Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Brain myths and biased thinking

Edited by Jill Wright,

I've just started reading British cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett's Great Myths of the Brain which debunks a good deal of the often dangerous junk that has sprung from bad neuroscience.

These myths range from the common fallacy that we only use 10 per cent of our brains, that children are "left-brained" or "right-brained" - and accordingly pushed into different education streams - to theories that "mirror neurons" cause autism or Baroness Susan Greenfield's assertion that the Internet is destroying our brains.

Jarrett enumerates 10 of these harmful misconceptions in his column in Wired magazine.

Coincidentally, I've just come across a piece in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog which shows the extent to which people who know little about neuroscience are prepared to favour its use over the solid scientific evidence of the more mature discipline of psychology.

It reports on research by Baltimore-based Geoffrey and Cynthia Munro which studied the reactions of 106 students asked to read a story about the assessment of a politician for early-stage Alzheimer's. In one version of the story, the assessment was based on an MRI. In the other, the assessment was based on cognitive tests.

The students were more convinced by the MRI evidence, judging it more objective, valid and reliable. In reality, cognitive tests are more trustworthy, with brain imaging used only to rule out other explanations for impairment.

It seems the phrase "brain scan" has cast a powerful spell over modern society. Medical students think their psychology lectures are "soft and fluffy", compared with the biomedical model for mental illness, despite the fact that psychiatry has conspicuously failed to provide evidence for their biomedical theses.

We use neuroscience and neuropsychotherapy at Psychology Melbourne where appropriate, and we have a lot of respect for the research findings in the field.

But we already have far too much evidence of the way the desire for simple solutions can seduce policy-makers and bureaucrats into disastrous decisions that can have long-term repercussions.

I hope they read Christian Jarrett's book.

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.