Sunday, 16 February 2014

Neuromyths 101

Hi there!

Welcome to my new blog all about the world and how we can play a role in it! I will talk about a number of subjects- mostly related to neuroscience and cognition, but also science related issues that I like to think about. But to start this blog off, I'd like to put out yet more information to debunk a very well circulated myth about how the human brain works, and also show how re-interpreting this myth can give us a very important message.

You only use 10% of your brain

This myth has been around for years, yet nobody really knows where it came from. This myth creates the idea that only a tiny portion of our brains are actually important, and the rest is merely sitting there like a grey ball of mush. Not only is this entirely wrong, it would make absolutely no sense evolutionarily. What would be the point in having such a huge brain if it wasn't going to be used? Surely if we only needed 10% of our brains then we would have evolved to have brains that are 10 times as small? I'm sure most people would agree that if someone lost 90% of their brain they would not be in any sort of healthy condition!

There is one way in which this myth is sort of true, and that is that only about 10% of cells in the brain are actually neurones (the cells responsible for generating electrical signals that contribute to the computations that are being made by the brain constantly). The other 90% are glial cells, these are essentially the life support system of the neurones. Unlike most cells of the body, neurones are incredibly delicate and highly tuned, in order to perform extremely well and enable us to achieve such rapid processing of information. It's as if each neurone is an F1 car- incredibly high performance, yet only because of the massive team working behind the scenes to ensure the F1 car is running as well as possible.

However, I'm quite sure that this is not what many people mean when they say that you only use 10% of your brain power. If people mean that you only use 10% of your brain at any one point, then that would also be wrong. For example, whilst I am writing this, my primary motor cortex is busy telling my fingers what to type, which is also being modulated and timed by my cerebellum. I am also deciding what to write, which uses much of my frontal lobes, I am also reading what I am typing, so both my visual cortex and also areas responsible for generating my inner monologue, such as the brocca and wernicke areas (also referred to as the auditory loop) are active, not to mention the many other areas busy keeping me alive, and my memory systems that are not only recording this experience but also recalling what I have already written, and also what I remember about how the brain works. So, while it may seem that writing this blog would not take too much brain power, there are many areas of my brain all active at once, and those that are not actively contributing to my conscious experience are lightly ticking over- ready to fire up when necessary.

I believe that many people have misinterpreted quotes from the likes of Einstein and multiple philosophers, who suggest that many of us do not utilise our ample mental faculties. These people suggest that many of us squander our great potential and don't make the decision to think about the world around them. There are many people who advocate the merits of thinking rather than learning, and say that if more of us had been taught to think rather than to memorize facts, we would be far better of as a species. I think that some people are beginning to realise this, and are pushing for more schools to try to create well-rounded good thinkers that have good emotional and cognitive intelligence, rather than the fact churning robots that many education systems appear to encourage at the moment- but that's for another post.

I'd like to end this post on a positive note, and just say that all we need to do think, just a little bit, about how the world around us works, and try to think of ways to make things better. If all 7 billion of us did this once a day, I'm sure we could easily solve all of the world's problems with ease.

Please leave a comment and suggest a topic about the human brain or world that I should tackle next!


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