. Listening to Mozart makes you smart

Research in the 1950s found that if students at the University of California at Irvine listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata before taking an IQ test, they improved their scores by 8 points. Despite extensive efforts no other scientists have ever been able to replicate the results.


I don't know why my brain has kept all the words to Cher’s Believe song and has deleted everything about history?