Top 10 Brain Myths Countdown

Smithsonian Magazine this month has posted the “Top 10 Myths About the Brain.” The list is a good place to start a conversation about how a better understanding of the brain – how people Think, Act & Feel – is critical to the success of your organization. I’m going to try to tackle one every day or so until we get through them. Today …

Myth 10. We use only 10 percent of our brains.

Smithsonian: This one sounds so compelling—a precise number, repeated in pop culture for a century, implying that we have huge reserves of untapped mental powers. But the supposedly unused 90 percent of the brain is not some vestigial appendix. Brains are expensive—it takes a lot of energy to build brains during fetal and childhood development and maintain them in adults. Evolutionarily, it would make no sense to carry around surplus brain tissue. Experiments using PET or fMRI scans show that much of the brain is engaged even during simple tasks, and injury to even a small bit of brain can have profound consequences for language, sensory perception, movement or emotion.

Dan: The last 15 years of brain research has demonstrated two relevant points here: 1. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to constantly make new connections and that we continue to make those connections until we die. 2. Most of the work our brain does every day happens in our unconscious – tasks such as making sure our heart beats , our lungs breath and filtering the 12 million bits of information that bombards us every minute.

So why does it feel like there’s more brain power to tap into. Because there is. Interestingly, though, the way our brains are wired makes it a challenge for us to use its best parts. For example, the Reptilian Brain acts like a constant monitoring system. It has a hair-trigger response to anything that seems like a threat – physical or mental. It evolved that way to keep us alive – was that sound a bear or the wind? is that person friend or foe? But when we get scared or angry, the more intelligent parts of our brain are purposely slowed down so we can put our energy into Fighting, Fleeing or Freezing.

Once we learn to recognize that response, we can learn how to shut it down and let our “smart” brain take over. It is harder than it seems, which is why we look at others or ourselves and say, “why aren’t they using their heads?”

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