Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It is unfortunate to "propulgate" ignorance

As I mentioned might happen in my previous post, the urge to procrastinate has gotten the better of me. That is not entirely my fault, as whatever sickness I have seems to have redoubled its efforts today and made today an unfortunate combination of non-productivity and unpleasantness. To pass the time and hopefully gear myself out of a television watching, herbal tea drinking, sniveling state of feeling sorry for myself, I have decided to write about one of the most persistent fallacies about the brain I encounter. Perhaps engaging my brain at least vaguely upon the topic of neuroscience will motivate me to study neuroanatomy. Before I get to that, however, I would like to note that the title of this post, while not all in quotation marks, includes the magical set of quotations around the fake word "propulgate", making it fair game for the reference game. So far, no one has made an attempt at the other most recent addition to the game, which should have been an easy one.

Now, back to the unfortunate neuroscience fallacy. For some reason (mostly when people are trying to justify the pseudoscientific concepts of telephathy or telekenisis in bad science fiction), the idea that we only use x% of our brain (where x usually equals somewhere from 5 to 15) continues to persist in modern culture. As far as I can tell, the idea originated from the realization in the early 1900s that large sections of a person's brain could be destroyed (or lobotomized, as the medical 'treatment' was called) without causing death. However, even given that line of evidence, I have no idea how this contributed to the notion that only x% of the brain was used by the average person. Lobotomy patients, though they usually survived the procedure, were still severely changed. Their personalities were irrevokably altered, which should indicate a profound change on a neurological level. Since I have such little understanding of where this claim has its grounding, I'm not even sure how to go about properly debunking it, other than saying there is pretty clear evidence for some use of every part of the brain along several different lines of reasoning. There is the loss of function experienced by stroke patients, functional imaging which allows one to view changes in metabolic rates throughout the brain, and the simple evolutionary question of why a brain would evolve that was only utilized to a small degree. While I am a big fan of trivia and the dissemination of knowledge, one should be careful what knowledge one chooses to propagate. I know that in my precocious youth I often repeated things from questionable sources (I believe that might even have included this very 'fact'), but I would like to think such a habit has reduced as I have (hopefully) matured.

9 comments:

cornucrapia said...

You know how they say we only use 15% of our brains? I think we only use 15% of our hearts.

Alternative punchline: I think that's just evangelicals and other fundamentalists

Regan said...

I didn't realize that the quotation marks were for a contest, "let's talk about sex" is a salt 'n peppa song. No fucking clue about propulgate though. It's a particularily upsetting portmanteau, moreso than Brangelina.

@Cornucrapia - I want to get that quote on a shirt, I bet you could get an oprah like following propulgating that sentiment :p

Mozglubov said...

Well done, Regan. It is indeed a Salt 'n' Peppa song... as far as I know, their only hit.

I'll give it a little more time before I reveal the propulgate reference... where the song was an easy one, propulgate is a tough one.

Anonymous said...

propulgate - the west wing?

just saw that episode...

Mozglubov said...

Yes, you are correct... although I did reveal the answer just two days ago. Odd timing.

Tyler said...

It's my understanding that the "10% of your brain" myth had more to do with the relative proportions of neurons/glia in the brain than it did with brain damage.

Mozglubov said...

Tyler, that's an interesting proposition that I hadn't heard before. It's still entirely misleading, however, because sure glial cells might vastly outnumber neurons directly, but neurons tend to be much larger (and thus a volume/mass comparison would be much less one-sided, though I, of course, don't know what how the actual comparison would turn out). Also, and more importantly, it's not like we don't use glial cells...

Anonymous said...

that whole 10% thing is because when you're doing particular tasks you only use small portions of the brain. the early studies were too focused and done by people that were out to prove a point so it looked like the volunteers only used about 10-15% of their brains. however, and more importantly, you use the majority of your brain through the day, but much of the time relatively little of it at any given time depending on the task at hand.

Mozglubov said...

Anonymous, it depends on what you mean by "use" your brain. While it is true that the pattern of neuronal firing in specific areas varies with the task at hand, there is continuous metabolic and electrochemical activity throughout the brain all day. That is why an EEG shows activity in all electrodes and fMRI requires a basal scan to compare against. When you stop doing a particular task, it is not that your brain shuts off certain areas, but instead just reduces activity to a general background level.