In an era of a never-ending stream of “fake news” and people pointing to any random website that has published an article that supports a person’s point of view (and is offered as “evidence”), it’s quite refreshing to come across a book like Tracy Tokuhama-Espinosa’s Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas about the Brain.
The book, divided into 10 major chapters, helps to explain and debunk 78 different popular, common myths about neuroscience, cognition, technology, behavior, and the brain. Some of the myths discussed will be quite eye-opening to many readers, because we’ve heard them so often we believe them to be true.
Here are seven of my favorite myths — falsehoods — explained and debunked in the book:
- Most people only use about 10% of their brains (p 23)
- Creativity is in the right hemisphere of the brain (p 46)
- Brain scanners “see” thinking (p 48)
- Intrinsic motivation is driven by external reward (p 60)
- “Brain training” is supported by neuroscience (p 106)
- Dietary supplements improve cognition (p 121)
- The brain can “multitask” (p 152)
If you, like I did, thought some of these were actually facts, then this will be as a surprising and enjoyable read for you as it was for me.
How many millions of people, for instance, take a supplement to help with their cognition or mood? Yet, as Tokuhama-Espinosa points out, the science simply doesn’t support this belief. Yes, supplements can help some people for a brief period of time. But the effects usually are very small (statistically significant, but often not clinically significant) and are maintained for only as long as the person takes the supplement. Worse, sometimes research done on one population — like older adults — will be generalized by supplement manufacturers to all populations.
Each chapter in the book covers a major topic area, ranging from intelligence, memory, attention, and brain structure, to learning, human development, language, and the mind-body balance. It is well-organized and well-written, making it a quick read to digest in easily digestible chunks.
Each myth is first described with examples. For instance, in the myth, “Listening to classical music makes you smarter: The Mozart effect,” the author describes how the myth got its legs in the popular press with the publication of the first modern study in 1988. But by 1999, multiple scientists working on different studies had already failed to replicate the earlier results. Despite this, the Mozart Effect became a thing, and an entire generation (or two, or three) has grown up with this false belief.
In the second part of dissecting each myth, the author discusses where the myth comes from. Finally, in a section entitled, “What we know now,” Tokuhama-Espinosa puts the nail into the coffin of the myth with the current state of scientific knowledge, often using the results of a meta-analysis as a good summary. For instance, with the Mozart Effect, a meta-analysis of 40 studies examining the effect found little scientific evidence of its existence.
You’d expect a book of this nature to be well-referenced; in this case, you won’t be disappointed. A full 57 pages (out of 301) are devoted to references, comprising nearly 19 percent of the book. If you’re someone who likes to dig into the primary research (as I occasionally do), you’ll find such a reference section invaluable.
What I most like about Neuromyths, however, was that is is not an academic boring tome. It is a mainstream book written for everyone who has an interest in the brain and psychology. It is a wonderful, important touchstone to remind us where we are in reference to the scientific data on so many things that people believe readily believe and take as truth.
In an era of “fake news,” Neuromyths is a refreshing and well-written breath of fresh air. For anyone with an interest in neuroscience and the brain, it is a highly recommended read.