8 Brain 'Facts' We All Get Wrong

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Are you left-brained or right-brained? The correct answer is “neither.” Read on to find out the science behind this and seven other brain “facts” we all get wrong.

1. A BIGGER BRAIN IS A BETTER BRAIN.

Nope. After all, humans believe we’re the smartest animals on the planet, but elephant brains are three times larger than ours. And whale brains? Forget it. 

Intelligence isn’t about relative size, either. Human brains make up about 2 percent of our body mass, which is pretty impressive. But tree shrew brains are a full 10 percent of their body mass, and they drink beer for a living.

So when it comes to brains, size isn't the most important thing. Hominid brain size did increase as we evolved, but scientists say that the secret to our smarts is complexity. And nobody can beat us there; neuroscientist Gerard Edelman has even described the human brain as “the most complicated object in the universe.” Your cerebral cortex alone has between 19 and 23 billion neurons, and each neuron can connect to other neurons tens of thousands of times. 

2. PEOPLE ARE EITHER LEFT-BRAINED OR RIGHT-BRAINED.

There are certain tasks that draw more on one side of your brain than the other, but everything you do uses both hemispheres. There’s no evidence that the right half of your brain is more creative, or that the left is more analytical. The myth originated in the 1970s, from a paper by CalTech neuroscientist Roger W. Sperry. Sperry reported finding cognitive differences between the hemispheres. The media took the idea and ran with it. Sperry warned against oversimplifying or misinterpreting his findings, but by then the proverbial horse was out of the barn. 

The only people who are truly left- or right-brained are those who have undergone hemispherectomies—a surgery in which half of the brain is removed. The procedure is more common than you might think, and patients often go on to live full lives with no cognitive troubles. We'll have a story about this procedure and the impact it had on the life of one remarkable young woman later this week. 

3. WE ONLY USE 10 PERCENT OF OUR BRAINS.

Oh yeah? Which part are you using right now? The entire brain may not be active every second of every day, but if you want to breathe, sleep, and digest your food, you need the whole thing. 

Modern brain imaging techniques have given us actual pictures of the whole brain in action, which should have put this myth to bed. Instead, the 10 percent legend has persisted for years and years, in part thanks to movies and psychics who argue that the “other 90 percent" of your brain must be reserved for some supernatural purpose. This is absolute bunk. We'll look at this myth in more detail later in the week too.

4. GETTING OLDER MEANS LOSING YOUR MENTAL EDGE.

It’s not that black and white. Yes, certain cognitive functions like short-term memory, attention, and language learning begin to decline with age, but other mental skills actually improve. Many of these are social and emotional in nature, rather than analytical. This may be why these gains haven’t gotten as much attention as the losses: Laboratory tests focus more on cerebral tasks than on practical mental skills. 

Studies have shown that older people have larger vocabularies than younger people, and that they make better use of them. Older adults are happier with their lives, and their relationships are more harmonious. Being older means that you have access to a mental database of past problems and solutions, which helps you make choices in the present. Scientists call this a “cognitive template,” but most of us know it better as wisdom.

5. CLASSICAL MUSIC MAKES YOU SMARTER.

Making yourself (or your baby) sit through symphonies won’t do anything for your IQ. A 1993 study [PDF] did show that listening to Mozart improved spatial reasoning—but only spatial reasoning, and only for 15 minutes. Even that modest effect might have been overstated. A 2010 review of 40 studies on the subject found that none of them could reproduce the results of the original experiment.

And those classical music videos for babies aren’t doing anybody any favors. Infants and toddlers who watch TV—even Baby Mozart—learn fewer words than their peers.

Classical music is not like broccoli. You can’t put cheese on it, and the only reason to consume it is if you (or your baby) actually like it.

6. CROSSWORD PUZZLES WILL KEEP YOU SHARP.

Like classical music, crossword and Sudoku puzzles are terrific—but only if you actually enjoy them. 

In an interview on the subject with The New York Times, neuroscientist Molly Wagster of the National Institute on Aging was unequivocal: “People who have done puzzles all their lives have no particular cognitive advantage over anyone else.” 

There is one thing that doing crossword puzzles will make you good at: doing crossword puzzles. The more puzzles you complete, the better equipped you’ll be to notice patterns and recognize frequently used clues.

7. MEN ARE NATURALLY BETTER THAN WOMEN AT MATH.

Just like women are naturally better at washing the dishes, right? No. Come on.

Study after study [PDF] has shown that the gap in math and science test scores between girls and boys can be attributed not to natural ability, but to cultural messages. It’s called the stereotype threat: When a member of a group is exposed to negative stereotypes about that group, they perform poorly. Just requiring girls to check “female” before beginning a standardized test has been shown to significantly reduce their scores. The more a person is bombarded with expectations of failure, the more likely it is that he or she will fail.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin analyzed test scores [PDF] from 86 countries and found that average math scores for girls and boys were equal. Even in the United States, the gap has begun to narrow. 

"We have to stop selling T-shirts to girls that say, ‘I'm too pretty to do math,'” study co-author Jonathan Kane told CNN. "Our stereotypes are hurting our math education.”

8. YOUR BRAIN CAN'T CHANGE OR HEAL.

The brain you have now is the brain you’ve always had and always will … right? Wrong.

The human brain is astonishingly plastic and can adapt to all kinds of extreme situations. People who lose their sight find that their sense of hearing improves dramatically, because the brain dedicates more energy to auditory processing. And, as we’ve seen, people who’ve had half their brain removed can still function, because the remaining half takes up all the responsibilities. Our brains are not hard-wired in any sense of the word.

Our brains are also not a finite resource. Cells in the rest of our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced. For a long time, scientists believed that the brain was the exception to this rule, and that damaged brain cells would never grow back. We now know this isn’t the case.

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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.