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.
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.