8 Brain 'Facts' We All Get Wrong

iStock
iStock

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.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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