BY: KHADIJA KHAN
The brain is an incredible organ responsible for controlling our central nervous system, keeping us walking, talking, breathing and thinking. It’s also extraordinarily complex and mysterious. While researchers are still uncovering the secrets of how the brain works, they have discovered plenty of information about what goes on in your head.
Unfortunately, there are still many brain myths out there.
Myth 1: You only use 10 per cent of your brain.
You’ve probably heard this bit of information several times, but constant repetition doesn’t make it any more accurate. People generally tend to imply that the mind is capable of much greater things such as dramatically increased intelligence, psychic abilities or even telekinesis. The assumption is, if we can do these things using only 10 per cent of our brain, imagine what we can accomplish using the remaining 90 per cent.
Reality check: Research has suggested that we actually use all areas of our brains to perform some type of function. If that myth were true, brain damage would be far less likely because we would only have to worry about that tiny 10 per cent being injured. The fact is that any type of damage to the brain can have profound consequences to both cognition and functioning. Let’s put it this way: the brain represents three per cent of the body’s weight and uses 20 per cent of the body’s energy.
Myth 2: Brain damage is permanent.
Yes, the brain is fragile and can be damaged by things such as injury, stroke or disease. This damage can range from mild disruptions in cognitive abilities to complete impairment. Brain damage can be devastating, but is it always permanent?
Reality check: Although we often tend to think of brain injuries as long-lasting, a person’s ability to recover from such damage depends upon the severity and the location of the injury. It’s important to remember that the human brain has an impressive amount of plasticity. Even after more serious brain injury, such as stroke, research indicates that—especially with the help of therapy—the brain may be capable of developing new connections, able to “reroute” function through healthy areas.
Myth 3: Humans have the biggest brains.
The human brain is quite large in proportion to body size, but another common misconception is that humans have the largest brains of any organism. How big is the human brain? How does it compare to other species?
Reality check: The average adult brain weighs about three pounds and measures about 15 centimetres in length. The largest animal brain belongs to that of a sperm whale, weighing in at a whopping 18 pounds. Another large-brained animal is the elephant, with an average brain size of around 11 pounds.
Myth 4: We are born with a fixed number of brain cells.
The notion that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have and once they die, those cells are gone forever and we never form new ones is part of that so-called traditional wisdom.
Reality check: Researchers have found that the human adult brain does indeed form new cells throughout life, even during old age. The process of forming new brain cells is known as neurogenesis and researchers have found that it happens in at least one important region of the brain called the hippocampus.
Myth 5: Drinking alcohol kills brain cells.
Partially related to the myth that we never grow new neurons is the idea that drinking alcohol can lead to cell death in the brain. Drink too much or too often, some people might warn, and you’ll lose precious brain cells that you can never get back. We’ve already learned that adults do indeed get new brain cells throughout life, but could drinking alcohol really kill brain cells?
Reality check: While excessive or chronic alcohol abuse can certainly have dire health consequences, experts do not believe that drinking causes neurons to die. In fact, scientific medical research has actually demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory than is abstaining from alcohol. Moderate drinking doesn’t kill brain cells but helps the brain function better into old age.
Myth 6: There are 100 billion neurons in the brain.
You’ve probably flipped through a psychology or neuroscience textbook and seen this often-repeated figure.
Reality check: Based on research, it appears the human brain actually contains closer to 85 billion neurons. So it may not be the 100 billion neurons you’re used to seeing, but 85 billion is still better than the seven billion in the brain of a gorilla.
Myth 7: You’re either “left-brained” or “right-brained.”
I’m sure you’ve heard this before and even completed a quiz online to see what you are. This stems from the popular notion that people are either dominated by their right or left brain hemispheres. According to this idea, people who are “right-brained” tend to be more creative and expressive, while those who are “left-brained” tend to be more analytical and logical.
Reality check: While it is recognized that there is lateralization of brain function, no one is fully left-brained or right-brained. In fact, we tend to do better at tasks when the entire brain is utilized, even for things that are typically associated with a certain area of the brain. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the words, as an example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is actually more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.