As if Radio 4 weren't a constant source of brain food already, it is this week. The Brain Season tackles the most complex object in the known universe from a range of fresh angles, going back as far as Neolithic times in the ten-part A History of the Brain and progressing right up to the very latest noggin knowledge in next week's Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Society.
Such enlightenment is perhaps badly needed, because the mysterious, near-magical workings of the brain are the subject of more cod science and old wives' tales than any other part of the body. Our brains are fantastically powerful in ways that can't instantly be explained, so we're susceptible to quick fixes and factoids. But thanks to the Brain Season, you might look at what you think you know about how you know things, and think again... here are eight myths about the brain, exploded by the Radio 4 experts. You don’t use 90% of your brain
“The idea is that there are parts of your brain that aren’t used and if you could tap into them you’d be cleverer than ever,” says Claudia Hammond, presenter of Mind Myths
. “There are self-help books on the subject, and it often gets mentioned on management courses. There was a film this year, Limitless, where the whole plot was that a guy learned how to access the unused part of his brain. But it’s a complete myth. Even waving your little finger uses a huge proportion of your brain. You can keep forming new connections every time you learn something, but there’s not this empty capacity waiting to be used.” Listening to Mozart makes kids clever
“It’s no more useful than any other music,” says Hammond. “There’s this whole idea that The Mozart Effect will make your children clever. In fact, the original study was done on adults. They did better in tests, but only for 15 minutes after hearing Mozart – yet it’s given rise to this entire industry. Hearing music just wakes you up and gets your attention, so you might perform better straight afterwards. And there’s nothing special about Mozart. It’s just what they happened to use in the original study. What does work is playing
an instrument. That will make much more of a difference and have a long-term effect. The brain will create new connections, which is good. Playing music to babies in the womb? Children will recognise it later, but it won’t make them cleverer.” “Right-brain people” are creative
“People talk about being left- or right-brained,” Hammond says. “The idea is that the left brain is the logical side, whereas the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive, more fun bit – the one you’d invite to a party. The right brain does control the left side of your body, but that doesn’t mean left-handed people are more creative. The left and right areas are joined and each is completely aware of what the other side is doing. Even maths, which you’d think must only be on the left, causes activity in the right. You might do some things using one side more, but you can’t be more left- or right-brained. You favour one side for some activities, but everyone does. There are hundreds of books suggesting how to tap into your right brain – you’re already using it.” Any brain injury is bad news
The lobotomists at work in the 1940s and 50s rightly have a bad reputation, as a result of their physical interventions. But they taught us a few things. “You could argue,” says Hugh Levinson, presenter of The Lobotomists
, “that it showed the brain is much more resilient than people think. Around a third of patients suffered badly – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
syndrome. But only one in 20 people died. One of the really interesting things about those who lost their personality was that it didn’t affect their intelligence. They lost their willpower but they had the same IQ scores before and after. So IQ isn’t just in the frontal lobes.”
Full moons drive you mad
“Many doctors who work in casualty will tell you, oh we always know it’s going to be busy when there’s a full moon,” says Hammond. “People think the moon somehow affects people and there are more accidents and people behaving strangely or going mad when there’s a full moon. This myth is a long-running one, but there isn’t any evidence for it. People look for things that confirm what they already thought. If it’s a busy night in casualty and the moon’s full, they notice it. The moon doesn’t sweep your brain over to one side and back again, like a tide.” Memories fade from the moment they’re made
“There’s this thing called sleep memory,” says Hammond. “I did an experiment where I learned pairs of words, tested myself on them and did really badly. Then I went to sleep and tested myself again the next morning and I did much better. Some people have it more than others, but your brain is almost working on it while you’re asleep. Don’t do your last-minute exam revision in the morning – do it the night before.” Happiness is all in the mind
"To be simplistic, there are two theories about mental illness," says Levinson. "That it's an illness of the mind, and that it's an illness of the brain. Freud thought it was an illness of the mind, and that by talking to people, you could cure them. But Freudians have pretty much lost the battle at the moment - most psychiatrists now view mental illness as an illness of the brain. In a sense, lobotomies are the purest expression of that position. Psychiatrists wouldn’t want to think of it in that way, but CT scanning and anti-psychotic drugs are all based on the same theory. It’s around the time of lobotomies that Freudians start to lose the battle."
Scans will tell you everything about your brain
“If you give people a paragraph about a research study and ask them what they think of it,” says Hammond, “they’re much more likely to believe the research if you accompany it with a picture of a brain. Do a test on people’s emotions where you make them angry, say - when that’s reflected in a brain scan others will believe it much more, even though the person just said they felt angry. We believe coloured patterns on brain scans are telling us something huge, which they’re not always. If you eat cheese before having a brain scan, you’ll get a different picture. Different bits light up because you’ve just had cheese.”