You use your noggin every day (we hope) but judging by the many myths propagated on the internet, the human brain is a most misunderstood organ, despite its power. For instance, the estimated memory capacity if the human brain is one petabyte – that’s equivalent to every single thing on the worldwide web!
Understanding yours – with its 850,000 kilometres of nerve fibres – will help you to get the most out of your on-board processing power for new success in life, at work and at play.
RSNG uncovered the biggest brain myths in order to help you avoid muddled thinking and realise the potential of your grey matter…
MYTH ONE: ‘You’re Dominantly Right Or Left Brained’ This myth is still circulated by people who should know better – it comes from an outdated idea that people tend to be logical and level-headed (left-brained) or creative and flighty (right-brained).
In the 1960s, it was discovered that certain functions happen exclusively on one side of the brain – emotions seem to be processed on the right hand side of the brain, for instance, which led to the popular myth.
The truth is that both sides of the brain are recruited together, so while the left hand side processes language and speech, the right hand side gives you the emotional intelligence to understand the context of what the other person is saying.
Studies back this up – Jeffry Anderson at the University of Utah scanned 1000 people’s brains but found no evidence that one side of the brain or the other was favoured. And creative thought has been observed lighting up networks throughout the brain.
In reality, none of us are limited to either being Spock or David Bowie – we can blend in a bit of both!
Even opening and closing your fist uses far more than 10% of your brain’s total area
MYTH TWO: ‘You only use 10% Of Your Brain’ This is a myth favoured by the kind of self-help gurus who try to tell you that you’re not fulfilling your full potential, but it’s bunk because brain activity monitoring shows that even opening and closing your fist uses far more than 10% of your brain’s total area.
If the myth was hinting at the total capacity (brain cells) then it’s still wrong, because the brain is actually very energy hungry – just keeping the cells alive consumes 20% of the oxygen we breathe, according to cognitive neuroscientist Sergio Della Sala. This means that any spare capacity (in the form of nerve cells) either degenerates and dies off, or is colonised by other areas.
MYTH THREE: ‘Alcohol Kills Brain Cells’ This myth might seem like common sense the morning after being strongarmed into that last round of tequila shots – your head is pounding, you can’t see straight and looking past a gut-lining brekkie is impossible. But the truth is that drinking alcohol, even to excess, does not kill brain cells.
What it does do is damage the ends of neurons (called dendrites), which makes it difficult for neurons to relay messages to each other. Explains why making toast was such a mission!
Fortunately, this damage does seem to be reversible, but that’s not a valid excuse to hit the bottle, because the rest of your body – including vital organs like your liver – can be permanently damaged by bingeing on booze…
MYTH FOUR: ‘Tidy Desk, Tidy Mind’ Decluttering has almost become a religion in certain regions of Instagram, and common sense would seem to suggest that having a tidy desk would enable you to have a more organised mind.
Joseph Ferrari, psychologist at DePaul University, Chicago did research that found people who live and work in cluttered homes and offices were less likely to be productive, and more likely to be dissatisfied. So far, so expected.
What’s surprising is that taking decluttering too far can actually sabotage our evolutionary advantage, which we gained to deal with the chaotic nature of our world. Sophie Kastner is a neuroscientist at Princetown University who found that our attention systems can become inactive if our surroundings are too organised and spartan.
If you’re the kind of person who is easily distracted, then sure, tidy up a bit. But if you find it easy to focus on tasks, then a bit of chaos could keep you sharp.
MYTH FIVE: ‘Thinking Positive Fires Up Your Brain’ It’s almost accepted as fact that to achieve things in life, you have to think positive, and picture success. What no one adds is that can also set your brain up for failure.
Fantasising about having achieved your goal doesn’t address the steps needed to do it, while simultaneously letting your body off the hook. This is because thinking positive in this way actually lowers your blood pressure, reducing the oxygen that gets to the brain.
Instead of relentlessly thinking positive, also take some time to consider what failure would look like. This will keep your brain firing to find a solution.
MYTH SIX: ‘Your Brain Switches Off When You Are Asleep’ We’re accustomed to the idea of dreaming when we are asleep, but we also picture our brains having some downtime when we drift off.
In fact, as soon as our consciousness switches off, our brains get busy with a host of clean-up activity, filing the day’s experiences as memories and learnings, cleaning out toxins, and managing hormones and dreams.
By monitoring brain waves, scientists have shown that brain activity in REM sleep (when you dream) is very similar to that when you are awake. Your muscles are paralysed – apart from those that allow breathing and eye movement – and without this ‘atonia’ you’d literally rise from your bed and act out your dreams, like some insomniac zombie…
In 2019 electrodes placed on the brain were used to translate brainwaves into words spoken by a computer
MYTH SEVEN: ‘You Can’t Read Someone Else’s Mind’ While we know scientists can observe brain waves, it has been hard to imagine then being able to pick up individual thoughts in our heads – until now.
Mindblowingly, earlier in 2019, electrodes placed on the brain were used to translate brainwaves into words spoken by a computer. Right now these techniques are being developed to help people with ‘locked in syndrome’ communicate, and paralyzed people to walk, but it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see a future where minding reading is used to enable us to type ‘telepathically’, and perhaps in other ways…
WHAT NEXT? Want to boost your brainpower? Then read the RSNG guide to optimising your diet for your brain…
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