“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
That was US President Barack Obama speaking in April 2013 at the launch of the multimillion dollar BRAIN Initiative. It stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” and the idea is to develop new ways to visualize the brain in action. The same year the EU announced its own €1 billion Human Brain Project to create a computer model of the brain.
This focus on neuroscience isn’t new – back in 1990, US President George W. Bush designated the 1990s the “Decade of the Brain” with a series of public awareness publications and events. Since then interest and investment in neuroscience has only grown more intense; some have even spoken of the twenty-first century as the “Century of the Brain.”
Despite our passion for all things neuro, Obama’s assessment of our current knowledge was accurate. We’ve made great strides in our understanding of the brain, yet huge mysteries remain. They say a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and it is in the context of this excitement and ignorance that brain myths have thrived. By brain myths I mean stories and misconceptions about the brain and brain-related illness, some so entrenched in everyday talk that large sections of the population see them as taken-for-granted facts.
With so many misconceptions swirling around, it’s increasingly difficult to tell proper neuroscience from brain mythology or what one science blogger calls neurobollocks , otherwise known as neurohvpe, neurobunk, neurotrash, or neurononsense. Daily newspaper headlines tell us the “brain spot” for this or that emotion has been identified .
Salesmen are capitalizing on the fashion for brain science by placing the neuro prefix in front of any activity you can think of, from neuroleadership to neuromarketing. Fringe therapists and self-help gurus borrow freely from neuroscience jargon, spreading a confusing mix of brain myths and self-improvement propaganda.
In 2014, a journalist and over-enthusiastic neuroscientist even attempted to explain the Iranian nuclear negotiations (occurring at that time) in terms of basic brain science.1 Writing in The Atlantic, the authors actually made some excellent points, especially in terms of historical events and people’s perceptions of fairness.
But they undermined their own credibility by labeling these psychological and historical insights as neuroscience, or by gratuitously referencing the brain. It’s as if the authors drank brain soup before writing their article, and just as they were making an interesting historical or political point, they hiccupped out another nonsense neu-ro reference.
This book takes you on a tour of the most popular, enduring and dangerous of brain myths and misconceptions, from the widely accepted notion that we use just 10 percent of our brains, to more specific and harmful misunderstandings about brain illnesses, such as the mistaken idea that you should place an object in the mouth of a person having an epileptic fit to stop them from swallowing their tongue .
I’ll show you examples of writers, filmmakers, and charlatans spreading brain myths in newspaper headlines and the latest movies. I’ll investigate the myths’ origins and do my best to use the latest scientific consensus to explain the truth about how the brain really works.