7 brain myths

TheStar.com – AtkinsinSeries – 7 brain myths
Published On Oct 31 2009

One thing neuroscientists hate is the way some of their findings get misinterpreted and then widely publicized. Especially when businesses pounce on them, skew the ideas still further and sell them to parents, teachers and school boards as the latest innovation from science.

Some neuroscientists have gone so far as to warn consumers about so-called “brain-based” products promising to make their children into geniuses.

Recently, the Walt Disney Co. began offering full refunds for its “Baby Einstein” videos after being challenged about their educational claims.

Other myths about the brain and education:

1. The human brain is fixed by the age of 3

While it is true that babies’ brains make connections – called synapses – among neurons at a furious pace until about 10 months, the brain actually grows and changes throughout life. Even your 80-year-old mother’s brain is still growing new synaptic connections and replacing lost neurons. As well, a crucial part of learning is the process of pruning those synapses to make them work faster. That happens a lot in the teen years and early 20s when humans begin to think in high-level abstractions and systems.

2. The more you enrich a baby’s environment, the smarter the baby

This is a misreading of the famous “enriched rats” experiment. The rats were divided into two groups: some in a complex social environment and some isolated in a simple environment. The enriched rats were able to learn better than the isolated rats. That has led over-eager parents and others to insist that infants ought to be stimulated as much as possible so they build better brains. Commercial enterprises have cashed in on this as a result. Actually, over-stimulating babies has the opposite effect; the children shut down and don’t learn. The real finding of the rat study was that deprivation – intellectual, social and environmental – is bad for baby mammals. The so-called “enriched” environment was not really enriched at all. It was akin to what a rat living in the wild would normally encounter. The lesson for parents is not to isolate babies but to expose them to normal life – talk with them, let them play with other children and encourage them to explore on their own.

3. We only use 10 per cent of the brain

Actually, new functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) of the brain shows that 100 per cent of the brain is active, even when you are asleep or anesthetized. No part of the brain is inactive or superfluous.

4. Boys’ brains and girls’ brains are different

Apart from average size – which follows the proportions of body size – this is not true. Just as a boy’s foot and a girl’s foot work the same way, so do their brains. As the OECD report Understanding the Brain points out: “No study to date has shown gender-specific processes involved in building up neuronal networks during learning.” So the way boys and girls create synaptic pathways – and therefore learn – is the same. When we see differences in the behaviour of boys and girls, that’s because those differences are taught. They are social, not biological.

5. You are either a left-brain person or a right-brain person

This enduring myth pops up frequently in conversation and goes back to primitive experiments from the 1800s. The idea was that the left-brain thinker was more logical, analytical and rational, while the right-brain thinker was more creative, emotional and intuitive. Actually, it’s bunk. While the brain does have two hemispheres – right and left – joined by a wide band of nervous tissue called the corpus callosum, the brain is in fact an exquisitely integrated organ. For a few tasks, a single side may dominate, but both sides must work together for any important tasks. Functional MRIs show that neither side of the brain can work independently.

6. If we could eliminate emotions, we’d make better decisions

There have been studies of people who have lost the ability to feel emotion because of brain damage. It turns out they can’t make decisions at all without emotion. Emotion is an integrated, critical part of each decision and of learning.

7. An adult’s brain is bigger than a baby’s because it has more brain nerve cells

A newborn’s brain has roughly the same number of nerve cells, or neurons, as an adult’s – about 100 billion. That number remains roughly constant throughout life. The size difference between a baby’s brain and an adult’s is mainly the synaptic connections that grow between neurons and the fatty insulating material that wraps around them, called myelin. Myelin keeps the electrical connections among neurons moving quickly and efficiently.

–Alanna Mitchell

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