23 July 2019

The failure of neuroscience education

In every field of science, there are certain basic facts. These are the facts that if you get them wrong, mark you as naïve at best and foolish at worst.

In chemistry, one of those facts might be that everything is made of atoms.

In astronomy, one of these facts might be that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way round.

In geography, geology, and astronomy, one of those facts might be that the earth is round and not flat.

These basic sorts of facts are often used to assess people’s scientific literacy. We consider it important that people be educated in these.

But neuroscience has failed in conveying its most basic facts. Case in point:

The myth that “We only use ten percent of our brain.”

People believe this. I mean, they really believe it.

I’ve heard multiple people mention it at public scientific lectures. I’ve answered dozens of questions about this on Quora, where some version of it crops up every few days.

And that damn Luc Besson movie didn’t help.

From a neuroscientist’s point of view, saying “We only use ten percent of our brain” is as big an error as saying, “The earth is flat.”

A few moments of thought should show why it can’t be true. We never hear a physician say things like, “Well, the bullet went through your skull, but luckily, it went through the 90% of you brain you never use.” It has no basis in reality.

If you go to the Society for Neuroscience to see what scientists say about this, you might find their  outreach page. There, have to navigate to their “Brain Facts” page (which should be “About Brain Facts”, not the actual landing page for “Brain Facts”), dig down to their “Core concepts” and under “Your complex brain” you can read:

There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, all of which are in use.

So the leading professional society for neuroscience counters the 10% brain myth with a sentence fragment that is hard to find and weakly worded.

If I was leading neuroscience education, my goal would be to make, “We use 100% of our brain” the sort of bedrock scientific fact that we expect people should know.

Postscript: The 10% myth probably dates back to 1936, when American writer Lowell Thomas wrote the foreword to one of the best all-time sellers, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Thomas was summarizing an idea of psychologist William James: that people have unmet potential. Most of us could learn Russian, but don’t. We could learn to play a musical instrument, but don’t. We could learn how to repair a 1963 MGB sports car, but don’t.

Thomas added a falsely precise percentage: “Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten per cent of his latent mental ability.” Somewhere along the line, “mental ability” became “brain.” This isn’t surprising, since the notion that “Thoughts come from our brain” is a scientific fact that is widely known. That’s our “Sun is at the center of the solar system” fact.

External links

Do we really only use ten percent of our brain?

“Teach the controversy” image from a super cool T-shirt from Amorphia.

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