Mind Myths

Radio 4's psychologist Claudia Hammond makes it her cheerful mission to slay 5 common myths about the brain and its workings.

Neuroscientific nonsense in Claudia's cross hairs includes the notion that we only use 10% of our brains.

Another is that the right side of our brains is the site of our creative, intuitive selves and is all too often repressed by our cold, logical left hemispheres.

The brain scientists whom Claudia consults are cross about these myths in part because, too often, writers of self-help books, purveyors of CDs aimed at making your children cleverer and management gurus claiming to unleash latent neurological powers have made money on the back of misconceptions.

This money has come out of the public purse as well as those of individual consumers.

Some of this Bad Neuroscience is promulgated in some British schools.

The commonest and, arguably, most ludicrous notion is the one that we only use 10% of our brains and that 90% of our grey matter sits idly waiting for us to somehow access it.

The most recent cultural outing of this myth was in the plot of the Hollywood movie 'Limitless'.

Brain scientists say this untapped reserve does not exist.

One proof that this is incorrect lies in the experience of people who have had relatively modest amounts of brain tissue die and yet they are catastrophically incapacitated.

On a trip to a scanning lab at University College, London, Claudia hears from neuroscientist Sophie Scott that experiments monitoring brain activity also reveal the myth to be just that.

Functional brain imaging machines quite definitely show that large swathes of neural circuitry are hard at work even when we do something simple like moving our fingers.

Professor Scott says she frequently encounters the 10% myth.

Her most eyebrow-raising experience was when she went on a first aid course.

The trainer told his class that head injuries usually didn't matter because 90% of the brain didn't do anything.

The trainer didn't thank Professor Scott for the neuroscience primer she felt obliged to give.

Claudia talks to American neuroscientist Eric Chudler about the genesis of the myth.

Its origin is murky but it might have been a misquote of the famous early 20th century US psychologist William James.

James once wrote that most people only use "10% of their intellectual potential." This phrased morphed into 10% of the human brain in the early self-help best-seller 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' published in 1930s.

The birth of this example of Neuro-nonsense has also been attributed to Einstein.

Talking of geniuses, Claudia also examines the notorious 'Mozart Effect' - the concept that playing the music of Mozart to young children and babies will make them grow into more intelligent people by enhancing brain development.

This myth started with a science paper in the journal Nature in 1993.

The research described an experiment in which adult students were a bit better at a spatial reasoning test after listening to Mozart than students who heard a relaxation tape or nothing at all.

The sonata-charged enhancement wore off after 15 minutes.

Yet within a few years this interesting observation had snowballed into the idea that playing Mozart to young children made them brainier.

Quite an industry built up around selling Mozart CDs for this purpose.

In 1998 the US state of Georgia started issuing mothers of newborn babies with their own Mozart CDs.

People theorised that the complexity and rhythms of Mozart's music had a biological influence on the wiring of the brain.

The truth turns out to be more mundane and that any temporary boost of your performance in a test could just as validly be called the GaGa Effect as the Mozart Effect.

The five myths in the programme are:

We only use 10% of our brains.

Our right brain is creative and intuitive, our left brain is logical and rational.

Our brains stop developing when we are young children.

The 'Mozart Effect'

The full moon turns some people mad and dangerous.

Producer: Andrew Luck-baker.

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Radio 4's psychologist Claudia Hammond makes it her cheerful mission to slay 5 common myths about the brain and its workings.

Neuroscientific nonsense in Claudia's cross hairs includes the notion that we only use 10% of our brains.

Another is that the right side of our brains is the site of our creative, intuitive selves and is all too often repressed by our cold, logical left hemispheres.

The brain scientists whom Claudia consults are cross about these myths in part because, too often, writers of self-help books, purveyors of CDs aimed at making your children cleverer and management gurus claiming to unleash latent neurological powers have made money on the back of misconceptions.

This money has come out of the public purse as well as those of individual consumers.

Some of this Bad Neuroscience is promulgated in some British schools.

The commonest and, arguably, most ludicrous notion is the one that we only use 10% of our brains and that 90% of our grey matter sits idly waiting for us to somehow access it.

The most recent cultural outing of this myth was in the plot of the Hollywood movie 'Limitless'.

Brain scientists say this untapped reserve does not exist.

One proof that this is incorrect lies in the experience of people who have had relatively modest amounts of brain tissue die and yet they are catastrophically incapacitated.

On a trip to a scanning lab at University College, London, Claudia hears from neuroscientist Sophie Scott that experiments monitoring brain activity also reveal the myth to be just that.

Functional brain imaging machines quite definitely show that large swathes of neural circuitry are hard at work even when we do something simple like moving our fingers.

Professor Scott says she frequently encounters the 10% myth.

Her most eyebrow-raising experience was when she went on a first aid course.

The trainer told his class that head injuries usually didn't matter because 90% of the brain didn't do anything.

The trainer didn't thank Professor Scott for the neuroscience primer she felt obliged to give.

Claudia talks to American neuroscientist Eric Chudler about the genesis of the myth.

Its origin is murky but it might have been a misquote of the famous early 20th century US psychologist William James.

James once wrote that most people only use "10% of their intellectual potential." This phrased morphed into 10% of the human brain in the early self-help best-seller 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' published in 1930s.

The birth of this example of Neuro-nonsense has also been attributed to Einstein.

Talking of geniuses, Claudia also examines the notorious 'Mozart Effect' - the concept that playing the music of Mozart to young children and babies will make them grow into more intelligent people by enhancing brain development.

This myth started with a science paper in the journal Nature in 1993.

The research described an experiment in which adult students were a bit better at a spatial reasoning test after listening to Mozart than students who heard a relaxation tape or nothing at all.

The sonata-charged enhancement wore off after 15 minutes.

Yet within a few years this interesting observation had snowballed into the idea that playing Mozart to young children made them brainier.

Quite an industry built up around selling Mozart CDs for this purpose.

In 1998 the US state of Georgia started issuing mothers of newborn babies with their own Mozart CDs.

People theorised that the complexity and rhythms of Mozart's music had a biological influence on the wiring of the brain.

The truth turns out to be more mundane and that any temporary boost of your performance in a test could just as validly be called the GaGa Effect as the Mozart Effect.

The five myths in the programme are:

We only use 10% of our brains.

Our right brain is creative and intuitive, our left brain is logical and rational.

Our brains stop developing when we are young children.

The 'Mozart Effect'

The full moon turns some people mad and dangerous.

Producer: Andrew Luck-baker.