Yet as Barry and University of Auckland psychologist Michael Corballis noted, the left-brained-versus-right-brained dichotomy is grossly oversimplified. For one thing, this distinction implies that people who are verbally gifted are not likely to be artistically talented, but research suggests otherwise. Moreover, neuroscience studies suggest that the brain’s two hemispheres work in a highly coordinated fashion.
Like many brain myths, this one contains a kernel of truth. For several decades, beginning in the 1960s, neuroscientist Roger Sperry of the California Institute of Technology, psychologist Michael S. Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and their colleagues studied patients who underwent surgery to sever the corpus callosum (the large band of neural fibers connecting the two hemispheres) in an effort to halt intractable epilepsy. The research showed that the left and right hemispheres are indeed different. In most of us, the left hemisphere is specialized for most aspects of language, whereas the right hemisphere is specialized for most visuospatial skills. Yet even these differences are only relative; for example, the right hemisphere tends to play a larger role than the left does in interpreting the vocal tone of spoken language. Moreover, because practically all of us have an intact corpus callosum, our hemispheres are continually interacting.
3. We can achieve a deeper sense of consciousness and relaxation by boosting our alpha waves.
Purveyors of “alpha consciousness” have encouraged people to undergo brain-wave biofeedback—in some cases using commercially available devices—to increase their production of alpha waves, brain waves that occur at a frequency of about eight to 13 cycles per second. Yet research shows alpha-wave output is largely or entirely unrelated to long-term personality traits and short-term states of contentment.
As Barry observed, the myth of alpha consciousness reflects a confusion between “correlation” and “causation.” It is true that people tend to display a heightened proportion of alpha waves while meditating or relaxing deeply. But this fact does not mean that an increased production of alpha waves causes heightened relaxation. Moreover, research shows that elevated levels of alpha waves are found in some children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, who are anything but relaxed.
These three myths barely scratch the surface of the sprawling field of neuromythology, but they give us a flavor of Barry’s valuable role in combating the public’s misconceptions about brain function. Fortunately, as readers of Scientific American Mind know, the facts about brain function are often far more interesting and surprising than the fictions. By helping laypersons better distinguish brain myths from brain realities, Barry Beyerstein was a pioneer in the ongoing effort to increase the public’s scientific literacy. We will miss him.