If neurons could talk

Ready for a simple test? Take it yourself or give it to teachers of your children. Write T (true) or F (false) against each question.

1 We only use 10 per cent of our brain.
2 When we sleep, the brain shuts down.
3 Brain development has finished by the time children reach secondary school.
4 The brains of boys and girls develop at the same rate.
5 Mental capacity is hereditary and cannot be changed by the environment and or experience.
6 If children do not drink sufficient amount of water (that is, six to eight glasses a day) their brains shrink.
7 Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks.
8 It has been scientifically proven that fatty acid supplements (omega-3 and omega-6) have positive effect on academic achievement.
9 Children must speak their first language well before a second language is learned. If they do not do so neither language is fully acquired.
10 Knowledge acquired in one language in not accessible in other language.
11 There are critical periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned.
12 Girls are better at reading, but boys dominate mathematics and science.
13 People are either ‘right brained’ or ‘left-brained’ and these differences can help explain individual differences amongst learners.
14 Short bouts of exercise can improve integration of function of left and right hemispheres of the brain.
15 Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (visual, auditory, read-write, kinaesthetic).
16 Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school children.
17 Exercises that rehearse coordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skills.
18 Listening to classical music makes you smarter.
19 Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.
20 Children who receive training to boost emotional intelligence, learn more effectively and mature more quickly.
21 We can train our brain with brain gym and brain games.
22 We think most clearly when we are under pressure.
23 Jiggling your head around gets more blood to the brain and that makes you think more clearly.
24 Young children exposed to rich and diverse stimuli (‘enriched environments’) are more receptive to learning.
25 Bigger brains are brighter.
26 Boys have bigger brains than girls.
27 Circadian rhythms (‘body-clock’) shift during adolescence, causing students to be tired during the first lessons of the school day.
28 Multitasking slows down learning.
29 Dyslexia has little to do with intelligence.
30 Regular aerobic exercise can improve mental function.

Add up your score. Statements 1 to 25 are false; 26 to 30 are true. Did the result surprise you? Don’t worry. Studies tell us that even teachers who were interested in the neuroscience of learning have not done any better on similar quizzes on neuromyths.

© 2015 Surendra Verma

Let’s start with 10% of your brain

You have probably heard that we use only 10% of our brains? There is absolutely no scientific evidence, even of moderate quality, to support this absurd claim.

In recent years neuroscientists have scanned the brain with sophisticated big-name machines such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), computerized axial tomography (CAT) and positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and have pinpointed numerous psychological functions to its specific parts. Their scans have not revealed any portions of the brain, which are in a vegetative state. Besides, if 90% of our brains were doing nothing, there would be large areas of dead cells in our brains. No autopsy has ever revealed it to be true.

At any given time, not all neurons, the basic working units of the brain, are active; but no neuroscientist has ever found that 90% of our brain is perpetually on vacation. Even at rest, the brain works at full capacity. Brain scans show that our brains have a ‘default network’, a sophisticated network of brain areas that remains active when we are supposedly doing nothing. Of course, some parts of the brain are more active than others at any given time or during a particular activity.

For our body, the brain is an expensive organ to maintain; it uses too many resources: about 20% of our body’s daily calories intake. Evolution (or if you prefer intelligent design) would not have allowed such a wasteful organ to survive.

Yet, the myth of 10% brain refuses to die.

A survey conducted by Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol reveals that 59% of Chinese teachers agree that we use only 10% of our brains. A study by Sanne Dekker of VU University Amsterdam informs that this figure is 48% and 46% for teachers in the UK and the Netherlands respectively.

Not convinced by these results? Conduct your mini-survey. Ask 10 people in your workplace or anywhere else, and you would be surprised by the high percentage of people who believe in this myth. When someone tells you that we use only 10% of our brains, they are probably using only 10% of their brains.

Where does this myth come from? Some suggest that it came from William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, who in 1907 wrote in an essay, titled ‘Powers of Men’: ‘As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which may they use under appropriate conditions … We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.’ In 1936, in his preface to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best-selling self-help books all time, the famous journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the claim ‘we use only 10% of the brain’ to William James.

The myth has been a boon to self-help gurus. Probably they would have to invent it if it didn’t exist. A whole industry is based on this myth.

To be fair, the myth has an uplifting advantage. ‘The 10 per cent myth has undoubtedly motivated many people to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their lives – hardly a bad thing,’ observes Barry L. Beyerstein, an American psychologist. ‘The comfort, encouragement and hope that it has engendered help to explain its longevity.’ There is another reason for its persistence: blockbuster movies like Lucy, released in 2014, are helping to perpetuate it.

Found the lost 90% of your brain? You can now use 100% of it to focus on the task ahead.

© Surendra Verma 2015