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From The Skeptic: Top Ten Myths of Popular Psychology

10-09-01.

Top Ten Myths of Popular Psychology

Virtually every day, the news media, television shows, films, and Internet bombard us with claims regarding a host of psychological topics: psychics, out of body experiences, recovered memories, and lie detection, to name a few. Even a casual stroll through our neighborhood bookstore reveals dozens of self-help, relationship, recovery, and addiction books that serve up generous portions of advice for steering our paths along life’s rocky road. Yet many popular psychology sources are rife with misconceptions. Indeed, in today’s fast-paced world of information overload, misinformation about psychology is at least as widespread as accurate information. Self-help gurus, television talk show hosts, and self-proclaimed mental health experts routinely dispense psychological advice that is a bewildering mix of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. Without a dependable tour guide for sorting out psychological myth from reality, we’re at risk for becoming lost in a jungle of “psychomythology.”

Myth #1: We Only Use 10% of our Brains

Whenever those of us who study the brain venture outside the Ivory Tower to give public lectures, one of the questions we’re most likely to encounter is, “Is it true that we only use 10% of our brains?” The look of disappointment that usually follows when we respond, “Sorry, I’m afraid not,” suggests that the 10% myth is one of those hopeful truisms that refuses to die because it would be so nice if it were true. In one study, when asked “About what percentage of their potential brain power do you think most people use?,” a third of psychology majors answered 10%.1 Remarkably, one survey revealed that even 6% of neuroscientists agreed with this claim!2 The pop psychology industry has played a big role in keeping this myth alive. For example, in his book, How to be Twice as Smart, Scott Witt wrote that “If you’re like most people, you’re using only ten percent of your brainpower.”3

There are several reasons to doubt that 90% of our brains lie silent. At a mere 2–3% of our body weight, our brain consumes over 20% of the oxygen we breathe. It’s implausible that evolution would have permitted the squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ. Moreover, losing far less than 90% of the brain to accident or disease almost always has catastrophic consequences.4 Likewise, electrical stimulation of sites in the brain during neurosurgery has failed to uncover any “silent areas.”

How did the 10% myth get started? One clue leads back about a century to psychologist William James, who once wrote that he doubted that average persons achieve more than about 10% of their intellectual potential. Although James talked in terms of underdeveloped potential, a slew of positive thinking gurus transformed “10% of our capacity” into “10% of our brain.”5 In addition, in calling a huge percentage of the human brain “silent cortex,” early investigators may have fostered the mistaken impression that what scientists now call “association cortex” — which is vitally important for language and abstract thinking — had no function. In a similar vein, early researchers’ admissions that they didn’t know what 90% of the brain did probably fueled the myth that it does nothing. Finally, although one frequently hears claims that Albert Einstein once explained his own brilliance by reference to 10% myth, there’s no evidence that he ever uttered such a statement.

You could lots more to this list: having a stroke is not consequence free, for example. Losing part of your brain is generally irrevocable, and requires lots of rehabilitation (unless you are Lisbeth Salander of course, in which case all will be well, even after being shot in several parts of your brain simultaneously!).

The rest of the list is at the link above.

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