Popular Brain Myths We All Thought Were True: The Torch Podcast

AN INTERVIEW WITH Professor Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.

On this episode of The Torch, we examine what we have learned from neuroscience about several brain myths including – do we really only use 10% of our brain, can we multitask effectively, are male and female brains different?

Here to discuss, “Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience” is Indre Viskontas, Ph.D. and Cognitive Neuroscience Affiliate at the University of San Francisco.

The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Ed Leon: Do you think there are more brain myths than in other parts of science? The brain is so fascinating to us.

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, I do. I mean, we all have a brain.  The thing is we all think we know our own brains. At the same time, we all know that if we can make our brain a little bit better, that can be a huge benefit to us. People latch on to great stories and little tidbits, and now neuroscience is such an exploding field that there’s all kinds of data out there. I think one of the big issues is that people over interpret the data. They see one data point and they blow it up into a huge theory and that’s how a myth is born.

Ed Leon: I see. Because we get studies all the time, right? A study that shows this, this, and that. Let’s talk about some of the biggies. We only use ten percent of our brains… right?

Indre Viskontas: Well, so this myth can be interpreted in two ways … One, you only use ten percent of your physical brain, right. You have this ninety percent of physical Image of idea of "feeding your brain"brain that we don’t use. That’s obviously not true because your brain is metabolically costly, right. It takes a lot of energy to fuel it. There’s no way that we’d be walking around with such a gas guzzler if we didn’t use the whole thing. The other interpretation is, okay, well, you only use ten percent of your brain’s potential … And a lot of people point to somebody gets a bump in the head and all of the sudden, they speak Italian, as evidence of this, right.

Ed Leon: Right.

Indre Viskontas: Now, when you dig more deeply into each of these stories, usually, what happens is people change in terms of what they’re interested in. They get obsessed about a language, they start thinking about it more, and more, and more. It’s not that all of the sudden you have this unleashed perfect skill that’s been developed.

Ed Leon: That has happened, though, right?

Indre Viskontas: Well, I think you have to look at each case by case. The cases that I’ve studied have all had this, essentially, the shift with the person’s interests. If you look at the actual skills, like, for example, there’s a pianist that people tout. Oh, he had an accident and all of the sudden he could play the piano beautifully. If you actually analyze his piano skills, he’s just kind of playing these exercises. It’s really not that technically challenging but it sounds beautiful.

Ed Leon: Talk a little bit, you mentioned the studies, let’s talk a little bit about neuroplasticity. Have we overhyped neuroplasticity?

Indre Viskontas: I think to a lot of extent we have, in the sense that people think it’s as simple as, oh, I can just play a bunch of brain training games and I can become smart in many different ways. The thing with neuroplasticity is that it is limited by your biology, right. There are some times in your life when your brain is more plastic, when you’re a kid, for example. There are some skills that are more plastic than others. For example, it might be easier to learn some kind of fine motor skill than to sort of change the way your whole brain functions. In terms of the brain training games, the big issue here is, is what you’re doing on the computer transferring to the kinds of skills that you want it to transfer to… which is going to help you remember your groceries when you get to the grocery store. That’s still a really big issue. We don’t see a lot of transfer in a lot of these brain training tools, but we’re getting better at understanding the kinds of skills that might transfer and how to hone them.

We don’t see a lot of transfer in a lot of these brain training tools, but we’re getting better at understanding the kinds of skills that might transfer and how to hone them.

Ed Leon: Have you read some of the studies that those companies have touted?

Indre Viskontas: Absolutely. I hope I’ve read almost all of them. Certainly, there are some companies that are better than others in terms of how much science they put up. Also, in terms of the claims they make and of course, some companies have gotten slapped by the FDA. I think that’s really important, but I also think that there is a future to this. The thing that I’m really excited about, between you and me, and everyone else here… Is virtual reality.

Ed Leon: Yeah, we are, too.

Indre Viskontas: Because all of the sudden, you put yourself into this immersive environment and now you can do things like practice skills. I mean, you can practice being a surgeon.

Ed Leon: Why is that more powerful?  Neurologically speaking, in terms of learning.

Indre Viskontas: So for one thing, it mimics the entire experience much better, and we all know that we don’t just learn by reading or just by looking, we learn by being immersed in an experience, right. The more you can shape that immersive experience and make it as if someone can practice that skill …

Ed Leon: Where’s the threshold for immersive? Is it a spectrum or does it happen, like, at some point we cross into, oh, yeah, the brain feels that this is totally immersed?

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer to that. When I first put on the VR stuff … I tried two Oculus Rift and the other one, and I have to say, it felt like a big shift almost immediately. In fact, I was sitting on this chair and I was convinced that I was moving and the chair wasn’t moving.

Ed Leon: Exactly! I’ve done them, too. Here at The Great Course, we’re exploring ways in which we’re going to do types of learning in virtual reality and these types of immersive technologies are so amazing. The Rift and the HTC Viver, they’re incredible.

Indre Viskontas:  It’s so awesome. There’s this one thing that was just a screensaver, right?

Ed Leon: Yes.

Image of little child playing game in virtual reality glasses.Indre Viskontas: I was in the bottom of the ocean and this big blue whale swam by… I swear, for the first time, I could actually conceive of how big a blue whale is. Up until then, it was like, okay, it’s big. Imagine teaching math to kids by being able to show them, put them into an environment where they can make these connections between this is a different measurement, this is a size, this is a magnitude, and we can manipulate these shapes. Yeah, I’m excited.

Ed Leon: Yeah. You mentioned the brain training games, they are, for the most part, some of the ones I’ve seen, they’re like computer games or video games. How about doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku? Does that transfer into better agility for your thinking?

Indre Viskontas: Certainly, keeping your brain active is really, really important. We see that in a lot of studies. To be honest, I’m not sure that Sudoku is any worse than a lot of these brain training games that I see on the computer. In fact, if they don’t strain your eyes, it might even be better if you’re not used to looking at screens. Again, it depends very much on what exact game you’re talking about …If you’re choosing these solitary activities instead of going out and being social, there’s a cost that you pay for that.

Ed Leon: Let’s talk a little bit about another myth and that is, I don’t know if it’s a myth, are you exploding this one, the idea that left brained people are logical, right brained people are creative. People, in case they don’t know, not only you’re a neurologist, you’re an opera singer.

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, neuroscientist, that’s right …

Ed Leon:  Yeah.

Indre Viskontas:   And an opera singer.

Ed Leon: Yes.

Indre Viskontas: I’ve had these two sides of my career that I’ve sort of continued to train actively. A lot of people say, well, how can you go from one to the other? To me, there’s a lot of overlap, but also, it’s not as different to switch from opera to singing as it is to switch between any tasks like writing and teaching, for example.

Ed Leon: Maybe that’s you, maybe you’re using your whole brain. You’re using eighty percent of your brain.

Indre Viskontas: I’m using my whole brain, and so are you, so is everybody. The answer to your question is we don’t actually see a lot of dominance of one hemisphere or another, we see a lot of communication between hemispheres.

Ed Leon: Where did that thinking come from?

Imge of Left Right Brain Concept
The two hemispheres of our brain are in constant communication with each other

Indre Viskontas: It came from a number of different studies, but one that was really popular was looking at patients that we call split brain because the tract that connects the two hemispheres was severed because they had epilepsy, and they wanted to control seizure activity in one or the other hemisphere, so the neurosurgeons would clip that part. Or looking at patients with epilepsy who have damage to one side of the brain or the other and noticing how if it’s a right-sided damage there are different deficits than if there’s left-sided damage. From these patient groups, we’ve gotten this idea that, yeah, the left and the right hemispheres, they have different functions, but what you miss is that for the majority of us, those two hemispheres are so intricately linked, they’re communicating together so much of the time that you have to really look for ways in which we can query one hemisphere or another. Most of us don’t have the problem that, oh, we’re only using our left hemisphere, we’re using both hemispheres.

Ed Leon: Does the course cover emotions and why we react so strongly to emotions?

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, so emotions go through a lot of the different lectures. There isn’t a specific lecture on emotions but there’s certainly lectures on things like dreams and the finding that, in fact, dreaming is a lot about getting through your emotions and figuring out how you can get information from the things that gave you emotional reactions that you can use but separate them from the emotions. Let me, without spoiling too much, let me tell you one awesome, quick finding. People with PTSD, they dream differently, and what happens when they’re dreaming is that their adrenaline levels are high. When you and I dream, if we don’t have PTSD.

Ed Leon: Right.

Indre Viskontas: Our adrenaline levels are the lowest they are in the entire day when we dream.

Ed Leon: Really? Even if it’s a scary dream?

Indre Viskontas: Especially if it’s a scary dream. The idea is is that what we’re doing is we’re taking that emotional memory, which we actually do dream about, and we’re stripping away the emotion and just leaving the core of the idea that we need to remember. Okay, that things was scary, I need to remember that, but I don’t want to relive that whole emotional experience every time it comes to mind. A person with PTSD doesn’t have that ability to not get into that emotional experience, and so when they dream, they don’t have this therapeutic effect of stripping the memory from its emotion.

Ed Leon: Are brain scans showing us anything new?

Indre Viskontas: Oh, brain scans are showing us a lot that’s new. What we’ve learned from brain scans, for example, that our entire brain is active most of the time, which we didn’t have the tools to see that before we had brain scans. We’ve also fallen into the trap of thinking that just by scanning our brains, we can make what’s called a reverse inference, which is if I see that this part of your brain is active when I’m scanning it, it must mean that you are thinking X, Y, or Z. When, in fact, we can’t make that reverse inference because, of course, every brain area has multiple functions. I don’t know if when your brain area’s active that it’s doing function X or function Y.

Ed Leon:  Yeah. Consciousness, sort of the holy grail of what we don’t understand. How do you treat that in the course and how the brain plays into it?

Indre Viskontas: Yes, so there’s two lectures on consciousness, both which I’m really excited about. One is, is consciousness an on, off switch, right? Is it as simple as I’m conscious now, I’m not conscious now? The truth is is that it’s a continuum. We talk about the evidence for that and I think some things that will surprise people, I don’t want to give too much away. I hope that it sort of makes people rethink consciousness. The other is, are animals conscious?

Ed Leon: Yeah, I was going to ask you— conscious, emotion, dreaming? Do animals do those things?

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, they do do those things. In some ways, they do them better than us, depending on the animal, and of course, in different ways. One of the main focuses of the course, a through line, is that we look at evolution to understand how these behaviors emerged and got us to where we are, so we need to look at other species, we need to look at our ancestors and so forth. When we can see tidbits of what makes our human mind so marvelous in another species, it helps us understand how we got here.

Ed Leon: Awesome. Last time you were here, when you were doing Twelve Essential Scientific Concepts, you were pregnant with your first child. How’s your son?

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, he’s good. He’s almost three now.

Ed Leon: These courses take a long time, don’t they?

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, no, he’s doing really well. I have to say he’s certainly changed the way I view the brain.

Ed Leon:  I was going to say, it’s like you’re watching a brain develop in real time.

Indre Viskontas: Yeah, and it’s really frightening, as a parent, to know how Image of little boy and a colorful brain sketchmuch influence you have, and yet, you don’t. I mean, his personality emerged from the minute he was born, there was already things that we saw in him that surprised us. That’s continued but also, there’s a big weight on the shoulders of parents to sort of give their children the experiences they need to develop.

Ed Leon: The course is called “Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons From Neuroscience” its coming from The Great Courses and it’s going to be awesome. Indre Viskontas, thank you so much.

From the lecture series Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons From Neuroscience
Taught by Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.