Myths about the brain no. 7: You can train your brain via games to increase overall intelligence

This is another huge money-making industry based on dubious science. You will probably have seen them advertised (“Luminosity” on various YouTube videos is the one that springs to mind for me) or have at least heard about them. They are generally based on the principle that improving your ability to complete various tasks (usually basic maths problems or spatial navigation tasks) will result in you becoming more intelligent, improving your thinking speed or reasoning ability or any other suitably vague statement. Many of these companies claim to improve working memory, which is a cognitive system that relates to a persons ability to reason with new information and direct your attention towards the goal-relevant information contained in it (Shipstead et al., 2012). It’s also been defined as your mental area where you concurrently sort and process information. Working memory has been the focus of many of these companies because of the central role working memory plays in general cognition.

So these companies advertise themselves as being able to help improve your intelligence by improving working memory (via specific tasks, usually a dual n-back test, which is simply where the user has to monitor two streams of info, one visual and one auditory and each time one or both of the streams emits a pre-established target e.g. a bird, then you have to press a button). Now there’s no doubt that practicing a task will result in you getting better at it. However, the idea that practicing specific tasks will result in an improvement in a host of other mental faculties has not been shown (as detailed here, here, here and here). There has also been a study detailing why transference doesn’t occur. There’s also the problem that the study all this research has been based on has some serious methodological flaws in e.g. participants received training on a regular basis (whereas the controls simply went home and did whatever) so the experimental group may have had higher motivation to do well in the study, you can’t measure fluid intelligence with one test. Also, when researchers tried to recreate the effect they found no significant effect as a result of training (Redick et al., 2012 and Chooi et al., 2012) which is not good news for the validity of the original study. And to cap it off, a large scale meta-analysis of studies that examined whether training working memory could result in transference of skills found no effect (Melby-Lervag et al., 2013).

In 2016, a review paper by Simons et al. (2016) found ” little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance”, which included intelligence. They also noted the poor quality of a lot of the evidence e.g. lacking any control, lacking an active control (which properly isolates the effect of the training as it is a control which involves training that is related to the intervention). They found that none of the studies conformed to all of the best practices for conducting this kind of research.

So whilst it’s nice to think you can increase your intelligence by performing a few tasks for a couple of weeks, it seems very unlikely that this is the case.

References:

Berkman, E.T.; Kahn, L.E.; & Merchant, J.S. (2014). Training-Induced Changes in Inhibitory Control Network Activity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34 (1), 149-157.

Chooi, W.T. & Thompson, L.E. (2012). Working memory training does not improve intelligence in healthy young adults. Intelligence, 40 (6), 531-542.

Jaeggi, S.M.; Buschkuehl, M.; Jonides, J.; & Perrig, W.J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (19), 6829-6833.

Melby-Lervag, M. & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49 (2), 270-291.

Moody, D.E. (2009). Can intelligence be increased by training on a task of working memory? Intelligence, 37 (4), 327-328.

Redick, T.S.; Shipstead, Z.; Fried, D.E.; Hambrick, D.Z.; Kane, M.J.; & Engle, R.W. (2012). No Evidence of Intelligence Improvement After Working Memory Training: A Randomised, Placebo-Controlled Study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142 (2), 359-379.

Simons, D.J.; Boot, W.R.; Charness, N.; Gathercole, S.E.; Chabris, C.F.; Hambrink, D.Z.; & Stine-Morrow, E.L.A. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychology Science in the Public Interest, 17 (3), 103-186.

Shipstead, Z.; Hicks, K.L.; & Engle, R.W. (2012). Cogmed working memory training: Does the evidence support the claims? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 185-193.

Shipstead, Z.; Redick, T.S.; & Engle, R.W. (2010). Does Working Memory Training Generalise? Psychologica Belgica, 50 (3-4), 245-276.

Shipstead, Z.; Redick, T.S.; & Engle, R.W. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138 (4), 628-654.

 

Myths about the brain no. 6: Listening to Mozart will make you smarter.

The idea of increasing your IQ by doing the simple act of listening to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been around since the 1950’s and has grown into a full blow industry, with endless books, CD’s and DVD’s. Despite it being highly lucrative and popular, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest it is true (surprise surprise).

The scientific genesis of this myth comes from a study in the 1990’s, which found that subjects who had listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata scored higher than those who didn’t. (The study had a very small number of participants and was between subjects, so they can’t even be certain the higher reported scores weren’t due to the “Mozart hearing” group just being more intelligent). This story was taken by the media and blown up to create the idea that listening to Mozart will make you smarter over the long-term. However, the initial study didn’t even test overall intelligence, it only tested participants on a few spatial-temporal tasks, and the effect wore off after 15 minutes. There’s also the small problem that the effect hasn’t been replicated under more controlled conditions (a key tenet of science is being able to replicate an effect under the same or similar circumstances). Several follow-up studies have found that listening to Mozart can temporarily increase cognitive skills whilst many more studies found no significant effect.

So it seems extremely unlikely that listening to Mozart will result in any long-term increase in your cognitive faculties. Learning to play an instrument however, has been shown to improve vocabulary, reading performance and a whole host of other skills
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References:
Hallam, S. (2010). The power of music: It’s impact on the intellectual, social, and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28, 3, 269-289.
Lamb, S.J. & Gregory, A.H. (1993). The Relationship between Music and Reading in Beginning Readers. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 13, 1, 19-27.
Piro, J.M. & Ortiz, C. (2009). The effect of piano lessons on the vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills primary grade students. Psychology of Music, doi: 10.1177/0305735608097248

Myths about the brain no. 5: Drug use creates holes in the brain

This article isn’t looking at what effects different drugs have on the brain (though I’ll discuss that in another article as it’s a controversial topic) but about the myth that any form of drug use will create physical holes in your brain.

Different drugs have different effects (obviously…) and abusing them can cause serious damage to yourself (they can interfere with your neural pathways, cause addiction etc). One of the main ways it does this is by interfering with the neurons in your brain by binding to neuron receptors. They can then mimic the effect of different neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and make these receptors under- or over-sensitive to neurotransmitters and this has a major impact on your brain and how it functions. (For more detail on this process, check out this Scientific American article). They can also change the structure of your brain, depending on what drug you abuse. But what they do not do is create actual holes in your brain. The only thing that can create holes is physical trauma.

Sources:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/10-brain-myths.htm#page=2

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Myths about the brain no. 4: A person’s memory of an event is very accurate

The idea that some people have better memories than others isn’t a new or groundbreaking idea. But most people will feel they have a good memory with regards to events that have just happened or with events that have a personal meaning e.g. one of your birthday parties. This idea is the implicit assumption behind eye-witness testimonies; people will accurately remember what happened at a specific time and be able to give an accurate account of it.

However, there has been evidence to suggest this is not the case. People generally do not remember specific details well; they remember the critical ideas of what occurred or random specific memories, and make up the rest (if they are required to recall it). Dan Gilbert talks about this extensively in his book Stumbling on Happiness. Memories are not only constructive, they are reconstructive. They can be changed after the event has occurred, and not necessarily by you.


The idea of memories being altered by outside influence goes back to the 1970’s with a study by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer (1974). They found that how the question was phrased (specifically, whether word “hit” or “smashed” was used) affected people’s estimations about how fast two cars were travelling (on average, people in the “smashed” condition thought the cars were travelling 6mph faster than in the “hit” condition) and whether they would later report seeing broken glass (there was none).


So our memories can be influenced by external factors. What about internal ones? Stress has been shown repeatedly to affect delayed retrieval of a memory (e.g. Kuhlmann et al., 2005) and this has worrying implications for the validity of eye witness testimonies. Eye witness testimonies are generally seen as very powerful evidence but given how unreliable memory can be, you have to question whether it should carry so much weight. There is even a foundation set up to help those who have been incorrectly incarcerated (The Innocence Project) and about 3/4’s of the convictions were based on (what were later shown to be) false memories.


Emotions are generally believed to influence memory as well, with people believing that they remember something better if it is associated with a powerful emotion. However, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case (Kensinger, 2007) and people overestimate their ability to recall emotionally charged memories.


It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’ve painted a picture of human memory being almost worthless, when in fact it is very powerful and generally pretty good (though there are ways of improving it). But we shouldn’t view our memories as infallible and we should recognise that we can incorrectly code an event into our memory or that our memory can be altered once it has been stored in our long-term memory.

When sex doesn’t sell

The idea of using “sex” or “sex appeal” to help sell a product is not new. It’s been used to sell alcohol, cars, jeans, perfume, sports shoes, the list is almost endless (the fact that it is almost exclusively a heterosexual males definition of “sex appeal”, especially with cars and alcohol, is perhaps rather damning of our society but not something I am going to discuss). And you can see why, it genuinely does increase sales of these products (see here for evidence). But another famous (and arguably more controversial) example is when almost naked women are used to promote ethical causes e.g. PETA’s many adverts. 

The logic makes sense: putting semi-naked women in adverts with products increases sales and makes the brand more recognisable and memorable, so these results should apply to other products and causes e.g. stop wearing fur. 


But does using sex appeal really result in greater support for these causes? That’s what Bongiorno et al. (2013) wanted to find out. In their study they showed male participants PETA ad campaigns that either featured women fully clothed or scantily clothed. The ads were promoting the same campaign, controlling for possible effects of different campaigns being more popular. They were then asked to rate how aroused they were, the uniquely human characteristics of the women in the ad (lower ratings on the scale indicated dehumanisation) and their behavioural intentions to support PETA in the future. 


They found that support for PETA was reduced in the “sexualised women” condition and this effect was explained by the dehumanising effect of having the women scantily clad rather than because the men were more aroused (reduced support for PETA was mediated by negative uniquely human ratings). 


This is a very interesting result but there are some problems with it. The participant’s arousal levels were self-reported so the reliability of those results can be called into question (you can’t be sure that the participants would give exactly the same results if they were presented the materials again), as well as the validity (is it actually measuring arousal?). A physiological measure of arousal would have been more accurate (though the experiment would have to change from an online questionnaire to a lab experiment, which is more expensive and harder to organise). The participant’s support for PETA was also measured via self-report so a more objective measure (e.g. how much they would donate to a PETA cause) would be more reliable. It was also asking about their behavioural INTENTION to donate, rather than how much they think they would donate or indeed how much they actually would actually donate, so the validity of their results (how much we can be sure that they are measuring changes in support levels) is not 100%.


They performed a follow-up study with a much larger sample and mixed gender. They also asked the participants to think of ways to help PETA in the future. They found the same result (reduced behavioural intention to support PETA mediated via dehumanisation of women) and fewer suggestions were offered in the “sexualised women” condition. 


Whilst the study isn’t perfect, I do think it is a good indicator that using sexual imagery (specifically almost naked women) to gain support from men for an ethical campaign actually results in less support for that group. So if you want to advertise for an ethical campaign, do it ethically (otherwise you will deter supports of both genders). (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);


References:

Bongiorno, R.; Bain, P.; & Haslam, N. (2013). When Sex Doesn’t Sell: Using Sexualised Images of Women Reduces Support for Ethical Campaigns. PLoS ONE, 8 (12).
Reichert, T. (2002). Sex in Advertising Research: A Review of Content, Effects, and Functions of Sexual Information in Consumer Advertising. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 1, 241

Myths about the brain no. 3: Brain damage is always permanent

The idea that “brain damage is permanent” has been floating around for a while. It’s based on the idea that the brain has a finite number of cells at birth and once you lose them, you can never get them back.

Now, this is partially true. Neurons that are damaged do not regenerate (hence why severe brain-damage is permanent). However, the brain can make new connections in the brain (between different sites, sometimes far away from the damaged area) to compensate for this loss.


The idea of synapses developing between different neurons is the main process of learning, so the brain is constantly making new connections and trimming away superfluous ones. As a result of this, if someone suffers damage to some neurons and they die, other neurons will be used through new synapses being made between the other neurons. This was demonstrated in a recent study. They found that the brain could learn new conditioning experiences when the hippocampus (the brain site that underlined this process and effectively made this association happen) was damaged. Alternative brain structures (specifically the infralimbic and prelimbic prefrontal cortices) were used because the hippocampus was unable to perform it’s usual role.


It’s also been found that patients who have Alzheimer’s display similar activity in these brain regions, implying that these areas are compensating for other damaged brain structures.


So whilst the idea of “brain damage being permanent” is wrong, this doesn’t mean that you can go around smashing your head on things with impunity; you really need to look after your brain.


Sources:

http://www.positscience.com/brain-resources/brain-facts-myths/brain-mythology
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/10-brain-myths.htm#page=7 (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

Myths about the brain no. 2: We only use 10% of our brain

This idea has been floating around for a while and the most recent example I can think of is the main premise of the film “Limitless” with Bradley Cooper (which I thought was a good film. Unsatisfying end though but anyway). The main idea is that if you somehow unlock the ability to use the rest of your brain, you will suddenly develop incredible intelligence, abilities and learning prowess.

But if you look at the actual premise (that we only use 10% of our brain) it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. What’s the point of the other 90% if we never use it? Beyond that, there’s an enormous amount of research that shows we use different parts of our brain for different processes and by the end of the day you will have used every part of your brain in some capacity or other. Think of the simple act of reading. You are processing all the little shapes on the paper or screen whilst at the same time your heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, your eyes are blinking, your foot may be twitching. These processes are controlled by different regions e.g. visual cortex for perceiving the words and the brain stem for maintaining homeostasis (through breathing, regulating blood pressure). We know that a variety of complex cognitive functions rely upon several brain regions working in tandem with each other e.g. processing speech.


There’s also evidence from studies that look at what happens when the brain is damaged. Even a small injury can have major consequences and can affect a variety of processes and functions.


So whilst you don’t use your entire brain all of the time (that would be extremely inefficient and tiring), you do use 100% of your brain across a relatively short time period. And though whilst this idea is false, it does hint at the idea that we haven’t fully developed our brain’s potential (though psychic or superhuman abilities are beyond our abilities to develop, no matter how cool they would be).


Sources:

http://lifehacker.com/5867049/nine-stubborn-brain-myths-that-just-wont-die-debunked-by-science
http://www.salon.com/2013/07/21/everything_you_know_about_the_brain_is_wrong/
http://www.positscience.com/brain-resources/brain-facts-myths/brain-mythology
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/10-brain-myths.htm#page=10
http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/kinser/Structure1.html (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

Myths about the brain no. 1: The left-brain right-brain divide

This myth is generally used to explain how some people tend to be creative compared to those who are more analytic.

“Well I’m very intuitive and good at art because my right hemisphere is dominant”.


“I’m left-hemisphere dominant so I’m better with numbers and more logical”.


We associate various skills with a certain hemisphere of the brain and say that we are “dominant” in the hemisphere that corresponds with our abilities. Our ability was predetermined at birth through the way our brain is structured.

Nine Stubborn Brain Myths That Just Won't Die, Debunked by Science
Intuitively they make sense; we can think of people who are better at maths or science and are weaker in the arts and vice versa. It also intuitively makes sense that these general abilities would be located in different parts of the brain (we know that specific abilities are processed by certain parts of the brain). Unfortunately though, this idea of a “left-brain right-brain” divide is scientific nonsense.

A bit of history: this myth arose out of genuine science. It was discovered that damage to one side of the brain resulted in a loss of specific abilities e.g. damage to the right side of the brain usually resulted in an impairment in a person’s spatial abilities and damage to the left would result in a decrease in the patient’s language ability. It was also discovered that the left-hemisphere of the brain controlled the right-hand side of the body and processed information from that side and vice versa. The idea of “left-brain right-brain” gained further traction in the 1960’s when patients with severe epilepsy were examined. In order to cure their epilepsy, they had their corpus callosum (the neural pathway between the two hemispheres) severed. This stops the patients epilepsy, but results in their hemispheres being unable to communicate. An experiment by Gazzaniga, Bogen & Sperry (1962) on the patient W.J. illustrates this nicely: W.J. was shown a screen and told to say whatever word was flashed onto the screen. When the word appeared on the right hand side of the screen, he could say what he saw. This is because the left hemisphere is more dominant for verbal processing (and remember the left side of the brain processes information from the right field of view). However, when the word appeared on the left-hand side, he said he couldn’t see anything. But he could draw whatever the word described. This is because the right-hemisphere is dominant for processing images.



Because of these facts, some people believe that one of their hemispheres can be dominant and therefore they are better at those abilities associated with that hemisphere. But the biggest problem with this idea is that specific skills aren’t localised entirely within one hemisphere. For example, language is now understood to take place in both hemispheres: the left side processes grammar and pronunciation whilst the right processes intonation and emphasis. Both of these skills are essential for processing language, so to say language is localised within one hemisphere is just incorrect. Similarly, experiments have shown that the right hemisphere does not work in isolation with regard to spatial ability; the right hemisphere deals with a general sense of space while the left processes objects in specific locations.


Another problem is with the categories that are supposed to be dealt with by the different hemispheres e.g. creativity (in the right hemisphere). There are many different ways of being creative and these different processes have been mapped to different sides of the brain. For example, the right side of the brain is more involved in processes that involve insight (which in this scenario means creatively thinking about a problem to gain sudden realisation of the answer) but the left side is more involved with creating stories (Jung-Beerman et al., 2004). Both of these are types of creativity, yet are located in different hemispheres of the brain. To put the final nail in this myths coffin, a study by Nielsen et al (2013) study analysed thousands of brains and found that people do not have a “dominant” hemisphere.


The ‘left-brain right-brain’ myth will probably never go away unfortunately as it’s an easy way to explain differences between people. It also provides “scientific” support for what people already believe in: “I’m good at art and rubbish at maths because I’m right-brain dominant” (this is the idea of confirmation bias, which I will cover in a later blog).


References:

BrainHQ. (2014). Brain Mythology. Available: http://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/brain-facts-myths/brain-mythology. Last accessed 08/01/2014.
Gazzaniga, M.S.; Bogen, J.E.; & Sperry, R.W. (1962). Some functional effects of sectioning the cerebral commissures in man. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 48 (10), 1765-1769.
Jarrett, C. (2012). Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201206/why-the-left-brain-right-brain-myth-will-probably-never-die. Last accessed 08/01/2014.
Jung-Beerman, M.; Bowden, E.M.; Haberman, J.; Frymiare, J.L.; Arambel-Liu, S.; Greenblatt, R.; Reber, P.J.; & Kounios, J. (2004). Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems With Insight.PLoS Biol, 2 (4), e97. doi:10.1371.journal.pbio0020097.
Martinez, M.E. (2013). Everything you know about the brain is wrong. Available: http://www.salon.com/2013/07/21/everything_you_know_about_the_brain_is_wrong/. Last accessed 08/01/2014.
Nielsen, J.A.; Zielinski, B.A.; Ferguson, M.A.; Lainhart, J.E.; & Anderson, J.S. (2013). An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS One, 8 (8): e71275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071275 (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

A series on “Myths about the Brain”

I’m going to be writing a series of articles about some of the most common myths regarding the brain and why they are all rubbish. These will be:

1) Left-brain right-brain split

2) We only use 10% of our brain
3) Brain damage is always permanent
4) A person’s memory of an event is very accurate
5) Drug use creates holes in the brain
6) Listening to classical music as a child will make you smarter
7) You can train your brain via games to increase overall intelligence

Hopefully you find them interesting.