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.

Some Mathematicians Think the Equal Sign is On Its Way Out

Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images
Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images

A growing number of mathematicians are skeptical that the equal sign, traditionally used to show exact relationships between sets of objects, holds up to new mathematical models, WIRED reports.

To understand their arguments, it’s important to understand set theory—a theory of mathematics that’s been around since at least the 1870s [PDF]. Take the classic formula 1+1=2. Say you have four pieces of fruit—an apple, an orange, and two bananas—and you put the apple and the orange on one side of a table and the two bananas on the other. In set theory, that’s an equation: One piece of fruit plus one piece of fruit on the left side of the table equals two pieces of fruit on the right side of the table. The two sets, or collections of objects, are the same size, so they’re equal.

But here’s where it gets complicated. What if you put an apple and a banana on the left side of the table and an orange and a banana on the other side? That’s clearly different from the first scenario, but set theory writes it as the same thing: 1+1=2. What if you switched the order of the first set of objects, so instead of having an apple and an orange, you had an orange and an apple? What if you had only bananas? There are potentially infinite scenarios, but set theory is limited to expressing them all in only one way.

“The problem is, there are many ways to pair up,” Joseph Campbell, a mathematics professor at Duke University, told Quanta Magazine. “We’ve forgotten them when we say ‘equals.’”

A better alternative is the idea of equivalence, some mathematicians say [PDF]. Equality is a strict relationship, but equivalence comes in different forms. The two-bananas-on-each-side-of-the-table scenario is considered strong equivalence—all of the elements in both sets are the same. The scenario where you have an apple and an orange on one side and two bananas on the other? That’s a slightly weaker form of equivalence.

A new wave of mathematicians is turning to the idea of category theory [PDF], which is based in understanding the relationships between different objects. Category theory is better than set theory at dealing with equivalence, and it’s also more universally applicable to different branches of mathematics.

But a switch to category theory won’t come overnight, according to Quanta. Interpreting equations using equivalence rather than equality is much more complicated, and it requires relearning and rewriting everything about mathematics—even down to algebra and arithmetic.

“This complicates matters enormously, in a way that makes it seem impossible to work with this new version of mathematics we’re imagining,” mathematician David Ayala told Quanta.

Several mathematicians are at the forefront of category theory research, but the field is still relatively young. So while the equal sign isn’t passé just yet, it’s likely that an oncoming mathematical revolution will change its meaning.

[h/t Wired]

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

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