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Delving into the brain: what do we really know

The Skeptics Corner
By Dustin White

Throughout ones life, they are certain to have heard a number of myths about memory. It is no wonder as there is so many misconceptions on the subject, which often are passed on through a variety of sources as if they were fact.

It can be quite difficult to discern what is fiction, and what is science. In this weeks Skeptics Corner, we will be delving into a few of the more commonly quoted ideas about memory, and seeing whether they hold up to scrutiny.

We only use 10%
The idea that we only use a tiny fraction of our brains is an idea that is deeply cemented in public knowledge. It is a figure that often is used as a tool in fantasy and science fiction works in order to justify a character having supernatural powers. Currently, there is even a movie that uses the same idea in order to further their premise.

It is also a claim that can be heard by some real life individuals who claim that they have paranormal abilities, such as telekinesis or telepathy. Then others use it as a self-help technique, by explaining that if we can just unlock the rest of the brain, the things that we could achieve are endless.

The origin of the idea goes back to the 1890s. Harvard psychologist William James would tell audiences that people actually only meet a fraction of their full mental potential. This claim very well may be true, but he wasn’t suggesting that we only use part of our brains.

Nearly half a century later, in 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas took the quote from James, and added his own spin on the idea by adding a percentage to the claim. Thomas would write that James claimed that most humans only develop 10% of their latent mental ability.

Through repeating of this “fact,” the claim eventually changed from a statistic about using one’s mental potential, to what percent one’s brain actually was used. What was seen in the spreading of this idea was basically the “telephone game,” but on a larger scale.

Studies of the brain show a very different reality though. According to Neurologist Barry Golden, “we use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all of the time.”

That humans utilize the whole of their brain has also been supported through brain imaging technology. When the brain is monitored through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or positron emission tomography, all part of the brain show some level of activity, even while we sleep. While there are some exceptions to this, they generally only exist in the case of serious brain damage.

Studying brain damage has also helped neuroscientists shed light on this idea. When the brain is damaged in nearly any area, scientists have found that there is almost always some loss of ability. Even in cases where the damage is slight, there are still often profound effects. If we only used 10% of our brains, one could assume that most brain injuries would have no impact, as 90 percent of it wasn’t used.

There also doesn’t appear to be a reason as to why the brain would have developed to the size that it does if most of it was unused material. The brain also uses 20% of the bodies energy, which would be largely wasted if the majority of the brain was sitting idle.

Memory is like a hard drive
Often when people imagine the manner in which a brain works, they picture a computer hard drive or possibly a video camera. The idea is that the brain continually records and processes information in a way that allows for easy recall, as if one was simply going to a library and pulling memories off the shelf.

Instead, studies show that are continually being remolded. Each time we try to recall a memory, our brains reconstruct the events or ideas being recalled, and then rewrites that new configuration as it places that memory back into storage.

Later on, that memory will be transferred to another portion of the brain, where it is separated from the initial context, and replaced in a new one. Through this process, people often forget where they first encountered an idea. This phenomenon is called source amnesia.

Source amnesia can also have the effect that one forgets whether or not a statement is false. As it may take months for a memory to be reprocessed into our long term storage, the source can easily be forgotten, which then can lead some level of credence to the initial claim.

A Stanford study examined this idea by exposing students to an unsubstantial claim that Coke could be used as paint thinner. The study reported that students who read the statement five times were a third more likely to attribute the claim to a more credible source.

At the same time, the brain tends to reconstruct memories in order to fit the facts that one already has in their established mental framework. Thus, we have a higher tendency to remember ideas that agree with our worldview, and at the same time, discount those that contradict it.

In a different Stanford study, students were shown two pieces of evidence. One supported their views on capital punishment, while the other opposed their view. Individuals were seen to be more convinced by whatever evidence supported their preconceived notions.

Source amnesia also has another potential effect. Subconscious plagiarism happens when an individual has an idea they think is original, but instead, it is something they are just recalling but have forgotten the source.

Carl Jung first discovered this effect. While it can be hard to detect whether the person is purposefully ripping off another individual, or if it is purely accidental, it has had large impacts on some careers. One such example is with a fairy tale in which Hellen Keller had written when she was 11 years old.

Keller’s story was titled “The Frost King,” which was a short story about King Jack Frost. The story was eventually published in a number of journals, where others discovered that it appeared remarkably similar to a work called “Frost Fairies.” Keller claimed she did not recall having ever heard of the work.

Grass is greener
There is a tendency for some to think of times past as the “good old days.” Often one can find individuals who claim that they always respected authority figures when they were younger, that they would address all adults as “sir” and “madam,” and in general, were just wonderful children because that was simply how it was.

Often, such statements are ended with a wish that we could return to those times. As back then, crime was lower, people were more respectful and things in general were just better. Being relatively young myself, I have been surprised when I hear such statements from people I grew up with. Especially when I clearly remember them less than respectful to many of their teachers.

However, this tendency is hardly anything new. Throughout history, individuals have often looked to the past and saw what was a “golden age.” Confucius, living in the fifth century B.C.E. looked back and saw a time of wonderful splendor. Jews in the first century C.E. looked back at saw a time in which they lived in glory. Germany in the 20th century looked back and saw a time in which they were powerful and happy. In each generation there are people who look to previous times and see greatness, when individuals in that time period saw squalor and wished for a time in the past as well.

Today really is no different. Americans look back to a time just after WWII and imagine a country that was on top of the world. This is largely because of a shallow knowledge of history. So our memories instead fill in those gaps with images gleamed from sources that are far from credible. At the same time, people often forget negative times, and focus on the positive. So our minds form a depiction of the past that is largely missing pieces.

On the other hand, growing up, people often aren’t aware of the problems in the world, thus when they look back on the time period in which they lived, there memories suggest that that there was less turmoil.

Looking back on the 1950s, many people picture a time in which there were no worries and people were generally happy. However, such a view largely ignores that during this same time, housewives had an increasingly rate of alcoholism and substance abuse. This rate of abuse also correlated to a high rate of suicide. It also ignores that at this same time, segregation was legal, lynchings of African Americans was still common and domestic abuse was largely not reported. That is not to say that the 1950s were a horrible time to live, but that there needs to be a balanced look.

Another example of this problem is the idea that crime rates continue to rise, and thus we live in a much dangerous world. However, studies have consistently shown that crime rates in general are lower today than they have been in decades.

While there are faults with people’s memories, and there are many myths floating about concepts on how the human brain works, the brain itself does serve its purpose quite well. However, being aware of the various shortcoming can help in preventing one from falling for false information or ideas.