Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top ten myths about the brain

I like these "top ten myths" kinds of stories, since I'm always interested in finding errors in my assumptions. From childhood, we hear so many things that seem to be accepted knowledge. But it's remarkable how many of them aren't actually true.

So here's The Smithsonian with the top ten myths about the brain. For example:
2. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed and persistent.
We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking, dramatic event—the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attacks of September 11, 2001. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard. But several clever experiments have tested people’s memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. The test subjects tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. Vivid they may be, but the memories decay over time just as other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they’re recreating a muddled scene in their minds rather than calling up a perfect, photographic reproduction.

Not that is something I'd always thought. Oh, I know perfectly well how unreliable our memories are and how easy it is to change them, or even invent brand-new, but completely false, memories out of whole cloth. Children are especially susceptible to this, but it's quite common even among adults.

But those "flashbulb memories" really seem accurate, don't they? It's hard to imagine that memories which are so vivid in our minds are also inaccurate.

I want to show you one other excerpt from this article, not because it's something I'd believed, but just because it's both important and interesting. (This isn't the entire myth, but just one paragraph in the explanation.)
Women are thought to outperform men on tests of empathy. They do—unless test subjects are told that men are particularly good at the test, in which case men perform as well as or better than women. The same pattern holds in reverse for tests of spatial reasoning. Whenever stereotypes are brought to mind, even by something as simple as asking test subjects to check a box next to their gender, sex differences are exaggerated. Women college students told that a test is something women usually do poorly on, do poorly. Women college students told that a test is something college students usually do well on, do well. Across countries—and across time—the more prevalent the belief is that men are better than women in math, the greater the difference in girls’ and boys’ math scores. And that’s not because girls in Iceland have more specialized brain hemispheres than do girls in Italy.

The thing to remember about myths like this is that our expectations matter. Even such a simple reminder of gender as checking a box on a test reminds women of the stereotypes. I'm sure this works the same way for racial minorities, too. When you expect to do poorly, you will. Even worse, you might not even try, because you expect the result that society has told you to expect.

Apparently, in some poor school districts, studying and trying to get good grades is "acting white." Yeah, that seems stupid to you and I, but if you don't think you can compete anyway, this is a way to dismiss the whole idea of school. Kids who say this are already convinced they can't do the work. They don't realize that effort is the biggest determination of success. Or else they just don't have faith in themselves.

And no, that's not restricted to racial minorities or to women. When I went to school, I could see it in many of my classmates. They weren't dumb, but they thought they were. And so they suffered from terrible test anxiety. And many of them wouldn't even try to learn, since they were so certain they'd fail.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that was even without contending with stereotypes, since most of them were boys and all were white. (The girls had their own problems, generally doing very well in school, but staying away from the advanced classes that prepared students for college. Well, back then, women were secretaries, waitresses, or wives and mothers. Women were supposed to help men succeed, rather than striving for success themselves.)

We can overcome these stereotypes. We can teach all children. We can make sure that all reach their full potential. But it will take work. It will take excellent teachers and committed parents (and when the parents aren't supportive, it will take even more work). And it will take money, lots of money.

But these days, all too many Americans don't value education. And we're not willing to pay taxes, since the right-wing has convinced us that government can't do anything right (ironically, that's just what the right-wing has demonstrated when they've held power). Weapons and prisons, that's about all we're willing to spend money on these days. Well, I guess we've become hopeless cowards, too.

But we'll never change unless we try. It's frustrating, it may even seem hopeless, but it's only hopeless if we quit trying. That's just as true for adults as for children.


Chimeradave said...

I don't know Bill There were somethings in that article that were interesting but some things that were generalizations.

#1 and #7 were the most true.

#2 is right in general but there are some people with remarkable and photographic memories.

#3 I think that sometimes when people get very old they start to get embarrassed about the fact that they can't golf anymore or can't drive or can't hear as well and they start to remove themselves from social situations and I think that they stop challenging themselves mentally and I think their minds do start to atrophy. Older minds minds can indeed by just as sharp as the article says but only if the people continue to use them.

# 4 was interesting, but really just semantics. How similar are "sense of sight" and "sense of the passage of time"? I mean they don't seem to be on anywhere near the same hierarchy to me. I can see things and in great detail it is a very complex sense. Meanwhile, I can estimate what time of day it is without looking at my watch, but if I fall asleep or go to the movies, it definitely disrupts that sense, if you can even call it a sense.

#5 Brains are like computers. I mean they aren't exactly like computers, it's called a metaphor. Brains are like computers in that they store data, our memories and knowledge and we have some sort of mechanism to recall that data.

#6 Brains aren't like electrical circuits? Then why do you shoot someone with electricity to restart their heart?

# 8 is getting into philosophy, but what is being discussed was valid. We can be creatures of fear. We dread things like the coming work week and then find it's not as bad as we thought.

#9 I'm not sure what the author was trying to get at. We see the world exactly the way it is to us. I've heard that dogs see only in black and white colors. It may be a myth, but the point is how a dog sees less valid then how we do? Aliens might see only in infra-red or they might see things at a microscopic level. All of the things any of us would see would all still be the same things.

#10 this was probably the one that irked me the most. Have there been biased studies in the past, obviously, but there are definitely differences between men and women. My wife and I do not think the same way at all. That's most of the reason why we fight every once in a while. I'll say one thing and she'll interpret it differently than I intended. How much of that is socialization and how much of it is the mind itself. I don't know. But men and women are really different and if you decide otherwise you are going to have a really hard time with relationships and/or marriage to the opposite sex.

WCG said...

John, these kinds of articles are designed to make you think, especially about stuff you've always assumed. I thought it did that quite well, though I might not have chosen this precise list, myself.

Re. #2, I don't know anything about people with photographic memories, so I won't venture a guess at how much of that is true and how much just an urban legend. My experience with photographic memories has been entirely from fictional TV shows, not controlled scientific research.

You're right about #3, but the point was that some skills apparently improve with age.

Re. #4, the article said right off that our "five senses" were the big ones. The point is that those aren't the only ways of "sensing the world and our place in it." But yeah, I'd say this is a minor item.

In #5, the point is that this is a metaphor. Our brains are similar to computers (as we know them) in some ways, but different in others. I thought this was one of the more interesting points, since we SF fans often wonder about computers becoming sentient. But there are a lot of differences in how brains and computers work. It's something to think about, at least.

And I think you missed the point about #6. Brains aren't hard-wired like electrical circuits, though they do use electricity. Of course, I don't know how prevalent this "myth" really is. But the point of this item was that our brains are remarkably plastic (something I think most people already know).

I agree with #8, but you're wrong about #9. Did you check out that link with the video clips from Simons Lab? Our eyes aren't like passive cameras. We must use our brains to process what we see, and attention makes a big difference.

Also, as you point out, we don't see the real world, but only a subset of it. Most of us see colors, which dogs do not, but we can still perceive only a narrow spectrum of visible light between ultraviolet and infrared. So we don't actually "see the world as it is."

{As a kid, I was fascinated to hear that even the most solid wall was mostly vacuum. If you could compress it enough, you wouldn't even be able to see it. It looks - and feels - solid to us, but we don't really experience the world as it is. Everything is filtered through our senses.]

But for the most part, this item is about how attention changes what we see.

(continued in next comment)

WCG said...

(continued from previous comment - I really need to be less verbose!)

And finally, #10. It's kind of funny, since I was arguing the other side of this in our Classic Science Fiction group. But it's a tricky issue.

No one denies that women are different from men. Certainly, this article didn't do that. What it said was that biological differences in our brains weren't significant "when it comes to most of what our brains do most of the time" (my emphasis).

You and your wife are different individuals, so you're going to differ somewhat just because of that. Also, men and women have different social expectations in America and have different experiences in many respects.

Women and men are different biologically, which means different things are important in their lives. Women have to worry about being raped; men rarely do. Women have to consider different consequences from having sex. There are a whole host of things that go into making men and women different.

But most of those are cultural matters, or cultural matters which depend on physical differences. It's very hard to separate out real differences in our brains from what we expect. Even you probably notice the differences, rather than the similarities, between you and your wife, because that's what you expect to see. (Who can understand women, right?)

But under controlled scientific conditions (personal anecdotes aren't evidence), we're apparently finding that there are some differences in how our brains function, but that "when it comes to most of what our brains do most of the time,... men and women have almost entirely overlapping and fully Earth-bound abilities" (again, my emphasis).

John, nothing in that says that there are no differences between men and women. Nothing. It doesn't even say that there are no differences in our brains, just not big differences. But it's the little things in life that matter, right? :)

Chimeradave said...

I watched the videos in that link and they were absolutely fascinating. I saw the gorilla in the room but was oblivious to almost all the unexpected changes in the other videos.

I really can't imagine missing the gorilla, but I was looking for it and I missed all the other things, so it's definitely possible.

I guess if Men and women's brains aren't different at birth, they must become different over time. To use the computer analogy, men and women start with the same blank CPU at birth but over the years socialization installs a different operating system on the respective brains. Men get Windowes and women get Mac OS.

Or maybe as you said I'm just focusing too much on differences and not seeing the similarities.

WCG said...

I missed the gorilla when I first saw the video, some time ago. But I wasn't expecting it. I was concentrating on counting how many times the ball was passed. At the end, when it asked about the gorilla, I couldn't believe it was there until I watched it again. :)

And re. the differences between men and women, note that we have different levels of hormones, too, so that can make a huge difference - even in how we think, most likely. We probably aren't identical at birth, but there are so many varying influences on us afterward that I suppose it would be really hard to tell.