Use your brain

A while ago I was listening to the Today programme, as we’re all obliged to do. A neuroscientist was on it talking about how to use the findings of neuroscience to improve teaching in schools. And John Humphrys, in that aggressive-pub-drunk way he has, barked something to the effect that ‘We know how neuroscience works! You only use 10 per cent of our brains! Right-brained people are creative! Left-brained people are methodical!’

There was a marvellous, almost imperceptible pause as the neuroscientist assimilated this information before she said: ‘Yes, those are some of the famous myths about neuroscience.’

The brain has a hard time when it comes to magical thinking and myths. I think it’s because the fact that we are our brains makes them sexier: it’d be hard to get excited at the idea that we only used 10 per cent of our kidneys, say.

They’re pervasive myths, though, as Humphrys — an educated and presumably not stupid man — demonstrates. In the case of the ‘We only use 10 per cent of our brains’ one, the appeal is presumably that we might ‘unlock’ the other 90 per cent, and become in some way superhuman. Uri Geller makes this claim in one of his bend-spoons-and-read-minds books: ‘Most of us only use about 10 per cent of our brains… The other 90 per cent is full of untapped potential and undiscovered abilities.’

The trouble is, it’s not only a myth, it’s a stupid one. Brain imaging has repeatedly shown that we use our entire brain, if not always at the same time; and if 90 per cent of our brain was useless, then, presumably, most brain injuries would do us no harm. In fact, there is pretty much no part of the brain you can damage or remove without affecting cognitive abilities.

When you think about it, it would be ridiculous if it were otherwise. The brain is, pound for pound, by far the most energy-demanding organ in our bodies — it can require as much as 20 per cent of the total energy intake, despite making up just 2 per cent of our weight. Imagine two creatures: one of which dedicates hundreds of calories a day to running an entirely unused 90 per cent of its brain; and another, which makes do with the 10 per cent it uses and dedicates the spare calories to growing muscle tissue, or searching for food — or simply spends less time gathering calories, and more time seeking a mate. Which is likely to leave more offspring? If our brains weren’t being used, they’d waste away.

The idea that we’re ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ is, on the face of it, less idiotic. We know that the two halves of our brain can act independently — people with their corpus callosum (the great nerve-bridge between the two hemispheres) severed can lead relatively normal lives. And we know that the two halves are different; the left hemisphere seems to have more to do with language processing, for instance, and attention happens mainly on the right. From that beginning, a complex mythology has built up. Questionnaires abound online, determining — by such things as which leg you cross over the other one, or which way you see an ambiguous 3D image — whether you are left- or right-brained.

But the idea that artistic, creative people use their right hemispheres more than their left ones, and scientifically or mathematically minded people the other way around, is false. Last year a two-year study by neuroscientists at the University of Utah was published in the journal PLOS One. The authors scanned the brains of 1,011 people, and found no evidence that one side was dominant in any of them. Local networks could be more active on one side or the other, but in general the two hemispheres shared the load equally. There has never been any serious indication, in any previous study, that left hemispheres equal nerdy engineers and right hemispheres equal blouse-wearing beat poets in east London warehouse conversions.

We love simple explanations for complex phenomena. The idea that left-brained people are methodical and right-brained people are creative is intuitive, far more so than ‘an impossibly complicated combination of genetics and upbringing creates the even more complicated thicket of connections in our brains that make us who we are’. It’s all nonsense, though: comforting, appealing, easy to believe nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless, and nonsense that could be pernicious if anyone takes it seriously, and assigns ‘left-brained’ schoolchildren to maths class and ‘right-brained’ ones to arts. Hopefully, next time a neuroscientist appears on Today, John Humphrys will have learnt his lesson.


  • Stephen Gambone

    Greetings to the British science and technology Dude from the old Yankee side of the pond.

    Unfortunately, that study you cited has quite a few left-brainy flaws in it.

    I’m from the Math team side of things and we’re more middle-brainers than left-brainers. We often get lumped in with the left-brainers on the science team. So it’s no big surprise you made that error.

    As you must know, mathematics has a higher standard for proof than the scientific standard. Members of the Science team messed up big time in this left-brain/right-brain thing. It isn’t a myth as so many have reported.

    Left-brain bias managed to sneak its way into the brain science in a way that pre-determines the outcomes of experiments.

    The Math team has to straighten out this scientific brain mess.

    Find yourself a mathematician,preferably female, to check into things; a Game Theory fan might do.

    Tell her to consider what might be at work when left-brain dominated scientists use left-brain dominated methodology to “demonstrate” that there’s no such thing as being left-brain dominated. And that language is often dominated by the left brain hemisphere.

    Inform her that left-brainers use the word “brain” as a noun; right-brainers use the word “brain” as a verb, often substituting it for the word “brainer”.

    Also give her the hint that there might be two homologues of the Left-brain vs. Right-brain hypothesis.

    That should give her what she needs.

    By the way, science loves to search for simple explanations
    for complex phenomena. Isaac Newton did it with gravity.

    It’s what scientists are supposed to do.

    Cheerio,

    Stephen Gambone

  • Stephen Gambone

    Hi,

    It’s the crazy Yankee math dude again.

    The Humphrys guy and Uri Geller got it right; you and the neuroscientist got it wrong on the “we only use 10 percent of our brains” thing.

    No! This doesn’t mean I’m into spoon bending.

    You’re assuming the “unused” part of the brain is sitting there in the brain like a big untouched scone just waiting to be discovered by neuroscientists.

    There’s another possibility.

    If the “used” and “unused” parts of the brain were evenly distributed and sufficiently small in size then the “used” parts could hide the“unused” parts.

    It’s like looking at a house with 10 windows at night. If one window has a light that is too bright you won’t be able to see anything but the lit window.

    Scientists ran into this problem before when the studied the universe. They assumed the lit up stuff was what most of the universe was made
    of. Calculations proved otherwise. Lots of dark matter in the universe.

    The machines being used are blinded by the light of the active neurons and that can hide the inactive neurons.

    Humphrys should have asked the scientist, “How many inactive neurons can be hidden by an active neuron?”

    Your Darwinian approach was too limited. Extend your line of reasoning.

    If the brain is in total use how do we add new knowledge?

    Since it is known that we can learn new things that implies “unused”
    brain areas exist where the new info gets stored. If a creature had no
    additional storage capacity then it could not learn or adapt to a new
    situation. Therefore the brain cannot be in total use. The “untapped” potential
    must be sufficiently large enough to last a lifetime of learning.

    You’re limited approach predicts that a normal adult and an Alzheimer patient have equal chances of survival in the wild.

    You and the Neuroscience team are correct in the idea that “used”
    parts of the brain are widely distributed. So you aren’t totally wrong.

    Here’s my suggestion.

    You, Humphrys and Uri Geller should all go to a pub and find the keg of ale with the greatest untapped potential. Then you should all get your brains totally lit.

    Bring some bent silverware and see if Uri can straighten it with his lit mind or his hands.

    The real superhuman power is in trying to return a bent spoon to its original state.

    Tallyho

    gotta go,

    Stephen Gambone

  • Stephen Gambone

    Hi,

    It’s the crazy Yankee math dude again.

    The Humphrys guy and Uri Geller got it right;
    you and the neuroscientist got it wrong on the “we only use 10 percent of our brains” thing.

    No! This doesn’t mean I’m into spoon bending.

    You’re assuming the “unused” part of the brain is sitting there in the brain like a big untouched scone just waiting to be discovered by neuroscientists.

    There’s another possibility.

    If the “used” and “unused” parts of the brain were evenly distributed and sufficiently small in size then the “used” parts could hide the “unused” parts.

    It’s like looking at a house with 10 windows at night. If one window has a light that is too bright you won’t be able to see anything but the lit window.

    Scientists ran into this problem before when the studied the universe. They assumed the lit up stuff was what most of the universe was made of. Calculations proved otherwise. Lots of dark matter in the universe.

    The machines being used are blinded by the light of the active neurons and that can hide the inactive neurons.

    Humphrys should have asked the scientist, “How many inactive neurons can be hidden by an active neuron?”

    Your Darwinian approach was too limited. Extend your line of reasoning.

    If the brain is in total use how do we add new knowledge?

    Since it is known that we can learn new things that implies “unused”
    brain areas exist where the new info gets stored. If a creature had no
    additional storage capacity then it could not learn or adapt to a new
    situation. Therefore the brain cannot be in total use. The “untapped” potential
    must be sufficiently large enough to last a lifetime of learning.

    You’re limited approach predicts that a normal adult and an
    Alzheimer patient have equal chances of survival in the wild.

    You and the Neuroscience team are correct in the idea that “used”
    parts of the brain are widely distributed. So you aren’t totally wrong.

    Here’s my suggestion.

    You, Humphrys and Uri Geller should all go to a pub and find the keg of ale with the greatest untapped potential. Then you should all get your brains totally lit.

    Bring some bent silverware and see if Uri can straighten it with his lit mind or his hands.

    The real superhuman power is in trying to return a bent spoon to its original state.

    Tallyho

    gotta go,

    Stephen Gambone

  • Stephen Gambone

    A definition for “left brain” you’ll find more acceptable is
    in “Raising a Left Brain Child…” by Katherine Beals. The definition she uses
    isn’t new; it’s been around for decades. There is left brain bias within her reasoning;
    some of the logic is flawed but she highlights some serious problems in
    American science and math education.

    On this side of the pond left brain bias has corrupted neuroscience’s
    application to education. And with a bunch of well-intentioned knuckleheads wasting
    math class time on “feel good” silliness you people need to protect yourselves.

    You Brits should consider an import ban or blockade on American
    Education ideas.

  • Stephen Gambone

    More info to give to your mathematician.

    Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG) and Left Brain Bias

    “In a series of experiments at University College London, [cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot and others have] gone some way to explaining how this preference for good news arises in the brain. Through disrupting the function of a small brain region [Inferior Frontal Gyrus], they neutralised the bias and left people as open to bad news as they were to good.”

    “The left IFG was tracking information that was better than expected, and
    the right IFG was tracking information that was worse than expected,” she said,
    “and [the right IFG] wasn’t doing as efficient a job.”

    “Based on her earlier work, Sharot thought that disrupting the left IFG
    would reduce the optimism bias by reducing our ability to learn from good news,
    while disrupting the right IFG would boost a person’s inclination towards good
    news. Her results showed otherwise.”

    Here are the starting assumptions of the experiment:

    Left IFG = optimist bias

    Right IFG = pessimist bias

    Neutral region = unbiased/ no change predicted when switched off.

    Here are the results of the experiment:

    Right IFG switched off = optimistic bias unchanged.

    Neutral region switched off = optimistic bias unchanged.

    Left IFG switched off = a change to unbiased, i.e. realist.

    The results are quite clear. Switching off the left IFG turned the participants into realists. When the right IFG or the neutral area got switched off the optimistic bias remained unchanged.

    However, the scientists did not have THEIR IFG switched off
    so they discounted the negative news of this experiment.

    It’s bad news for left-brainers if the right-brain is the realist and the left-brain is an unrealistic, biased optimist. That would lower the status of the left-brain and raise the status of the right-brain.

    The experiment and the reaction of the left-brainy scientists to it demonstrate a left brain bias to bad news that involves the status of the left-brain.

    If the news is bad the left brain bias of the scientists will dismiss it.

  • Stephen Gambone

    Before you criticize Left-brain Right-brain Theory again you
    should learn just how useful it is.

    These books helped millions of people. All three are based
    on neuroscience research. They are classics in Left-brain Right-brain Theory.

    “How to Learn Anything Quickly” by Ricki Linksman 1996.

    “Unicorns are Real: A Right-Brained Approach to Learning” by
    Barbara Meister Vitale 1982.

    “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards
    1979.

    • They might be helpful; it doesn’t mean they’re factually accurate or scientifically true. The Bible helps a lot of people: say no more.

      • Stephen Gambone

        Here are the facts:

        In 1968 Betty Edwards first learned of Roger W. Sperry’s split brain research. She realized the research held the answers to problems she had been working on for years.

        In 1978 Roger W. Sperry began to advise Edwards on the brain
        science stuff she included in the manuscript for her book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Dr. J. William Berquist was also an Edwards advisor.

        When the book was published in 1979 the book had a Sperry recommendation on the back cover.

        Critics of Left Brain Right Brain Theory always get the historical facts wrong. They complain that no one using the theory has based their methods on Sperry’s work in a way that Sperry approved of. The critics only trace the history back to 1973 and they claim that’s when all the Left Brain Right Brain Theory started.

        The historical record proves the neuroscientists and other critics are wrong.

        I come at the problem from a mathematical perspective and have seen so many bogus debunkings of Left Brain Right Brain Theory that I can spot the flaws in the arguments in seconds.

        Mathematics and Game Theory predict that the neuroscientists
        and their supporters have already lost in this debate… and the real debate hasn’t even started yet.

        Since it is a mathematical certainty that the neuroscience team will lose the question that remains is, “How much damage to the reputation of neuroscience and science itself will occur given all the bogus debunkings?”

        Tom Chivers posted articles on Grammar Nazis (aka left-brain
        language dictators), the Illusion of Color and how sociopaths can read the minds of their victims… all prior to his posting of this article. Here he mocked mind reading abilities; he relied on neuroscientists readings of colorized brain scans and he knows language is lateralized to the left-hemisphere.

        Tom Chivers now has all the information he needs to minimize
        the damage to science as a whole.

        Whether he uses the information or not is up to him.

      • Mike Anderson

        What a completely false and unnecessary jab.

  • ‘if 90 percent were useless’
    : the subjunctive for an assertion that ain’t truth. Still useful after all these years : )