As our knowledge of the brain’s functions increases, we can redesign our mindsets and environments. Amy Brann’s new column takes a closer look at neuroscience. This issue: Brain myths debunked
Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a real explosion in what we know about the human brain.
Not only have the tools that scientists use to look inside the brain advanced exponentially, but the fact that a biological structure that looks so unassuming, pink and bumpy, can somehow be the seat of all our thoughts, feelings and actions captures both imagination and curiosity.
We now know how to redesign our mindsets and environments to help us think more creatively, how habits form in the brain so we can make behaviour change stick and how reward underpins motivation and goal achievement. But all this excitement has also led to a few mistruths slipping into the mix. Mistruths that once upon a time started off as mere statements made somewhere by someone but somehow took off, went viral and still persist as myths today.
These myths often arise because our knowledge about the brain arrives wrapped up in academic papers that…let’s face it… can be pretty hard to decipher. And so to decode what scientists are actually saying requires a process of simplification that, when subject to misinterpretation, risks turning fact into misunderstanding or overstretched distortions of reality that persist in everyday conversation.
Take two of the big myths still around today – that we only use 10% of our brain at a time, and that there’s a left/right brain split where right-brain thinkers are apparently more creative, perceptive, intuitive, freethinkers while left brain thinkers are more logical, analytical, and detail-oriented.
Both are incorrect. But both originated from what we understand about the brain – that everyone has unrealised brain potential (in the form of neuroplasticity). That there are differences between what’s going on in the two hemispheres of the brain. And differences between people in terms of what they’re good at as a result of the way their brain is wired and the pattern of signals sent along that wiring.
Below are three more persistent unhelpful myths to reflect on:
- MYTH: Your personality is fixed once you reach adulthood
Watching a young child grow and develop is an amazing sight. Every day it seems as if they’re able to do something new. It’s almost like you can see their brain cells growing at every move. Every encounter.
And you’re right.
Because throughout childhood the brain is constantly shifting, rewiring, adjusting itself to take into account what the child has just learned.
But what about now you’re an adult?
Well, it’s true that your brain doesn’t change to the same extent as when you were a child. But plasticity is a fundamental property of the brain. Child or adult.
Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn, to adapt, to progress.
In fact you’d be amazed by how much your brain actually does change. Take myelin for example. It’s a fatty substance that provides an insulating layer around your neurons thus helping to speed up the messages sent along these neurons. And the thickness of myelin isn’t static but instead changes over time and activity.
But it’s not just about the myelin. Change happens at synapses too – the junction between one neuron and the next. The junctions at which neurochemicals like glutamate, dopamine and serotonin are released. There are roughly four types of change that can take place depending on how often a signal passes along that neuron: new connections are made, existing connections strengthened, old connections lost and existing connections weakened (aka, use it or lose it).
And there’s one final type of change that can take place in the brain: neurogenesis. Here we aren’t talking about more myelination or new connections. We’re talking about whole new brain cells being grown. This is something that still happens in adulthood in regions such as the hippocampus which are involved in learning and memory.
And all this change adds up and over time shifts who we are, and who we become.
- MYTH: Some people are creative, others aren’t
We all know a person who can pick up a pen or paintbrush and somehow just manage to create a picture that leaves you in awe. We ask ourselves – How do they do it…? What do they have that I don’t…?
But the reality is that creativity in a brain-sense isn’t about painting that perfect picture or coming up with an award-winning story.
It’s so much more than that.
According to Professor Margaret Boden from the University of Sussex (Boden, 1998) who’s been researching the science of creativity for more than 30 years, creativity is “a fundamental feature of human intelligence in general. It is grounded in everyday capacities such as the association of ideas, reminding, perception, analogical thinking, searching a structured problem-space, and reflecting self-criticism.”
In other words, being creative doesn’t necessarily mean you’re artistic or musical. It means that your brain is designed in a way that helps you solve problems, think up new ideas and have insightful ‘eureka’ moments. This is the #everydaycreativity that helps someone devise an innovative business strategy, solve a problem with a client, or brainstorm new ideas with their team.
And like many brain processes, creativity can be improved with training (the brain is maleable after all!). As a coach you can help facilitate your clients’ creative potential by getting them to do things like putting themselves in the shoes of someone who they think is really creative, and imagining what it’s like to think like them, or by generally encouraging them to be more curious in their approach to life.
Sounds quite far away from paint and a paintbrush doesn’t it?
- MYTH: Amygdala hijacking
We all like to feel as if we’re in control. That we make our own choices. That we can direct our lives in a certain direction, rather than feeling like we’re travelling on an unstoppable rollercoaster.
But there are always going to be moments when this control fails us.
- When we become overwhelmed
- When we feel helpless
- When we feel like we aren’t in charge any more
Sometimes this comes from an external source – something or someone that dictates what you can or can’t do for instance. But sometimes it feels like the lack of control is coming from inside our own head. That our thoughts and feelings are whirling around uncontrollably. Or alternatively, that they’re setting us on a heading somewhere, but you aren’t quite sure where and there doesn’t seem much we can do about it.
It’s this latter example that we come across the coined term ‘amygdala-hijacking’ which describes that sense that your physical and emotional reactions are taking over – such as what happens with your fight or flight response, when the amygdala is said to be calling the shots and the rest of the brain has to follow suit.
But does such a thing really happen? Can your amygdala really ‘hijack’ everything so you lose complete control?
Well, while it’s certainly true that in the moment we can feel quick to respond, impulsive and emotionally charged, we all also have a regulate switch – something associated with our anterior cingulate cortex.
This switch allows us to keep control of the situation and our thoughts and feelings. So, over time, we can train ourselves to respond differently. To dial down those impulses and emotions.
So it is less of a hijack, more of a negotiation.
Be a myth spotter
It’s not always easy to spot myths out there, but knowing that they’re out there is a reminder that as a coach you shouldn’t just take statements on the brain at face value. Dig a bit deeper.
- Does it sound like an oversimplification?
- Does it fit with what you already know about how the brain works?
- What is the source?
Asking yourself these kinds of questions ensures that you aren’t propagating mistruths about the brain or giving your clients inaccurate information which harms your credibility as an expert coach.
- For more information, visit: www.neuroscienceforcoaches.com
Next issue: Can organisations champion performance and wellbeing?
- M A Boden, ‘Creativity and artificial intelligence’, in Artificial Intelligence, 103, 1-2, 347-356, August 1998