5 Bullshit Facts About the Brain That Everyone Believes
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 ...
"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)?
"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.
"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!
"I Guess I'm Just Not a Math Person!"
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.
"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.
Pictured (middle): speaking to fellow Nobel laureate, David Gross, and some other guy.
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.
"Play This Brain-Training Game, and It'll Make You Smarter!"
Ads for brain-training games are among the more harmless things you can bump into online. Unlike certain other self-improvement ads, they don't require you to buy a terrifying (yet useless) pump device or a bottle of dubious pills. All you need to do is dick around online and play some browser game, which, let's face it, you'd probably be doing anyway.
"Uh, yeah, games ..."
It's easy, it's cool, and although these brain-training game programs tend to cost a little bit of money, it's all cool because according to research, they work like a dream. So is it any wonder brain-training games for kids alone have boomed into a $300 million industry?
It turns out brain games are just a pseudo-neuroscientific version of a penis pump: They might be cool to play with, but ultimately offer zero beneficial effects, despite what the brochure claims.
Coincidentally, playing brain games can turn you into a huge dick, though.
Most studies that say brain-training games actually do what they advertise aren't exactly up to snuff. In fact, some of them look like their author faked their way through science school in full knowledge that a shady multimillion-dollar industry is prepared to throw money at them anyway. Here's what prolonged playing of a brain game does to you: you get better at it. Seriously, that's it. It's like receiving reading materials for an intelligence test; study and you'll get awesome marks, but you're not going to be any more intelligent.
To set things straight, the BBC got 11,430 people to play brain-training games for six weeks. Just like the research promoting brain-training games says (and just like things tend to happen when you practice something for six full weeks), their performance in the games improved dramatically. However, the catch was that the test subjects then took actual, generalized intelligence tests after those six weeks -- something the pro-brain game studies had shockingly failed to include in the mix. By now, you can probably guess that it turned out all that brain training didn't make anyone any smarter.
But you can do inequalities like a motherfuckin' boss.
And speaking of questionable intelligence-boosting strategies ...
"Omega-3 Is Awesome Brain Food!"
The brain is just an organ, and it makes sense that what you eat and drink affects how well it works (if you're unclear on the concept, go shotgun a fifth of vodka and then try to build a robot). And everybody knows fish is "brain food."
Specifically omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts, and those fish oil supplements your weird aunt keeps snacking on, are to brain what alcohol is to your self-esteem: a reliable, if often foul-tasting lubricant for the gears. Omega-3 has been credited with any amount of brain awesomeness, from increasing your brain volume to improving your memory.
"And all this time I've been trying to increase volume with meningitis and head trauma like a sucker!?!"
So why don't we all put a tiger in our think tank by shoveling a ton of fish oil in our collective face? Game on, Einsteins!
Well, for one, there's the fact that there is no reliable evidence about omega-3 fatty acids doing much to our brainpower.
These studies may have been sponsored by fish.
The idea of omega-3 fatty acids being brain food comes from the fact that our brains already contain quite a lot of the stuff. Using the time-tested "you are what you eat" method, people figured that eating more of it must make them smarter. However, none of the supposed brain benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids have been conclusively proven. Oh, it has been researched, all right. It's just that the early-2000s research that is largely responsible for omega-3's reputation was ... not the best science. Studies omitted stuff like control groups and double-blind studies (where both researchers and subjects are unaware who take which pill in order to reduce subjectivity), and chose subjects with cherry-picked ailments. As such, none of those tests resulted in a published, peer-reviewed paper, which you may recognize as a vital step in a process to any kind of scientific trustworthiness.
So, it's no surprise that a few eyebrows were raised when a test with double-blinds, placebos, and all the other trimmings emerged in 2010 and found virtually no brainpower difference between omega-3'd kids and a placebo group (there were only three significant differences in their performance, and one of them was actually in favor of the placebo group). It's not just kids who fail to cash in on omega-3's supposed superpower, either: Here's a study on post-menopausal women that says omega-3 fatty acids are completely useless as brain juice (and we've already pointed out that the stuff may even be useless in its other famous function, which is preventing heart disease).
Nice work, fat acid.
So why do plenty of professionals keep insisting that omega-3 is such a hot substance? Well, we don't want to insinuate anything, but we are looking you squarely in the eye while lightly nodding towards the fact that omega-3 supplements are a goddamn multibillion-dollar business in America alone.
"Two Heads Are Better Than One!"
There's a reason your boss forces you to routinely work with people you hate, apart from the fact that he loathes your sorry ass: The more brainpower you strap on a project, the easier it is to get great results. And how could something literally every office does be wrong? Shit, we don't even need to venture outside Cracked to find plenty of precedent for the superior performance of groups; we've already covered the many things crowds are way better at than experts.
Why else do people say "mobs rule?"
The whole "more brains, better brainstorming" line of thinking would work just fine ... if we were robots. In humans, the social element of multiple minds working together leads to conformity, which incidentally is kryptonite for creativity. We are social animals first and foremost -- our ability to fit in with a group has been our No. 1 survival trait for a few hundred thousand years now. That means our fear of not fitting in is going to override our logical thinking much of the time (see: Every stupid fad you joined in with as a teenager).
That's not to say group decision-making doesn't have its merits -- it has plenty; they're called democracy. But there are plenty of pitfalls that can corrupt the end result of the process into a shadow of a fraction of the original intent.
Otherwise known as "marketing departments."
Picture a group of great minds working as a team. The idea behind sticking them together is to get them brainstorming by bouncing ideas off each other, thus eventually coming up with a Voltronized super-idea that will crush all competition beneath its iron heel and lead the company to success. In practice, things tend to work in a very different way: Thanks to a brain phenomenon known as cognitive fixation, everyone in the group tends to focus on the other persons' ideas instead of their own. And since everyone is focusing on the stuff other people spew out, the ideas they themselves produce tend to be less than sterling.
Then, our brain actively makes things worse by tricking us into seeing things in a way that lines up with the bullshit beliefs the group is spewing out, even when said beliefs are fundamentally stupid and wrong. The brain makes sure we conform by actually punishing us for voicing a minority opinion; every word that disagrees with the way the group is going makes the neurons in our amygdala shake in their boots and light up. Remember our anti-social, asshole geniuses from the first entry? Maybe their secret isn't that they are unclouded by emotion, but that they simply are more easily able to shrug off peer pressure.
"Daniel, that is an excellent, well-thought suggestion, but I don't give a fuck what you think."
Limiting the group size to two doesn't necessarily help, either, because the second you add another head in the mix, we have a tendency to become overconfident, which leads us to ignore outside advice and makes it difficult to change our opinion, even when experts tell us it's flat-out wrong. All you need is one person agreeing with you to convince yourself you're infallible.
Of course, in many cases you have to work with others simply because they have information and/or experience that you don't. This paradox is the reason why our culture simultaneously pounds us with morals emphasizing teamwork ("We can accomplish anything if we work together!") and individualism ("Would you jump off a bridge just because all of your friends did it?"). Whether or not you should go your own way or trust the group really depends on who turns out to be right, after the fact.
"Hindsight, you son of biiiiiiii-"
Yeah, it's kind of amazing that we humans are able to get anything done.
Follow Enrique Fuerte on Twitter.
For more facts about our gray matter, check out 5 Ways to Hack Your Brain Into Awesomeness and The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Ways Your Brain Can Malfunction.
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