Which of these myths about the brain are true?
This month's edition of Inspire is based on Professor Trish Riddell's session at a recent conference that I attended. She is a Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading. I asked her if she had written a book on this and she said she is on the 4th chapter, so this will have to keep you going in the meantime! Before reading further, test yourself as to which of these myths is true or false:
1. We make no new neurones in our brain after we are born - true or false
2. We only use 10% of our brains - true or false
3. There are left brain and right brain people - true or false
4. Listening to Mozart does not make you smarter - true or false
5. Your memory can hold 7+/-2 things at a time - true or false
6. It's all downhill after 60! - true or false
7. We know what will make us happy - true or false
8. Our memories of past events in our lives are inaccurate - true or false
9. The reptilian brain controls our emotional responses - true or false
10. The adult brain is able to be changed - true or false
I will now reveal all and hopefully get you to think about how these myths relate to your life.
False. We make new neurons throughout our lives. For example, when we need to memorise things we are creating new neurons. We make less neurons when we are depressed and anxious, however, when we exercise we make more neurons and can make up for those lost due to anxiety.
On the radio today a research project has found no link between exercise helping with depression. But the research in terms of the brain does show that exercise can compensate for, or make up for, a slower production of neurons when we are low or anxious. I certainly know that when I am exercising regularly I feel so much better not just physically, but psychologically as well. Certainly coming back to work following a bike ride in the middle of the day I am usually far more productive than beforehand – so perhaps it is my new neurons firing on all cylinders!
‘What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.'
Trish made us laugh by asking us that if this is so, which parts of our brain would we like to have removed!! The fact is that we use only 10% of our potential, while we actually use all of our brains when we carry out most daily tasks.
‘Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.'
False. The brain works together as a whole with both hemispheres communicating with each other when we are carrying out any task. However, different functions are located on different sides of the brain, rather than being duplicated in both hemispheres, but they then communicate to reason, play music, paint, argue, etc. But all functions need both hemispheres. For example, with speech, emotions connected with speech are on the right, tonality is on the right, while the rest is on the left.
The question was asked about differences in men and women. Trisha said that there are differences in spatial reasoning and language skills, as developmentally men and women's brains develop differently. Testosterone slows down the development of men's brains when they are young, so that means that generally women's brains develop more quickly enabling them to develop language skills at an earlier age. Men therefore have space in their brains at an early age to focus on spatial reasoning and spatial tasks, and therefore often become more advanced spatially. However, she said that this is then often compounded by adults speaking more to girls than boys, and giving boys spatial toys which then develop their separate skills even further.
False. The original research that this myth was based on was done on a tiny sample of students, over a very short period of time, and proved nothing. And it has not been replicated since.
‘Brains first, then hard work.'
False. The original article that people often cite as proving this, doesn't even mention this as a fact. How much we can remember does depend on what you are memorising:
- It does depend on whether you are using working memory or stored memories.
- If you are learning a list of words or series of numbers, which involves our working memory, it does seem to be true.
- When you are learning concepts, for example, in a training session, ‘Less is more' is true. It is better to go into a few concepts in depth to assist remembering what you have learned versus covering a lot of topics and ending up forgetting most of them.
- Memory is also context dependent, so if you are learning rules and regulations to be used in the workplace, e.g. health and safety, it is best to learn them at work versus in a classroom, as you are more likely to remember to use them, if you have learned about them where you are going to use them. It is also important if that the learning can be applied straightaway. So this might be about having training in the office or using some online learning package which can be used at your desk.
You will be pleased to know that this is false when it comes to our brains, mind you, our body might be a different matter!!
It does, however, depend on what you are using your brain for:
- Our ability to memorise facts does decrease, which doesn't mean we cannot memorise them, it will just take longer as we age, and we might need to use different types of memorising strategies.
- Our knowledge and wisdom (hopefully) increases, which aids problem solving and decision making, which can make the older worker a valuable person to have in the workplace.
- There are capacity limitations in our working memory compared to our physical memory. As we age, some connections disappear over time. However, there are proven things that can help you: crosswords, exercise, blueberries, good chocolate (I think she means dark chocolate), any red fruits and vegetables, and red wine, in moderation.
- Tricia says it does appear that it is a case of use it or lose it.
‘Age is... wisdom, if one has lived one's life properly.'
Yes and no! This was interesting as the audience were split between thinking we did know what makes up happy and half who thought we didn't. However, research into anticipation, shows that we are often wrong. It appears that things that we have looked forward to, have anticipated as making us happy, and that we are going to enjoy them, are often a disappointment. However, activities which we were not looking forward to (I am talking about, say, a party you were not particularly looking forward to, rather than going to the dentist) are often much more enjoyable than you thought. And perhaps this is true about dentists as well if you really dread them! I certainly have had situations where I have not been looking forward to a particular meeting or social event, but they have gone much better than I had thought.
True. Memories of the past are inaccurate because of the following:
- If we focussed on and remembered every sound, sight, feeling, smell, taste we experience in the course of a day, our senses would be totally overloaded, and it would be hard to function. Therefore, we filter out information, we delete, distort and make generalisations. As you sit reading this, start to focus on the sounds around you and you might suddenly notice ones that you hadn't heard before. So our memories can never be 100% complete.
- We also interpret current events based on past experiences, and we even do this when we think about memories; we put our own perspectives on what has happened. This also means that two people's memory of an experience at work i.e. a meeting, a conflict, may well be completely different.
- It does mean that when you are communicating at work, and you want people to remember the details of what you have said, you need to make sure that they are fully engaged so that they don't end up filling in the gaps of their memory when they have finished the conversation.
‘What touches the heart is engraved in the memory'
This does depend on what you mean by ‘control'. Trisha said, ‘There is no such thing as an uncontrolled emotion', she says that emotional responses are impacted by:
- Culture, societal or even family expectations. For example, one person's reaction to receiving a promotion might be very muted if they grew up believing ‘pride before a fall', so even if they are happy they don't show it.
- Your memories of past events impact on how you respond to current experiences. So it might be your memory that is influencing the emotions you experience rather than it being a simple brain reaction to the experience.
- Your ability to regulate your emotions. Trish said that it is a case of Trait versus State. Some people do seem to be born with an ability to manage their emotions, but that others can learn to do so. In fact, about 50% of my work with clients is about helping them to learn techniques to help them to manage their mood and their reactions to events. My book, ‘Master Your Inner Critic', has lots of techniques for managing your mood, mind and inner critic. See here http://www.inspiretransformation.co.uk/inner_critic.html for details.
True. We are learning to do new things all the time. That might be learning to use a new Smartphone, a new piece of software, learning a new hobby or sport, learning to be more assertive. Anything you learn to do, at any age, requires your brain to change and develop.
‘A happy life is one spent in learning, earning, and yearning.'