What Madrilenos didn't know about the brain

Madrid -- Part 1 of 2. Are left-handed people really more creative and righties better at math? Do we really only use ten percent of our brain?
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID -- Part 1 of 2. The brain isn't black and white -- it's gray, as are the facts about it. As part of Semana de la Ciencia (Science Week,) four PhD students and fellows from the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Lisbon flew to Madrid to explain the brain to the everyman as part of their Ar project to better introduce science to the public. Over the next two days, SmartPlanet sets out to assist this dapper team of young researchers from around the world in clarifying and debunking the myths of our most enigmatic body part.

Although she is researching the cellular basis of memory, Anna Hobbiss says, "We thought it'd be actually more interesting to look at myths and mysteries for the brain, conceptions and misconceptions, and the science behind them," to separate fact from fiction.

"I have a feeling in biological terms, the brain is the biggest mystery. Neuroscience is so interesting because it spans so many levels from physics to psychology to group dynamics, philosophical," she says, with pride in her discipline. "There's research ongoing in everything," as the brain has its own inputs and outputs. It is up to them -- the future of neuroscience -- to weed through and discover the truth.

Myth 1: We only use ten percent of our brains.

Untrue. Hobbiss assures us that we use all of our brain cells and all structures of the brain, just at different times.

Then why is this such a common idea? Thinking we only use that ten percent seems to be comforting to folks. "I think sometimes peole want to believe that they have all this untapped potential... a higher nirvana," Hobbiss says. By pummeling this theory, they also destroy one of the strongest "proofs" claimed by psychics, that they have reached a higher level of consciousness, but, biologically, that's not possible. She says these proofs "of the psychic powers -- most of [these claims] are extremely unscientific."

This doesn't make the brain easily understood, nor that, just because we all use all parts of our brain, we all have the potential to be Stephen Hawkings. "There's behaviors that people have that are unexplained...very good at maths, tight-rope walking on a bicycle with a dog," she says, "and it's hard to believe that [each person] could access that" aspect of their own potential.

This, like many popular folk tales, is also based on some truth, or what was perceived to be the truth at the time. The early brain recordings through electrodes and more recent MRIs of the brain only showed a portion of the brain active in a second, but, it turns out that, within a few minutes, all aspects of a normal brain is active.

"The whole brain isn't active at once. Whenever you look at a particular area of the brain, [much of it isn't] active when looking at it, at any fraction of a second," says another member of the team Eric DeWitt. "You use 100 percent of your brain over a few minutes," hours or days.

They also explain why geniuses like Hawkings and Einstein have reached higher levels of thought. "It's not that they necessarily tapped into more brain than ordinary people. Hawkings has been able to focus on certain problems without much distraction," DeWitt says, giving credence to nurture, not just nature. "We would like to argue that you wouldn't want to say that his abilities are completely unique."

"It's not nature versus nurture. In fact, it's always an interaction between these factors," he says. "They will give some people a little bit of insight into maths and languages and some a little less, but that can be overcome by individual work."

Myth 2: Left-handed people are more creative.

This is sometimes true. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Sometimes right-handed people can be better at math and languages, while left-handed people could be a bit more creative, but the brain isn't responsible for these personality traits.

"Fifty years ago, it was very common that, at school, the students would have to be forced to write with their right hand," Lackner says, as left-handedness was perceived as a weakness. "What happened was that these kids had trouble [at first] to speak," she says. "Some effects of lateralization can be seen when, in the past, some left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand. During the learning period, this was observed to interfere with their language skills." In the majority of the population, which is right-handed, the language center is usually located in the left side of the brain, but, sometimes, lefties happen to have it on the other side. Their language part of the brain -- more commonly on the left side -- is not just saying a sentence, but it also says "I need to do a motor task, and to make a response to what you're saying."

The myth of personality traits connected with either hemispheres "isn't entirely wrong or right -- it's a misconception. We have a left and a right side anatomically," says Simone Lackner, who, when not bringing neuroscience to the masses, is researching visually-guided behavior on the zebrafish.  Yes, the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa and the brain is really split into two hemispheres, but that doesn't necessarily affect personality or intelligence. "It's very important to see the brain as a whole because your brain only works when the left and the right are coordinating with each other," she says.

When neurologists, in treating epilepsy, have cut the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres, patients were able, somewhat, to lead a normal life. "The left brain is controlling your right arm and your right brain is controlling your left arm. When a split-brain patient is focusing on a point in the middle of a screen and a word is flashed briefly to the right visual field, the patient can name what he just saw because the left hemisphere is dominant for verbal processing. When now a word is flashed to the left visual field and the patient is asked again what he saw, the patient is unable to say it, but he or she can draw it. This is because the right hemisphere cannot share the information with the left hemisphere anymore." The brain functions a little asymmetrically, but needs both parts working to function complimentary and do perform complex functions.

Once again, why would us everymen want this misconception? The team thinks the most likely reason is smart marketing. "It's much easier to sell a book that says improve the right side of the brain," she says.

Look back tomorrow to learn if brain games really work and to find out, really, how bad are drugs for us?

Photos: Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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