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Neuromyths: Busting Common Misconceptions about the Human Brain

By: Muaaz Masood

The human brain: one of the most complex yet simple, delicate yet robust organs in the body. Despite the central role it plays in everyday function, it is also perhaps the least understood organ of all. Many “neuromyths,” or misconceptions, about the brain exist in today’s society. Neuromyths, such as that we only use 10% of our brains and that alcohol kills brain cells, show how misinformed about the workings of the human brain most people are. This article will attempt to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about the human brain.

giulia.forsythe / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Neuromyth: We only use 10 percent of our brains and that the remaining 90 percent is unused.

Although it is uncertain, the origin of this myth has been linked to an American psychologist and author, William James, who wrote in his 1908 novel, The Energies of Men, that “we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Others pin the blame for this myth on notable individuals such as Albert Einstein or Karl Lashley. In any case, the 10 percent myth has no proven validity and is a false assumption.

According to Barry Gordon, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, the myth stems from the public’s ideas about their own shortcomings which they view as evidence of the existence of untapped gray matter. Gordon states that although we may use only 10 percent of our brains during simple tasks, such as resting or thinking, most of the brain is active almost all of the time. A neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, John Henley, asserts that over an entire day, we use 100 percent of our brain as shown by functional brain imaging.

Imagine someone pouring out coffee in the morning. They have to walk to the coffee pot, reach for it and pour the brew into the mug. These simple actions use six different parts of the brain: the occipital, parietal, motor sensory cortices, basal ganglia, cerebellum and frontal lobes. Even during sleep, brain activity in the frontal cortex and somatosensory areas can be readily observed on an electroencephalogram.

The adage “use it or lose it” also applies to the brain and is further evidence that we use more than just 10% of our brains. Many studies have shown that if inputs to synapses in a neural system are eliminated, then neurons in this system will not function properly. For example, if we prevent visual information from stimulating the eyes during early development, then complete vision loss may occur. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that if we only used 10% of our brains, then many neural pathways in the remaining 90% would disintegrate over time, which is obviously false. So, next time a friend or colleague mentions that we only use 10% of our brain, perhaps you can reply by saying “maybe you use 10% of your brain, but everyone else uses their whole brain.”

Neuromyth: Brain damage is always permanent.

While the brain is an extremely fragile organ and even slight damage can result in memory loss and physical impairment, the brain can also recover remarkably from a severe injury. Of course, the extent of the recovery wholly depends on the location and severity of the damage. A mild concussion, which occurs when the brain bounces around inside the skull due to an external blow, usually results in little to no permanent damage. Almost all individuals who have suffered from concussions recover completely.

On the other hand, traumatic brain injuries, defined as the loss of consciousness for greater than six hours, and are most often caused by a severe car accident, can have serious consequences. Unlike injures in other parts of the body, severe brain injuries can result in permanent disability, an altered personality and the loss of mental abilities. It was once commonly believed that severe brain injuries were irreversible. However, recent discoveries have challenged that idea with the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire and change itself in response to new learning. Essentially, the brain can create new synapses, or connections between neurons, to replace damaged ones. Furthermore, other parts of the brain that were not originally specialized for certain functions can take over new functions as a means of compensation. This mechanism explains how some stroke patients can regain speech and motor ability through therapy.

There is even some evidence for neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells are created. In 1998, scientists tagged dividing cells in a group of terminal cancer patients with a special substance. Post-mortem examinations revealed that the substance was present in cells in the hippocampus meaning that new cells had been formed there. While the theory of adult neurogenesis remains debatable, it shows that there is more about the brain that we have not discovered.

Neuromyth: Alcohol kills brain cells.

While drinking alcohol excessively may be discouraged because of the hangover and risky behaviors that are associated with alcohol consumption, there is no scientific evidence linking alcohol to killing entire brain cells. Mass alcohol consumption can, however, damage the ends of neurons, known as dendrites, which play an important role in conveying messages between neurons. The cell itself is not damaged, but the way that it communicates is altered. This damage, however, is reversible according to Dr. Roberta J. Pentney, a former researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Frequent, sustained drinkers and alcoholics can develop a neurological disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can result in the loss of neurons, and is associated with memory problems, confusion and a lack of muscle coordination. However, the disorder is not caused by alcohol entirely and is the result of a deficiency in thiamine or Vitamin B1. In severe alcoholics, malnourishment is common and alcohol can interfere with the body’s absorption of thiamine. The bottom line: while it can still be detrimental to your brain if consumed excessively, alcohol does not kill your brain cells.

While this article has busted some common neuromyths in this article, there remains a lot that we do not know yet. Recent advances in technology have helped discover more about the brain than we have ever known in the past, but we are still unsure of some of the underlying mechanisms that give rise to phenomena such as neural plasticity. Perhaps, one day we will fully understand the workings of the powerful and mysterious organ that is the human brain.