Brain and Body

7 Popular Brain Myths Debunked

November 13, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Plastic model of a brain
Photo credit: Franklin Heijnen/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nope, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells.

Our brains make us who we are. Our unique neural connections — about 100 trillion of them — work together to drive our impulses and fears, help us make decisions, form our memories — they constitute our minds. Undeniably so, understanding how this complex organ functions isn’t crystal clear. There’s bound to be some misconceptions about our intricate brains, but these 7 brain myths just won’t seem to go away.

1. Alcohol kills brain cells

We’re talking moderate amounts. Of course, excessive drinking and alcoholism aren’t very easy on the brain — years of chronic alcohol abuse will cause neurons to die. That also goes for alcohol exposure during periods of critical brain development, like the prenatal period and teenage years. However, research shows that even binge drinking doesn’t cause brain cells to die. In fact, studies have shown that moderate drinking can even have health benefits, like improved cognitive abilities and lower cholesterol. Despite the fact that seeing drunk people can easily give off the impression that they’re losing brain cells by the minute, a few drinks every here and there is neuroscience approved.

2. You only use 10% of your brain

Morgan Freeman is the man and all, but his role as a neuroscience professor in the 2014 film Lucy was wildly misleading. When addressing his lecture, he says, “It’s estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brains’ capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent.” While this offers a good premise for a sci-fi thriller, the whole 10 percent brain myth is one of the most stubborn brain myths of all. We, in fact, use all of our brain, but not all brain regions are active throughout each activity.

3. Classical music makes you smarter

Nope. Tons of hopeful parents play Baby Mozart to their little ones, hoping that the classical tunes will stimulate their brains and jumpstart their intelligence. Dubbed the Mozart Effect, there’s actually no evidence that classical music has ever made anyone smarter. It does, however, have certain benefits, like improved concentration, coordination, and self-confidence.

4. Drugs leave holes in your brain

The only thing that can actually put a hole in your brain is physical trauma. Drugs can certainly affect your brain in other detrimental ways, like disrupting the chemical reactions that create neurotransmitters and blocking communication between your nervous system and brain. But they won’t leave your brain looking like Swiss cheese — a popular miscommunication in high school health classes.

5. Male brains are better suited for math and science

This one’s gotta go. According to common myth, male brains are better for things like math and science, while female brains are better suited for empathy. Michael Nuñez, Popular Science's technology editor, told CBS, "Both male and female brains have the exact same cognitive potential and although there are very small anatomical differences, for the most part, the perceived differences between males and females and science and math are because of cultural expectations." So let go of the gender brain biases — women can be scientists and engineers, and men can have feelings too!

6. Ink blot tests can read into your psyche

Ben Ambridge, psychologist and author of Psy-Q, gave a TED talk on the 10 biggest psychology myths. He says using ink blot tests to try and determine someone’s personality or psyche doesn’t produce accurate results. In fact, a recent study found that if psychologists went by the rules of the ink blot test, then one in six people would be diagnosed with schizophrenia (only about 1.1% of the world’s population really has schizophrenia). Ambridge says the whole thing is a myth, and that all it really determines is whether you’re more of a visual person or not.

7. Some people are left-brained and some are right-brained

This is another one of the most stubborn brain myths. Supposedly, left-brainers are more logical while right-brainers are more creative. However, the brain doesn’t work like this. While some regions of the brain are more active during certain activities, no one is fully left or right brained. “No matter how lateralized the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together. The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship,” says Carl Zimmer, a prominent science writer and graduate of Yale University.

For some reason, these pseudoscience brain myths seem to persist through the years. However, our brains are much more complicated than boiling them down to left versus right or an ink blot test. The oversimplification of our most brilliant organ has no place in the world of science.

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