Uncovering "Brainscams"

In which the authors debunk myths concerning the three-pound organ inside our head

MOST OF US take our brain for granted. As poet Robert Frost wrote, “The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Weighing in at a mere three pounds and possessing the consistency of a lump of Jell-O, our brain looks surprisingly unimpressive in the flesh. Yet it is capable of soaring intellectual feats.

Although our brain underpins virtually every aspect of our thinking, personality and identity, it is the focus of a host of misconceptions. Without question, the world’s expert on “neuromythology”—the study of myths regarding brain structure and function—was Simon Fraser University psychology professor Barry L. Beyerstein, who died last June at the age of 60. Barry coined the term “brainscams” in a 1990 article to draw attention to popular efforts to capitalize on the public’s misunderstanding of the brain.

Barry was a friend of one of us (Lilienfeld) and a contributor to both Scientific American and Scientific American Mind. We thought it would be apropos to honor Barry’s memory and contribution to neuromythology by dedicating this column to him and by examining three widespread brainscams that he helped to expose.

1. We use only 10 percent of our brain’s capacity.
This misconception, about which Barry wrote on multiple occasions (including for an Ask the Experts column in the June 2004 issue of Scientific American), is among the most deeply entrenched in all of popular psychology. Its seductive appeal is understandable, as we would love to believe that our brain harbors an enormous reservoir of untapped potential. The 10 percent myth has contributed to a plethora of self-help books and self-improvement gadgets, including commercially available devices that supposedly enable us to harness our unrealized capacities.

Yet the scientific evidence against this myth is overwhelming. Functional brain-imaging studies have consistently failed to turn up any region of the brain that is perpetually inactive. Moreover, research on brain-damaged individuals reveals that a lesion to almost any brain area will produce at least some psychological deficits.

As Barry had noted, the 10 percent myth probably stemmed in part from a misinterpretation of the writings of William James, one of the founders of American psychology. In his musings around the turn of the 20th century, James wrote that most of us actualize only a small portion of our intellectual potential, an assertion that may well possess some merit. But several popular authors—including Lowell Thomas, who penned the foreword to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People—took liberties with James’s writings by proposing that we use only about 10 percent of our brain. Further contributing to this notion’s cachet were early studies suggesting that a substantial majority of the cerebral cortex is “silent.” Yet because of advances in the measurement of brain activity, we now know that these areas are far from silent; they make up what neuroscientists term the brain’s “association cortex,” which plays a vital function in connecting perceptions, thoughts and emotions across diverse brain areas.

2. Some people are left-brained; others are right-brained.
Supposedly, left-brained people are analytical, logical and verbal, whereas right-brained people are creative, holistic and spatial. Scores of popular books have seized on this purported dichotomy. In his 1972 best-seller, The Psychology of Consciousness, Stanford University psychologist Robert Ornstein argued that Western society places too great an emphasis on rational, left-brain thinking and not enough on intuitive, right-brain thinking. In 1979 artist and psychologist Betty Edwards’s still popular book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, similarly touted the benefits of more creative, right-brained forms of artistic expression.

This article was originally published with the title "Facts and Fictions in Mental Health."

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