The brain is the sexiest organ in the entire human body. But for all it’s amazing intricacies and complexities, its beautiful nature is too commonly misunderstood and oversimplified. We’ll cut the fact from fiction, and show you how to actually optimize your brain’s performance.
I was inspired to make this blog post after seeing countless productivity gurus, bloggers, course creators, and even highly esteemed authors get the science wrong as it relates to the brain. For those of you who are new here, my name is Dr. Kevin Jubbal. Prior to earning my MD, I earned my degree in Neuroscience, which is where my obsession with the human brain began.
It’s first critical to understand that neuroscience is still a very nascent field, particularly when it comes to applying neuroscience to education and brain optimization. While we’ve learned a great deal in the past few decades, we’ve also debunked many previous beliefs. Yet these myths are still commonly thrown around today.
1 | You Only Use 10% Of Your Brain
If you believe people only use 10% of their brain, chances are you are one of those people. In all seriousness, healthy individuals use the entirety of their brain, not just 10% of it. A big reason this myth hasn’t died is that it makes us feel good. We’re comforted by the prospect that our shortcomings and unfulfilled dreams lie in the fact that we just haven’t utilized the huge reservoir of cerebral power within our heads.
The origins of this myth can be traced back to William James in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a firm believer that the average person rarely achieves anywhere near their full potential. The self-help gurus that followed were not so careful with their word choice, and “10 percent of our capacity” became “10 percent of our brain.” Journalist Lowell Thomas then attributed this 10 percent myth to William James in the preface to Dale Carenegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. And the rest is history.
Since then, early neuroscience studies have noted that a large percentage of the cortex is less active. This “silent cortex” has since been renamed the “association cortex”, which was likely misconstrued and misrepresented to the public through the questionable work of journalists who have no business summarizing scientific research. And just because damage to the association cortex doesn’t lead to sensory or motor deficits doesn’t mean these areas are not important. In fact, these regions of the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes of your brain are foundational to making us human – they allow for communication, reasoning, planning, adapting, visual integration, and many other crucial functions.
Even though the adult human brain weighs only 2% of the body’s mass, it consumes 20% of our daily energy expenditure. On a per weight basis, human brains pack the most neurons compared to any other species. This is what makes us so smart. The downside to having so many neurons is that it’s incredibly expensive from an energy perspective. The cooking hypothesis states that a major reason why humans evolved to spend so much energy on their brains is because of cooking, which is using external energy to partially digest food, thereby allowing our digestive tracts to process food more efficiently. Less energy spent digesting food means more energy can go to our noggins.
Because the brain is incredibly costly from an energy perspective, our brains have evolved to employ a signaling mechanism known as sparse coding. Sparse coding evolved as it optimizes the energy to information balance, using the least amount of energy while carrying the most amount of information. For this reason, only 1-16% of the neurons in your brain are active at any single moment. However, if these neurons never fired, evolution would have selected to get rid of them long ago, as even maintaining these neurons is incredibly expensive from an energy standpoint.
2 | Multitasking
Which brings us to the next myth – multitasking. Because of the brain’s high energy cost, we simply cannot multitask effectively – it’s too costly from an energy perspective. The brain doesn’t allow us to allocate enough energy and resources to do multiple tasks at full capacity. That’s why if you try to do 2 or 3 things at once, you end up doing each task worse than if you just gave it your full attention.
Now you may be thinking, “I’ve got you trapped Dr. Jubbal! How is it that I’m able to walk and talk on the phone at the same time?” It’s important to note that the multitasking myth applies to attention-rich stimuli and tasks that cannot be done on autopilot. Breathing, walking, sitting, and even stretching aren’t tasks in the same way that speaking to someone, reading a book, or solving a problem are.
There are three memory stages – first you encode information, then you store it, and finally you retrieve it. Naveh-Benjamin in 2000 found that information encoding requires more attention than retrieval. Additionally, divided attention during the encoding phase of learning significantly impairs memory.
There are dozens of additional studies with supporting evidence that multitasking is neither efficient nor effective. In the interest of time, deliberately commit yourself to only one challenging task at a time to maximize efficiency, productivity, and balance in your life. I go over how to apply this in your daily life in my Superhuman Efficiency and Productivity video.
3 | Being Left or Right Brain Dominant
Arguably the most commonly believed myth is that some of us are “right-brained”, and some of us are “left-brained”, corresponding to being more artistic and creative or more logical and analytical, respectively.
First, a brief neuroanatomy lesson. When speaking of the brain, most people are referring to the neocortex, the large wrinkly portions that are most superficial, meaning on top. These ridges and grooves, called gyri and sulci, respectively, increase the surface area of our brain. This is the key part of our brain that is responsible for the higher level functions that make humans unique from other organisms. These two separate halves each contain multiple regions within them, and each of those regions have specialized functions. It is important to note, however, that these two hemispheres are connected by a mass of white matter, which is made up of nerve fibers, called the corpus callous.
This myth originates from oversimplification and misunderstanding of the scientific research – starting to see a theme here? Specifically, the split-brain experiments by Roger Sperry revealed fascinating insights into how the brain works, but it’s important to note the subjects had the corpus callosum severed. That means the right and left hemispheres were unable to communicate as they normally would.
So while it is true that each hemisphere has specialized functions, the communication between the two hemispheres is essential to adequately carry out these functions. Severing this connection, the corpus callosum, leads to a fascinating host of issues. Regardless, there is no evidence that people’s personality or even learning styles differ from one hemisphere being more dominant than the other.
4 | Learning Styles
Speaking of different learning styles, the idea that some individuals are more kinesthetic versus visual versus auditory learners is also based in fiction. While people may have a clear preference as to the way in which they want to learn, there is no evidence suggesting that aligning a teaching method with a preferred style will improve learning.
In fact, this myth may do more harm than good, as those who believe they have a certain learning style may pigeonhole themselves into thinking they cannot learn using other methods.
To be most effective, using a mix of the various learning styles is recommended, as the novel stimuli and cross-connections can aid in memory consolidation. By recruiting multiple brain regions and employing a variety of neural pathways, optimal learning is achieved.
And this is a huge reason why I’m a strong proponent of familiarizing yourself with a variety of study tools and techniques. I have an entire Study Playlist designed to teach you how to incorporate these various strategies in your daily studies.
5 | You’re Born With All The Brain Cells You’ll Ever Get
I was told this time and time again back when I was in grade school. You’re born with a certain number of neurons, and you slowly lose them as you get older, without the ability to create new ones.
The truth is that everyone has the capacity to develop new cells to enhance their cognitive abilities, both neurons, which are the typical brain cells we think of, and glial cells, the supporting cells which help the neurons function optimally. This process, called neurogenesis, is how you create new neurons.
Sustained aerobic exercise, more so than resistance training or high intensity interval training (HIIT), is most effective at boosting neurogenesis. It’s not clear why, but researchers believe aerobic exercise may cause increased release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which regulates neurogenesis. Stress relief, including sex, may also enhance neurogenesis, as chronic stress inhibits new neuron formation.
Interestingly, any experience that makes you focus attention, even for brief periods, can stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus, which is the memory center in your brain. With that knowledge, it appears that using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth has greater utility than simply helping you prepare for your surgery clerkships.
6 | Classical Music Makes You Smarter
The idea that Mozart or other classical music makes you smarter is another commonly held belief that I was told time and time again during my childhood and adolescence. But I always gravitated to punk, ska, electronic music, and hip hop, so I personally didn’t dabble much myself, and I like to think I turned out ok.
I’ve gone over the research surrounding the Mozart Effect and the science of music and cognitive function in a previous video.
7 | You’re Smart Or You’re Not
Possibly the most harmful of all neuromyths is that your mental capacity is something you are born with and cannot change. While it is true that your cognitive abilities have a genetic component, environmental factors should not be underestimated. Our brains are incredibly malleable and adaptable throughout our lives – we describe this with the term neuroplasticity.
That’s where deliberate practice and intelligent strategy come into play. And that’s what we’re entirely about here at Med School Insiders. If you aren’t getting the results you want, you have to change the systems that influence them, both directly and indirectly. Start with our YouTube videos and blog posts on our website. I cover not only the importance but also the implementation of active learning, spaced repetition, proper sleep, techniques to overcome procrastination, and many more. Most students notice a significant and substantial improvement in their performance from following the guidance in these videos and blog posts.
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