The 6 Most Frequently Quoted Brain Facts (That Are Total BS)
After millennia of research, experts still don't know very much about the human brain. As such, most of what you have picked up on the subject from pop culture is just laughably wrong.
In fact, we'll bet you even heard some or all of these brain myths in school at some point ...
"Alcohol Kills Brain Cells!"
What you heard:
It's the reason Homer Simpson gets stupider every season, and it's what your mom warned you about when you got caught sneaking a beer from dad's stash when you were 13: Every beer you drink kills something like a million brain cells and makes you permanently stupider.
"Goodbye, Algebra 2!"
Let's get this out of the way now -- too much alcohol does a whole host of horrible shit to just about every organ in your body. It's just that your brain isn't really one of them. Your alcoholic uncle doesn't actually get any stupider when he drinks. Meaner, but not stupider.
"Asleep" isn't the same as "brain damaged."
The whole idea of alcohol destroying your brain actually dates back to the temperance movement in America, circa 1830. Using the now familiar tactic of "It's OK to lie as long as it's for a good cause," the writers of the time claimed that alcohol would do everything from destroying your brain to making you catch fire if you drank too much. Though the latter, if true, would make losing a few brain cells seem fairly minor.
Plenty of people believed it -- it just seems like common sense that beer destroys the brain. Have you ever seen a drunk person before? And listened to his jokes?
"So this guy, he turned and said ... and said ... shit. It was something about priests, or bears. Hey -- QUIT LAUGHING AT ME!"
Yet, according to scientific studies, the dopiness associated with being drunk has nothing to do with dying brain cells and everything to do with the alcohol blocking them from doing their work, inhibiting cognition and motor function. Your brain cells are fine, as long you don't walk into too many walls while you're trashed. Another point of confusion stems from the fact that there is a brain disorder that's linked to alcoholism called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which makes you dumb and destroys your memory. But this isn't actually caused by the alcohol; it's malnutrition stemming from the fact that alcoholics often have really crappy diets because the booze kills their appetite and eats up their disposable income.
Of course, the "alcohol kills brain cells" myth was always paired with ...
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"You Can't Regrow Brain Cells -- Once They're Gone, They're Gone!"
What you heard:
The story that alcohol -- or anything -- kills your brain cells was scarier because you always heard that brain cells never grow back. When you're horsing around with your brother and hit your head on the coffee table, you just busted yourself down a whole IQ point you're never going to recover. Show off on the field too many times by headbutting the soccer ball, and wave goodbye to college. Except this, too, is thankfully bullshit.
These are the few children lucky enough to avoid head injuries, marijuana and falling acorns in their youth.
First, studies from back in the '90s show that adult human brains actually contain stem cells. These are cells that can turn into any other kind of cell on demand, including brain cells. Basically, they're like the blank tiles in Scrabble. When you damage the brain, these cells scramble to rebuild what's broken.
More than that, your brain is incredibly adept at patching itself up in a fix, and can even repair itself after a major event like a stroke, quickly creating new blood vessels to restore oxygen flow, and rewiring brain cells (called neurons) to work around the blockade of dead tissue. Neurons are constantly born through a process called neurogenesis, and can migrate anywhere in the brain that they're needed.
Above: Neurogenesis. Or that trippy scene from 2001. We're not doctors.
Rather than some monolithic lump of cells that gets battered and broken after years of ill-advised partying, the brain is actually changing all the time. The neural pathways in your brain never stop developing, even well into adulthood, constantly forming and reforming new connections. This happens whenever you learn anything or develop a new memory. It also happens over the course of just a few hours, several times a day.
To reiterate: too much alcohol is bad for you. And too much brain trauma is really fucking bad for you -- ask anyone who played pro football. But give the human brain a little credit.
And while we're on the subject, we probably have to address this one ...
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"Drugs Like Ecstasy Can Put Holes In Your Brain!"
What you heard:
Back in 2000, MTV ran a special on Ecstasy and how it's basically forged by Satan in a bathtub of acid and children's screams. They compared the brains of two girls, one of whom had used the drug, and showed a scrotum-shrivellingly terrifying image of the user's brain looking like a lump of Swiss cheese.
Like somebody went at it with a drill.
Not to be outdone by MTV, Oprah Winfrey decided to jump on the bandwagon, and she ran a special all about Ecstasy in which she hysterically pointed out that it will burn a bunch of holes in your brain, showing the same brain scan images. Because everyone listens to Oprah for some dangerous reason, the myth became entrenched in cultural consciousness.
This woman could lead a fascist coup and we'd still take her advice on weight loss and reading choices.
It shouldn't come within a thousand yards of surprising you that both Oprah and the producers at MTV badly misinterpreted a neurological brain scan image. This is why you wouldn't call either of them to assist in your stroke rehabilitation.
These images are actually maps of blood flow in the brain, and the so-called "holes" are just areas of lower blood circulation that the computer rendered to look like hollow cavities. There were never any holes in the girl's brain, and even the low circulation doesn't necessarily have anything to do with drugs.
"As you can see from these scans, mescaline turns your brain blue."
The British decided to investigate the effects of Ecstasy on the brain by doing some, you know, real science. They not only proved that Ecstasy doesn't actually put holes in your brain, but they also explained that it basically has no permanent side effects, provided you don't abuse it. They were so confident in their assessment that they even offered the drug to volunteers so that they could actively monitor them under the influence and then evaluate them several hours after the effects wore off. The results showed that after six hours, the subjects were back to normal, completely unharmed, recovering from the most fun scientific study they had ever participated in.
As for people dying because of Ecstasy, the scientists explained that it wasn't from the drug, but actually from dehydration. Because when you're in a rave on a drug that gives you a shitload of energy and an uncontrollable desire to flip out and go crazy, you sometimes forget to drink a glass of water. So, again, it appears that Ecstasy is fully capable of turning you into a dumbass. It just doesn't eat holes in your brain.
Side effects include dehydration, disorientation and unwarranted appreciation for dubstep.
Not that every brain myth has to do with substance abuse. For instance ...
"I'm Getting Older, so My Mind Isn't What It Used to Be."
What you heard:
It's common knowledge that the brain deteriorates with age. That's why your grandpa keeps forgetting things, referring to the television as "the wireless" and calling you by your father's name. It's also why he's cranky all the time, and complains when anyone is making too much noise -- he's just getting on, and his old deteriorating brain can't handle the hectic modern world.
We might as well bury him now.
Discounting the ones who actually develop mental disorders like dementia or Alzheimer's, old people actually have better brains than the rest of us. Ironically, that's kind of what makes them seem so stupid -- their seasoned brains are taking in a whole lot of information that your comparatively idiotic brain just doesn't notice.
He's a lean, mean information processing machine.
As it turns out, although your body tends to deteriorate as the years go on, your brain only gets sharper. Research has shown that, the older you get, the more information you take in from your environment. As a result, older people are actually better at problem solving, even though they become curmudgeonly and easily distracted at the same time due to the sheer amount of information their superior brains are taking in. Kind of like a kid with A.D.D., except they're a lot slower and quieter and sometimes have to use little motorized vehicles to cart them around.
Lucky old farts.
This, by the way, is also why the old lady downstairs is always yelling at you about turning down the TV, and shouting at the neighbor kids to cut out that racket. The fact that older brains absorb more information means they're actually impacted more by noisy distractions. It'd be like if you had a superhuman sense of smell, but as a result were constantly bombarded by an entire city's worth of farts. Suddenly you'd seem cranky, too.
"You Get New Brain Wrinkles When You Learn Stuff."
What you heard:
At some point you probably heard someone try to tell you that the number of wrinkles in your brain has something to do with how intelligent you are. Or maybe you heard Donald Glover's character on Community claim that every sudden revelation "wrinkles his brain."
Pickling is another fine way to wrinkle a brain.
It kind of makes sense -- the more you learn, the more room your brain is going to need, but because it's all cramped up inside your skull, it has to fold over on itself as it grows. Why else does your brain look like it's been soaking in a bathtub for six weeks?
By the time you're born, your brain is about as wrinkly as it will ever be, barring some kind of cosmetic brain surgery.
"Could you shoot some botox in there? I don't want wrinkles anywhere."
So why are brains wrinkly? We're sad to say that nobody really knows, but a leading theory suggests that it might have something to do with shock absorption. Computer models have shown that, if your brain was smooth, you'd sustain a lot more damage from hitting your head on stuff. So it turns out we have an evolutionary tolerance to heavy metal fandom.
And drunken bike rides.
Then again, some scientists believe that the more advanced animals, like primates, have more wrinkles in their brains because they allow for neural connections to be much faster. The brain has more surface area, so it has more neurons to deal with your monkey problems. Or, maybe it's both. But it certainly doesn't get wrinklier the more you learn.
Donald Glover lied to us. We never knew it would hurt so much.
Though that brings us to easily the most common brain myth of all ...
"Whoa, He's Smart! Check Out the Big Brain On That Guy!"
What you heard:
It has been said by many a grandmother that their grandchild's huge skull means he or she will probably be a genius. No, Granny Dumbass, that kid's just ugly. People throughout the ages have assumed that brain size has some correlation with intelligence, which is why really intelligent people in pop culture have always been portrayed as having giant, bulbous noggins, and stupid people have tiny little pea brains.
As illustrated by this educational cartoon.
Here's one clue: human beings don't have the biggest brains in the animal kingdom -- that award goes to the sperm whale, whose brain actually weighs about 9 kilograms (that's a little more than six times the size of a human brain). Dolphins also have bigger brains than us. Does it make them smarter? When was the last time a dolphin landed on the moon?
Where's your iPad?
The fact is, brain size doesn't have much to do with intelligence. That's why mice can navigate mazes but whales keep getting caught in fishing nets. It's not the size that counts, it's what you do with it. You're not going to get any smarter by swapping your brain with a big, juicy elephant brain -- you're just going to stand around like an idiot trying to pick things up with your nose. As it turns out, brain size correlates pretty much with how big the animal is, and that's about it.
And among individual humans, brain size has no visible effect on standardized intelligence tests. And though lots of dubious claims have been made about men being smarter than women because they have larger brains on average, the average IQ among men and women is pretty much exactly the same. Men have around 4 billion more brain cells than women, but there's no measurable difference in intelligence, so presumably those are the cells that males devote to learning the process of peeing various shapes into snow.
Read more from J. N. Chaney at his blog, jnchaney.wordpress.com.
For more pieces of bullshit you believe, check out 6 Inspiring Rags to Riches Stories (That Are Bullshit) and 6 Bullshit Facts About Psychology That Everyone Believes.
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