What’s going on in my scull? The brain and its myths

A study dismissed some brain myths and explained what is wrong about such perceptions and what part of it aligns with scientific findings

How do people get an idea about what is going on in their brains? The brain acts continuously, even as we sleep, but we usually don´t take any notice of its constant activity. The brain is hidden behind hard bones and most internal organs usually are not objects of contemplation. According to Leder (1990) internal organs “disappear” from conscious awareness, because attention is directed to the world. Furthermore internal organs have limited sensory receptors and cannot be observed. This oblivion is interrupted when pain or discomfort is experienced. Hence we don´t pay much attention to our brain, unless it is a source of unease.

Yet knowledge about the brain is considered to have an increasing impact on everyday life and attention in mass media grew. But only few members of the public deploy neuroscientific ideas to understand their daily life (Pickersgill, Cunningham-Burley, Martin, 2011) and for the majority findings of brain research are abstractly important, but irrelevant for their self-understanding (Choudhury, McKinney, Merten, 2012). While scientific knowledge about the brain apparently plays a minor role in everyday life, popular brain myths exist. Such myths often formulate in catchy phrases the way the brain and its operations – or a specific part of it – are perceived, delimited and structured.  

In the course of his studies Henning Beck, graduate of the school for cellular & molecular neuroscience in Tübingen, came across many of such brain myths and presents an impressive selection of such everyday legends about the brain in his popular-scientific book “Hirnrissig”. Beck portrays very common ones, like that we use only 10 percent of our brains, that brain-jogging trains your cerebrum like a muscle, that so called brain-food bolsters learning, that drugs or alcohol kill our “grey” cells, or that happiness hormones trigger something like a runners-high for students and pave the way for learning-nightshifts. Some of them appear scientific, like individuals are either right- or left-brained. Left-brainers are supposedly more talented in math while right-brainers impress with creativity. Another myth, which Beck found in some high-circulation papers, alleges that the female brain ticks differently than the male.  

Henning Beck not simply dismisses these myths, rather he explains what is wrong about such perceptions and what part of it (unfortunately usually a very tiny part) aligns with scientific findings. Many of these myths exhibit a creative power to familiarize with distant knowledge and – at least to some extent – come to terms with it and individual experiences. By confronting these myths with scientific knowledge Beck clarifies meanings, limits and content, and thereby, hopefully, offers new options for understanding and usage.

Fostering understanding of brain processes is crucial as new tools for brain optimization are expected to emerge. We wonder if there are maybe national differences, or even brain-myth-trends? Will new scientific findings lead to new myths? For example, what will everyday knowledge production make of the gigantic complexity of the brain? Could that boost the belief in an unlimited capacity of the brain?

Beck, Henning: Hirnrissig. die 20,5 größten Neuromythen und wie unser Gehrin wirklich tickt; Carl Hanser Verlag, München, 2014

Choudhury, S., McKinney, K. A., & Merten, M. (2012). Rebelling against the brain: Public engagement with the ‘neurological adolescent’. Soc Sci Med, 74(4), 565-573. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.10.029

Leder, Drew: The Absent Body; University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990

Pickersgill, M., Cunningham-Burley, S., & Martin, P. (2011). Constituting neurologic subjects: Neuroscience, subjectivity and the mundane significance of the brain. Subjectivity, 4(3), 346-365.



By Simone Seyringer and Nicole Kronberger (Johannes Kepler University)