Myths About Your Brain

Apr 04, 2012

The brain is the defining biological characteristic of the human race. This intricate network of neurons, impulses and chemicals is responsible for effortlessly regulating our basic motor functions, intricate survival mechanisms, and terrible decision making. But, there are plenty of brain myths you’ve probably heard over and over in the media, through grade school education, and from know-it-all pals. Factor in the brain’s never-ending, scientist-baffling complexity and it’s no surprise you’re confused about what’s true. These seven legends are not.

MYTH #1: You use only 10 percent of your brain
You actually do use your entire brain, though you don’t use it all at the same time. This myth is popular in part because “psychics” love to use it as “proof” for their B.S. “powers”; in other words, they claim they’re using part of that extra 90 percent to see the future or ghosts or whatever. And the myth probably got started because in the 19th century it was claimed that humans typically develop only 10 percent of their mental capacity (another disputable stat). Plus, the brain burns a lot of calories, so why would we have evolved to carry around a mostly useless energy-draining organ around in our heads?

Myth #2: Alcohol kills brain cells
Alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells. But, here’s why you think it does: Too much booze can result in a Vitamin B deficiency, which affects your body’s ability to absorb the brain-powering nutrient, thiamine. A lack of thiamine causes temporary damage to dendrites, the message-relaying neurons that brain cells need to function properly. This reaction accounts for slurred speech, stumbling, and ill-advised public urination. No damage is actually incurred by the brain cells themselves, and the dendrites eventually recover. So, while you might be dumber for the night, you’ll be fine in 24 hours.

MYTH #3: Your brain keeps working after you get decapitated
Back when the guillotine was all the rage, execution witnesses claimed that severed heads exhibited signs of life such as blinking, looking around, and even speaking. But modern docs attribute the reactions to the reflexive twitching of muscles rather than to any sort of deliberate, conscious action. Once the head is cut off from its oxygen supplier, the heart, the brain goes into a coma and begins to die. Consciousness — the relationship between the mind and the world around it — is basically lost immediately.

MYTH #4: Your brain deals with information from your five senses
It actually perceives and processes information from a lot more than just five. Senses are like colors: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are primary, but different combinations of them create secondary senses. For example, the sense of pain — called nociception — can combine touch and taste, or touch and smell. Proprioception, which is the sense of how your body is positioned in space, relies on sight and touch. Other senses monitor or regulate balance, body temperature, acceleration, and the passage of time.

MYTH #5: Your brain is all grey
Unless you’re into cannibalism or experimental surgery, the real brains you’ve seen were likely in jars of formaldehyde — a preservative chemical that turns them grey. But, a fresh brain’s color scheme is pretty much the same as the Atlanta Falcons: grey, white, red, and black. Grey matter is, in fact, mostly grey. But it also consists of white matter in the form of connective nerve fibers. The black part, called substantia nigra (“black substance”), is a melanin-rich part of the basal ganglia at the base of the brain. And the red? That’s blood.

MYTH #6: Classical music makes you smarter
Parents hoping to engineer Nobel Prize-winning babies by blaring sonatas instead of hip hop probably do so thanks to several early 90s studies in which scientists concluded that listening to classical music increases intelligence. But years later, after plenty of media exposure, the study’s lead scientist said that the notion of classical music making a person smarter has no basis in truth. Technically it is just a temporary boost in spatial problem solving.

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