Psychology "Fun Facts" That Are Driving Me Insane

Hey, you. You in the body.

You might think of yourself as a complete human being, with arms, legs, fingers, toes and butt cheeks, but it really comes down to it, everything that makes you 'you' - your hopes, dreams, quirks, personality traits, memories, goals, haunting recollections of that body you buried in the woods - are all contained within a 3lb chunk of flesh inside your skull.

This is you.

But as important as our brains are, most people don't seem to know a heck of a lot about them. Most of my regular readers probably know that I'm an undergraduate psychology student, and that I am all about brains. Love 'em. Big fan. The only problem is, now and then someone finds out what I study, and they hit me with some piece of brain-related trivia to see if I knew it. Most of the time, I did not. But it has nothing to do with holes in my education - an overwhelming amout of psychology 'fun facts' floating around are just straight-up wrong. 

So before I push someone in front of a train for bombarding me with tidbits of bad information, let me shed some light on common email-forward facts like:

We only use 10% of our brains. 

Here's a quick question: how much of your brainpower do you suppose it takes to coordinate every single muscle in your body, maintain spacial awareness, interpret visual information, process audio information, deal with touch signals from every inch of your skin, hold on to the definitions, pronunciations and spellings of the roughly 20,000-35,000 words in your vocabulary, assemble your nebulous thoughts into sentences, comprehend human speech, recognize the tens of thousands of items in your environment, keep track of time, experience and cope with emotions in response to environmental and internal stimuli, recognize human faces, store memories of lifetime events and facts you've memorized so that they can be recalled at a moment's notice, hang on to handy skills like the ability to tie your own shoes and drive your car without mowing down the neighbour kids, identify smells, and keep all of your internal organs functioning properly?

How about all of it?

You need this.

Your brain has a strict 'use it or lose it' policy; if your neurons stop firing, they die. After all, why should your body work so hard converting all those Cheetos and Kit-Kats you eat into energy, just so you can fuel lazy, freeloading brain cells? It would much rather let the useless cells die and use that excess energy to construct a third chin for you. If you really allowed 90% of your brain to die off, you'd be little more than a vegetable with a functioning brain stem. I mean, think about it - if you only used 10% of your brain, having a stoke would be no big deal. Yeah, a chunk of your brain dies, but so long as you've still got the 10% you needed, you'd feel no effects.

Look at that, he's got way more than 1/10th of his brain left. Bet he won't even notice.

I'm completely baffled as to where this little 'fun fact' even came from, because it has two horrible possible implications:

a) No matter how hard you strive and strain and push yourself, you're still way too lazy to even begin to access your full potential. Everyone on earth is harboring Mensa-caliber intellect that they could use to cure all known diseases, make great contributions to the arts and increase the efficiency of all the systems we rely on, but ensh, that takes work and Duck Dynasty is on.

b) Mother Nature chose to endow us with immense brain capacity that we're somehow capable of detecting, but entirely incapable of accessing. All of humanity is essentially carrying around a 50 exobyte external hard drive, but no one has the mini-USB cable needed to actually connect it. 

Either way, it's total crap.

Left-brained people are logical, and right-brained people are creative. 


Chances are, if you ever managed to draw a straight line on a graph without getting confused and falling down a flight of stairs, someone quickly labelled you 'left-brained' - you favor the left side of your brain, and in exchange, it grants you the power to compile lists, do calculations, and bore the ever-loving crap out of everyone you encounter. Likewise, if you took a magic marker to your own face as a child, someone might have popped up to call you 'right-brained' - you favor the right side of your brain, which enables you to paint masterpieces, compose symphonies, and see the merits of wearing maxi dresses and skinny jeans. If you're curious to find out which side your talents lie on, don't worry! There are hundreds upon hundreds of online quizzes that will tell you. There's just one little problem.

This. This is the problem. 


Remember that thing we were just talking about? About how you rely on your entire brain to do things? That still applies here. It's true that your left hemisphere and right hemisphere do have slightly different functions; in most people, language and verbal abilities lie on the left, while music and non-verbal abilities fall on the right. That said, there is considerable overlap. Consider this - young children with catastrophic epilepsy will occasionally, as an absolute last-ditch effort, have an entire hemisphere of their brain removed. After an initial period of recovery, during which their squishy, adaptable little brains do some rewiring to adjust for the missing hemisphere, these children retain their full range of cognitive abilities. Kids who have had the left side of the brain hauled out have gone on to get graduate degrees in language, and kids whose right hemispheres were removed can still sculpt, sketch and figure out that Nicki Minaj is just awful. 

If you're really desperate to figure out where the functions in your brain are located, all you need to do is pick up a pen.

One of those hands is about to drag itself through wet ink. Poor lefties.

Handedness has a bigger impact on the orientation of your brain than personality or hobbies ever will. If you're right-handed, as most people are, there is a 95% chance that you have the "language on the left" orientation. The other 5% of you have this either reversed, or your functions are shared between the two sides. But if you're a lefty, there's only a 70% chance that your language is originating from your left; for 15% of you, it's on the right, and for the other 15%, it's split. The proportions aren't always exact - but they're a hell of a lot more scientific than the left-brain, right-brain personality divide.

Learning styles are a thing.

Little Tommy likes to read, so he must be a visual learner. Suzie remembers what her teacher said in class, so she must be an audio learner. Timmy likes to chew on keys and gargle paint, so, uh, he must be a tactile learner.

Dammit, Timmy. 

Teachers swear by learning styles, and if you went to school in a year that starts with a 2 (assuming you're not a time traveler from the 200's), you were probably evaluated for learning style at some point during your school days. The results likely had absolutely no impact on your education, but at least you knew. And if you were tested multiple times, you might have found that you had a different learning style each time. Did your learning style change? Why is that?

Samantha was shocked to discover that she learned best by taste.

A large part of it is that no one can find a model that holds up to scientific testing. 71 different models of learning style have been proposed, and not a single one has actually been shown to have any validity in psychological experiments. Fundamentally, all humans learn in similar ways - the reason that Jack might prefer to read while Jill would rather listen to a lecture is far too complicated to attribute to an abstract, stable trait like a 'learning style'. Maybe Jill's entire family was bludgeoned to death by books, you don't know. When it comes down to it, we all learn best by doing, and putting our skills to work. So all you apprentices in the trades, you're in luck! To those of you studying theoretical mathematics... good luck with that.

People with concussions need to be kept awake. 

First, some clarification: if your loved one has just miraculously survived a head-first tumble down an elevator shaft and is incapable of seeing, thinking, walking, talking or refraining from vomiting, do not let him or her go to sleep. It's notoriously difficult to evaluate brain damage when someone is asleep, since you have no way to tell if their symptoms are getting better. Worst case scenario, they'll slip into an irreversible coma. Best case scenario, they'll choke on their own vomit and go out like a rock star. Either way, it's not good.

This is not necessarily a man you want to emulate.

But if your friend just got a little bump on the head as they were walking through low doorframes or scoring a touchdown during the 9th inning of their hockey game, and they're coherent enough to stomp over to you and declare that they're going to bed, you should let them sleep. Contrary to popular belief, your brain doesn't make you sleep so that it can put its feet up and have a little 'me' time until it's ready to entertain you again. Sleep is the only time you stop using your neurons long enough for them to be tuned up and repaired. 

She's about two hours away from restoring her brain to its pre-college state.

You might recognize 'brain repair' as something that's pretty important for a person who's just bounced their brain off the inside of their skull. So unless you have a vested interest in seeing the concussed patient's IQ drop, so long as they're coherent and not vomiting, you are safe to let them sleep. In fact, you should command it.

The Myers-Briggs Personality Test will tell you exactly what you should do for a living.

If you've ever been on a dating site, or worked at an overzealous workplace, you might have seen people identifying themselves by a four-letter string that looks something like 'INFP', or 'ESTJ'. These are the shorthand codes for the Myers-Briggs personality types, which measures personalities on four dmensions: Introversion vs. Extroversion; Intuition vs. Sensing; Feeling vs. Thinking; and Perception vs. Judgement. And once you know which side of each dimension you fall on, you should be able to use that personality score to determine your dream job. It's that easy! Holy crap, why isn't this test mandatory?

This man. This man is why.

The Myers-Briggs test is based on the work of Carl Jung, who in turn spent his academic career licking the hypothetical feet of Dr. Sigmund "Mom sure is lookin' good" Freud, a man who simultaneously founded the field of clinical psychology and made it difficult for anyone to take it seriously. The problem with Freud was that his work was scientifically flawed from the get-go; it's one thing to claim that males live their entire lives terrified of being castrated by their fathers and that all healthy three-year-olds are obsessed with their own buttholes, but if you can't actually come up with an experiment to test your ideas, they're worthless. 

Also, he prescribed cocaine for, like, everything. 

All of the problems with Freud's work show up in the Myers-Briggs test. How is anyone supposed to evaluate the test? 'Personality' is not something that shows up in a blood test or an MRI, and following so-called 'Feeling' types around to see if emotions really do run their lives is hardly feasible. This is the reason why the Meyers-Briggs test never pops up in psychologists' or psychiatrists' offices; they have far stronger, more reliable personality inventories that aren't available to the general public. In any case, official indexes of personality mostly look for major disruptions that indicate you have a whopping personality disorder going on; they don't tell you that you would be just the best oral hygienist that Western Canada has ever seen. 

And that's why the Myers-Briggs has continued to thrive. It'd be so convenient to fill out a questionnaire and figure out exactly what you should do with your entire life. The alternative is to spend years getting to know yourself, making mistakes, and trying out things that might be new and scary to you. 

And really, who wants to do that?

What other psychology myths have you heard floating around? Let me know!

5 comments

  1. Great post Janel. No nothing to add I'm afraid :)

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    Replies
    1. That's okay! So glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  2. very insightful, i think i use both my left and right brain anyway. thanks. you can read my new post by clicking on this link http://schoolofsuccessgh.blogspot.com/2014/01/right-mindset-ultimate-key-to-success.html.

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  3. Hi Janel,

    I'm gonna throw a shit sandwich at you. Compliment, criticism, compliment . Ready? Ok!

    Compliment--love your writing, found you through Cracked, looking forward to seeing more.

    Criticism--Learning styles are absolutely a thing. This was the subject of my Mother's Master's thesis, and she created the Gifted Program in her School District. When you start being in a position to teach, whether it be as a senior employee training newbs, manage other people, or become a parent, you will understand that you are wrong, nebulous psychological studies be damned. (Also, psychology is increasingly being regarded as not an actual thing and dangerous to mental health to boot, so I laugh when students get all authoritative.)

    Compliment--Um, you're pretty?

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