Most people reading this probably have at least some idea of how the brain works. The problem is that the general understanding of brain science is exactly as it is with any other scientific field: constantly fuddled by misreported papers, theory-touting nut jobs, lazy Hollywood screenwriters, and stuff you read on the back of Snapple caps. As a result, how the average person thinks his brain operates is probably less "deep understanding of complex neuroscience" and a lot more "there's this sponge inside my head that turns blood into think-juice."
And that's why even the most reasonable-sounding brain facts everyone keeps repeating can be complete bullshit. Like ...
5 "Emotions Only Get in the Way of Rational Decision-Making!"
Pop culture is full of the "genius asshole" character (with the recent twist that it's implied the character isn't an asshole, but autistic) whose main sin is he doesn't let sentimentality get in the way of blunt logic. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Spock -- all are incapable of feeling complex emotions like love, and all are great geniuses because they cannot feel. After all, emotion only clouds your judgment, right?
This is also the go-to move for every sexist ("See, that's why women can't work in responsible positions -- those pesky female emotions get in the way of their thinking"). It's a fucked up argument, and twice so because deep down so many people agree with the second part: Of course your rationality suffers when you get emotional. Who's going to win that rap battle, the guy who gets all hot and flustered over each insult, or VulcanMC, who applies cold logic to pelt his emotional opponent with sickest Yo Mama burns this side of the entire line to the STD clinic (oooohhh)?
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"Your mother is so illogical that when she hears the ambient temperature has fallen,
she believes there is a beef and bean stew being prepared and retrieves a bowl from the cupboard."
Emotions and rational decision-making are best buddies that complement each other, and in fact removing emotions from the equation will completely wreck your ability to make decisions. It makes sense, really: Emotions aren't exactly some relic left in our genes from back when a cheetah-print loincloth was the pinnacle of fashion, so there's no reason why they wouldn't be compatible with rational thought, one of our species' greatest brain assets. Science is only beginning to dig into the various reasons emotions are so important in decision-making, but we know how shitty things get once the two stop cooperating.
Like that time in Tijuana. You remember. We all remember.
Consider the case of a man who had a good job and an IQ ranging in the top 3 percent, until he suffered some damage near his orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the bridge linking our emotional amygdala and the rest of our brain. This stunted his ability to emote but kept his intelligence the same, but instead of turning into an unstoppable logic machine, he found himself struggling with even the simplest everyday problems. What to have for lunch, what kind of pen to use, where to park his car -- all these simple decisions turned into "what should I say in my inaugural speech?" level dilemmas. He's not a unique case, either: Patients with OFC damage often become completely rational but can't make decisions -- because they don't have emotions to lead them the right way.
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"All right, penis, looks like you're taking the lead from now on."
The mind likes to use emotions to lead us to the correct decision by sprinkling the best and worst options with visceral emotion: The awful options (say, placing your hand on a hot stove for support) comes laced with fear and negative emotion, while the decisions your brain deems best come wrapped in a tiny cloud of happy. It's basically a people version of that thing with Pavlov and the dogs. You don't have to expend brain horsepower when thinking through the "do we pet the snarling dog or not" decision -- your knee-jerk fear makes that choice for you.
It's so fundamental to how our brains work that a lack of emotions would mean you can't even learn to make rational decisions in the first place. Patients whose emotions have been stunted by OFC lesions have been found to have difficulties figuring out the rules of a gambling game, because they don't have any emotional connection to success or defeat. Healthy people, on the other hand, consciously catch onto to rules because they feel a bit stressed when they're about to make a wrong move: Their brains remember all the times they lost money and will warn them from doing it again with tiny emotion-bombs.
"NO! TAKING THE LAST PIECE MIGHT BE A SLIGHT BREACH OF ETIQUETTE AND THEN EVERYONE WILL HATE YOU!"
So, yeah. In reality, Mr. Spock would be just another useless red shirt, aimlessly wandering in front of the villain of the week and its death ray. Thanks for ruining a piece of our childhood, neuroscience!
4"I Guess I'm Just Not a Math Person!"
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Some people are tall, while others are short. Some of us are built for math, and others find it impossible. After all, isn't the "Asians are good at math" stereotype one that all the statistics say is true?
Sure, most everyone's capable of basic addition and subtraction, but only certain people (that's right, wizards) can grasp more complex mathematical concepts. By middle school or so, the real math kicks in and you get to see which kids have the genes to enter the overcrowded engineering workforce, and which ones are going to spend the rest of their days screaming in terror whenever they see a pi symbol.
But there's no way to tell which ones will self-lobotomize.
It's true that a certain percentage of your intelligence is due to genetics (exactly how much is almost impossible to quantify and subject to bitter debate) but there is no math part of the brain. It simply seems to come down to what you focus that mental horsepower on. Asian countries excel at math because their culture emphasizes it.
So, want to know the secret to being good at math? It's practice, just like it is with any other skill. The reason why most people aren't good at math is because they think they aren't "math people." The thing is, your notoriously lazy brain is going to listen in, and decide: "Awesome, so I get to slouch on that shit!" And when you have the preconception that you're going to suck at something (or, for that matter, are so talented that you don't need to try at it), your results tend to be ... less than great. This is called a "fixed mindset," and it acts as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
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"You know, just tell me what you want as a tip."
A simple fix to the whole "Math people/not math people" dilemma would be to tell kids at an early stage that math is an acquired skill and not a talent -- if they get that concept early on, they tend to generally be much better at it because they've got all the tools to kick their defeatist attitude right in the dick. Hell, you don't even need to be a kid for that shit; if you're willing to put in the effort, you can dick around with your humanist studies as much as you like, then fuck right off to math stardom. Don't believe us? Ask Edward Witten, who started out studying history and linguistics in order to become a journalist, until he trickled into economics. After he inevitably got bored with that shit, he decided to take up math and physics.
Then he coughed up a little thing called the M-theory, won himself a Nobel prize, and is now considered one of the greatest physicists of all time.
Again, it's true that guy is naturally smarter than all of us. But when you say you're "not a math person" what you really mean is you find it to be a bunch of tedious bullshit. There's a difference between being naturally unable to do something, and merely hating the practice.