By Chet Yarbrough
Brain Myths Exploded-Lessons from Neuroscience
Recorded by THE GREAT COURSES
By Indre Viskontas
(AUTHOR) Indre Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco. With a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, Viskontas has done research on neuro-degenerative diseases.
Indre Viskontas covers a broad area of knowledge and experience. She offers many counter intuitive insights to human behavior and the brain in several recorded lectures. She explains neuronal and behavioral functions of the brain.
Viskontas explains how and why the brain, though highly complex, and insightful, can be judgmentally weak, misleading, and health adverse. A human brain can provide extraordinary insight to the nature of things and events while maintaining the body’s autonomic system. On the other hand, that same brain can create appalling misinformation about things and events, distort the truth, and cause autonomic failures.
From regions of the brain to basic parts of neurons, Viskontas dissects what is known and unknown about brain function. She ties brain anatomy to our limited knowledge of consciousness and human behavior.
Viskontas is one of many myth breakers. She notes, the brain has adapted to its environment, but some functions are inefficient, misdirected, and self-destructive. Brain evolution is a lucky draw informed by circumstances.
The brain is not perfect. She notes that the brain is a part of an evolutionary cycle. Every cycle of life has the chance of improving or destroying some aspect of the brain’s design. So far, the brain has adequately adapted to its environment, but some functions are inefficient, misdirected, and self-destructive. Brain evolution is a matter of luck and circumstance.
Giant dinosaurs adapted in their generation, but most dinosaur species died because their physical evolution could not keep pace with environmental change. Viskontas notes the human species follows the same evolutionary path.
Luck comes from adaptation to an evolutionary change. Circumstance comes from the environment that compels change. Only time will tell whether environmental change becomes too great for human adaptation.
Viskontas shows the perfect brain is a myth because evolution is an arbitrary and imperfect process. Evolution can produce human gene improvements or replicate destructive gene changes.
Viskontas notes current measurement of intelligence slightly correlates with brain size. But, size matters little.
She notes that Einstein’s brain is found to be average in size. However, it is noted to have some differences; i.e. like the number of glia cells (chemical “information transmission” cells) which were more numerous in Einstein than the average brain. Also, Einstein’s brain had more interconnection between brain segments than the average brain. Bigger is not necessarily better.
Viskontas suggests chemical imbalance as a singular explanation for psychosis is misleading.
The many connections between brain segments suggest chemical imbalance is an oversimplification of psychiatric dysfunction. Viskontas acknowledges the success of drugs to mitigate aberrant behavior but she notes that neurotransmitters affected by a chemical imbalance are only one part of a healthy functioning brain. Chemicals in the brain are always in flux. Drug therapy is a scatter shot solution rather than precise treatment for negative psychological symptoms.
Another often-believed myth is that people who are left-brained are logical; while people who are right-brained are creative.
Viskontas shows that both sides of the brain are activated when creativity or logic are drawn upon. The interconnections and malleability of brain hemispheres suggest logic and creativity come from both hemispheres and can (to a degree) come from one, if the other is damaged.
Viskontas notes that men’s and women’s brains are different.
However, Viskontas concludes similarities far outweigh differences. She notes double-blind experiments that show women have better memories than men when emotion is involved. The region of the brain called the amygdala is larger for men than women. Viskontas suggests the different sizes may account for differences in sexual behavior.
Parenthetically, she notes there is a medication bias in treatment for men and women because most experiments use men as the subject of investigation for drug trials. Women are underrepresented in clinical trials.
Viskontas and other writers have exploded myths of accurate human memory.
Human brains are not movie projectors. Human brains recall memories as stories; not discrete facts. Memories are recreations of what one has experienced (both in the distant past, near past, and present). Facts are often added, and stories are embellished when memories are recalled. The accuracy of memories is highly influenced by an individual’s past and present experience.
Viskontas goes on to explain that life experience creates conscious and sub-conscious bias. When past experience is added to the memory of an event, the brain recalls memory for continuity, more than truth; i.e., facts change, and incidents are misrepresented, or misunderstood. Recalled events are biased by experience.
We have five senses, but they focus on details that meld into a story that makes logical sense to the person recalling a memory.
Viskontas notes that our senses mislead us because we do not see everything. Like historians, we only report the facts we choose to include. There are always more facts about historical events than can be reported by the most diligent historians. Some facts are left out that change the accuracy of history. That is why Ulysses Grant is an incompetent President to some and a great President to others.
Viskontas sites experiments that show neurons continue to grow throughout one’s life if they stay engaged with society and work on learning new things. Those over 50 need to get out of their cars and walk to the store or the local coffee shop whenever possible or practical. Stand more; sit less.
Then there is the myth of old age and neuronal decay that begins after 50. Viskontas sites experiments that show neurons continue to grow throughout one’s life if they stay engaged with society and work on learning new things. An important caveat is that neuronal growth is improved with exercise. So those over 50 need to get out of their cars and walk to the store or the local coffee shop whenever possible or practical. Stand more; sit less.
There are more brain myths exploded by Viskontas, but a final example is the myth that we use only 10% of our brain. All parts of our brain are interconnected. Not all parts are necessarily engaged at once, but interconnections suggests 100% of our brain is used at one time or another.
Viskontas’s knowledge and experience suggest memory holds some truth but not all the truth.