30 April 2012

Another Five Abominable Brain Myths

The day after I posted my first list of five brain misunderstandings that make me cringe, I remembered another cringe-worthy myth and have therefore been forced to compile an additional list.  For the record, #1 on this list really should have been #2 on the Top Five…

#5. Drugs will put holes in your brain.

Sure, hardcore drugs can kill you, but they don’t do it by putting holes in your brain.  I’m pretty sure D.A.R.E. is primarily responsible for spreading this myth, at least according to a few of my fellow nineties kids. 

First, let’s tackle the bit about what a “hole” is.  Generally speaking, the fastest (and only) way to get an actual hole into your brain is with a bullet or a tamping iron or something (see, for instance, Phineas Gage).  Otherwise, what one might call a “hole” is most often really a region of damaged brain which, while damaged and nonfunctional, is still packed with all sorts of fluids and tissue and whatnot. 

Your brain is a very densely-packed organ full of cells, bathed in a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid, encased in a skull.  If you endure damage to the brain that doesn’t open up the skull in the process, then the damaged brain regions are still going to be filled with all that kind of stuff.  If you happen to see an MRI of such a lesion (say, from a stroke or a tumor or something) it might look like a dark space in an otherwise bright brain, but all that means is that the water moving around in that region is not neatly organized like it is in the rest of the brain.

So keeping that caveat in mind, not too many drugs even damage your brain in a way that would create proper lesions like the kind described above.  In fact, I couldn’t come up with one.  Let me give you a list of popular drugs that certainly don’t put holes in your brain even when abused: heroin, cocaine, meth, pot, alcohol, ecstasy, LSD, prescription pills, mescaline, bath salts, roofies… I think I’m starting to stretch it here.  Some of these will mess you up all sorts, but unless they give you a stroke they’re not causing a brain lesion that would look like a hole to anyone.

Still, kids, just say no to drugs.

#4. Your brain is some other-entity that is separate from you.

I’m going to admit I managed to confuse myself no end trying to figure out what I want to say here, so bear with me.

I’m a hundred percent guilty of this idea of an other-entity brain.  I do it all the time in these very posts, suggesting that your brain is something different from you that does its own thing and occasionally gets up to mischief.  It’s called anthropomorphizing, assigning human characteristics to things that aren’t human. 

Anthropomorphism is an easy white lie that allows us to speak simply about complicated processes.  Your DNA wants to replicate itself, your brain decides things, and so forth.  Assigning wants and needs and decisions to probabilistic biological processes is a completely inaccurate representation of what’s really happening.  And I don’t have a problem with it, so long as it’s recognized as a rhetorical device that simplifies a conversation.  But it’s a problem if you see it as the whole picture.

Anthropomorphizing the brain is especially easy, because while a brain is simultaneously just an organ, a big glob of mush inside a person’s head, it is also the very essence of what makes that person that person.  I want to avoid getting into arguments about a soul and whatnot – that’s not what I mean.  I mean that it is easy to think of your brain as “you”, and also easy to see it as only a “thing”, and that makes talking about it difficult.  And complicating this matter further is that pesky word “mind”, which is somehow different still from a “brain” and falls somewhere else on this “you” versus “thing” spectrum.

The concept of “self” would take me all year and a few hundred pages to tap into, so all I’m going to say is that trying to determine who “you” are is a real bitch no matter how you cut it, and your “self” is an ever-changing, many-headed beast that is exceedingly difficult – if not impossible – to define.  And the brain is a vital facet of it.  A brain is nothing more than a bundle of neurons and synapses and electrical impulses, and it is also the material substrate of the emergent Self.  Just like electrons with their particle and wave properties, both the mundane biological Brain and the lofty cognitive Mind have to be thought of as two aspects of a singular whole, not discrete entities.  It’s an ugly and difficult undertaking.

As humans we need to have agents separate from ourselves to explain certain of our actions, like addictions (“I try so hard to stop but my brain just won’t let me”).  Your brain has to be that cognizant little scapegoat and it has to be something separate from you.  And it really feels that way, too.  You feel like there’s some ugly little demon sitting inside your head telling you to do bad things.  It’s that fabled devil on your shoulder exactly.  You can have that cognitive dissonance and I wouldn’t dream of taking it from you.

Here’s the thing.  Your brain isn’t separate from your mind or yourself – it’s all one big package.  At the same time, your brain is not a conscious entity.  Believing that your brain wants or needs or decides, that’s incorrect.  Your brain is a well-organized chemical soup that operates according to certain biological principals, and from that soup your glorious conscious Self emerges.  So you can trust that when I say your brain wants something, I’m only doing it to simplify a point.

#3. The brain is a muscle.

I don’t know whether people saying this mean “the brain is literally a muscle” or “the brain is like a muscle in that the harder you work it, the bigger/better it gets,” but I’m going to shoot down the entirety of the former and a major assumption of the latter.

First off – and I think this one is obvious – the brain is not literally an actual muscle.  Not in any way.  They’re made of wildly different tissue types and everything.

The second statement, that the brain is like a muscle, contains a critical caveat.  In some ways, the brain is like a muscle, in that you have to use it to keep it strong.  But no matter how hard people try to sell you their guaranteed fitness regimen to get you ready for the Brain Olympics or whatever, the unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of it is total bullshit designed to take your money.

I want to be careful what I say because it’s very important not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and I don’t want you to give up on those crosswords just yet.

Here are some things we know about the benefits of mental exercise.  People with higher education tend to fare better cognitively as they age.  So do people with mentally-challenging occupations.  This could be because those things help people get stronger brains, or it could be because people with strong brains tend to get higher education and mentally-challenging occupations.  Also, training people how to do various mental tricks can have long-lasting beneficial results (that’s the whole definition of learning, right?).

Here are some things we know about the limitations of mental exercise.  Generally speaking, a lot of the things we do to hone our mental abilities – crosswords, puzzles, list-learning, et cetera – just make us very good at tasks like crosswords, puzzles, list-learning, et cetera.  In other words, many mental exercises don’t generalize very well across entire cognitive domains like memory or processing speed. The idea of performing a set of discrete tasks to give yourself a better memory in particular is preposterous, so don’t believe any $50 computer program that promises to train you into having a better memory.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  But that’s not to say exercising your brain is hopeless.

If you want to make your brain into a lean, mean, information-crunching machine, then you need to engage it in a variety of novel tasks.  Go ahead and do that crossword – but also learn a new musical instrument and join a chess club and take up painting and go ride a bike.  The most important thing you should do to exercise your brain is to regularly teach yourself NEW things.  Don’t just get good at the same old things.  Get outside your comfort zone.  I mean that.  Get outside your comfort zone.  NEW and DIFFICULT things help your brain improve.

And keep in mind – none of this is going to make it any easier to remember that new acquaintance’s name at a cocktail party.  If you want to do that, go look up mnemonic tricks for how to remember people’s names and be done with it.

#2. Internet IQ tests give an accurate representation of one’s true IQ.

I’m going to show you a bell curve:

The middle line represents the average (µ) – in this case, the average IQ score.  Each line on either side of that represents one standard deviation (σ) from that average, and is always a set number of points.  The colors represent what percent of the population falls between each of those numbers. 

The standard Intelligence Quotient test (IQ test) is designed to fit on such a bell curve.  Researchers have tested thousands of people and then normalized the scores so that the average score (µ) is 100, and each standard deviation (σ) is 15 points away from that.  This means that 68.2% of the population has an IQ from 85–115, 95.4% of the population has an IQ from 70–130, and 99.7% of the population has an IQ from 55–145. 

To rework that just a little, 99.95% of the population has an IQ less than 145.  Keep that fact in mind.

I’m going to use myself as an example here.  I have an above-average IQ.  I don’t know exactly what it is.  The last time my IQ was tested I was five years old, and IQ tests of five-year-olds are notoriously difficult because they tend to vary a lot depending on the environment and the kid’s energy level, etc.  Before I could get my IQ tested as an adult, I learned how to administer an IQ test and now I’m ruined for IQ tests forever because they depend on me not knowing all the answers and tricks.  Nevertheless, based on other standardized tests I’m confident that I have a moderately above-average IQ.

Every single time I’ve taken an IQ test online (even long before I learned how to give the test), I’ve gotten a score anywhere from 140-170. 

That’s impossible.  For me, I mean.  That score would mean I’m smarter than 99.6% – 99.9998% of the American population.  Guys… I’m pretty smart, but I’m not that freaking smart. 

Put another way, an IQ over 155 (the middle of my internet scores) happens for 1 out of every 8,000 people.  There are less than forty thousand people with an IQ over 155 in the entire United States.  Do I really think I’m as good as the top 40,000 in the entire country?  Definitely not.  (And by the way, if I really had an IQ of 170 I’d be in the top 500, which is just laughably funny – hell, the test frankly starts to break down as a good measure once the numbers get that high.)

I’ve tested some people with IQ’s this high, and they are incredibly brilliant.  Incredibly brilliant.  I’d kill to be that smart.  I’ve also tested people with IQ’s around 80, and they’re also pretty darn smart.  I guess what I’m saying is that if you’ve got an IQ above 100, you should be very proud of yourself.  You’re smarter than half your country.  If you have an IQ above 115, congratulations!  You’re in the top 16% and that is very impressive indeed.

But don’t ever trust a free internet IQ test.  These tests aren’t structured like real IQ tests, they don’t probe even a fraction of the cognitive abilities a real IQ test does, they haven’t been correctly tested against thousands of people to get proper averages and standard deviations, and many are designed to inflate your ego because they want you to come back and click some more.  (I don’t want to say they’re always higher than your real IQ, by the way – they’re just not trustworthy and accurate.)

It’s also worth noting that even a standard IQ test probes a variety of cognitive abilities which in many ways have nothing to do with how well you function in society or as a human being.  IQ tests don’t tell how engaging or charismatic you are, they can’t say if you can run a company, they don’t test your ingenuity or your perseverance or your ability to empathize with your fellow man.  Those traits are all at least as important as your “intelligence”.  Some of the most amazing people I've ever met had an IQ less than 70.  So who really cares how many points you can rack up with the click of a mouse?

#1. Some people are “left-brained” and some people are “right-brained”.


Oh sure, I know what people mean when they say that.  They mean that some people (“right-brained” people) have brains that make them very creative and intuitive and free-thinking and whatnot – while other people (“left-brained” people) have brains that are more analytical and logical and objective.  Generally the people saying this are the ones who happily label themselves “right-brained” and despise “left-brained” people for being stiffs.

Before I explain the problem I’m going to repeat myself, because you can’t lose sight of this: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS LEFT-BRAINED AND RIGHT-BRAINED.

This ill-conceived notion came about in the wake of observations that certain brain functions tend to be lateralized to either the left or the right brain hemisphere.  For instance, your right brain hemisphere receives sensory input from and delivers motor commands to the left side of your body, while your left hemisphere controls the right side of your body.

Also, in most right-handed people, language is supported predominantly by left brain regions.  For lefties like me, on the other hand (pun not intended), language is more often spread across both brain hemispheres or dominant on the right – which makes sense, since we write out our language using our left hands and the left hand is controlled by the right hemisphere.

That said, the vast majority of brain functions don’t fall cleanly into one brain hemisphere or the other.  In fact, even for the ones in which one side of the brain does most of the work under normal operating conditions, if that side gets damaged the other side can usually pick up the slack.  (Practically the only cases in which this doesn’t occur very smoothly are in the above-mentioned sensation, motor control, and language production functions).  It is likely that each of the two hemispheres is processing somewhat unique aspects of the same information, because there are two of them and what’s the point of doing the exact same thing twice when you could be getting more out of what you’ve got?  (Ah, anthropomorphizing is so easy!)

The “X-brained” problem really started when poorly-informed people began making up a whole bunch of junk about all sorts of brain functions supposedly being fully lateralized when really they aren’t.   Then another layer was added when people started pigeonholing these constellations of “lateralized” functions into personality types, even though those “types” are inconsistently described and don’t match known lateralization patterns and have never been substantiated by any actual science (quite the opposite, in fact).  Finally and without any supporting evidence, people started arguing that they were “right-brained” or “left-brained” because they never understood math or because they were artistic geniuses or because they were ridiculously super-geeky, and all because we needed yet another label to attach to ourselves.

Whether we realize it or not, we seem to like calling ourselves names.  “Right–” and “left-brained” are particularly ugly to me, because self-labeling in this way is a blatant unwarranted dismissal of half of one’s potential merits.  It’s like saying “I’m just not good at math.”  I hate that phrase.  I’m not saying it’s not sometimes true.  I’m saying that by stating it, you are giving yourself a bye on having to apply any mathematical effort.  If you call yourself “left-brained”, you’re giving yourself an undeserved escape route off the creative path.  Math is not easy.  Creativity is not easy.  Saying you’ve got a certain type of brain or that you’re just not good at something is fabricating an untrue “unconquerable” biological obstacle that you don’t have a right to give yourself.

So what if you’re not good at math?  All that means is you’ve got to work harder, not that you get to quit.  If you’re not good at sports, or you’ve never been artistic, or you just can’t dance, work harder and actually test the bounds of what you can and can’t do.  There’s a difference between recognizing your limitations and giving up before you’ve even started, and “I’m not very good at X” and “I’ve always been X-brained” are both just ways of artificially limiting yourself.

In short, both “right-brained” and “left-brained” are nothing but meaningless self-deprecating insults, and now you should know better.


  1. Damn. Now I have no excuses to sit on the couch and avoid learning new things or working at things I am not good at.

    1. I apologize. If it makes you feel better, I've never been any good at motivation....

  2. So I've just read this, and I was wondering if I have permission to forget it and pretend I never did.
    Not because it's anything but awesome and entertaining, but because I really don't want to put the effort into overcoming my hatred of math and being right brained has always been my perfect excuse,

    Have a heart...don't take that away from me T_T

  3. Screw you! I'm going to skip all the x over y after applying the Pythagorean theorem type stuff and go ride my bike upside down and backwards. :p

  4. Oh God. Maybe I should clarify that I'm perfectly happy with people saying they hate math and never want to see it again as long as they live. You don't have to be right-brained to hate math, that's for sure.

    1. I don't really hate math, I've just never been that good at it. Partly because I didn't find it very interesting and therefore never tried to do all that well.

      Also, I always assumed it was common knowledge that online IQ test results were to be taken with a grain of salt. A very large grain of salt.

    2. A large grain of salt. Also, a LARGE shot of Tequila. Also also, I once scored 216 on an internet IQ test. I take that as gospel truth.

      ... Pity I don't believe in those gospel thingies

    3. I keep wanting to hit the "Like" button, except then I see it's actually it's the "Delete" button... Damn you, Blogger!

  5. So I just saw this article posted on facebook from a friend and since I am also a lucky lefty I always have to read such things. It made me think of this post and I went, "Would Kait find this an accurate description of left and right brain dealies?" Mostly where #3 & 4 refers to it. Inquiring minds want to know (me).

  6. Darn. I always liked to say that because I am left handed, I am in my right mind.

    My brain is ambidextrous, dammit. :)

  7. No doubt you are aware of this, but I was strengthened in the belief of bilaterality by the story of Jill Bolte Taylor (http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html) and also the video of the divided brain made by Iain McGilchrist (http://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI)
    I would be interested in your comment on those views.