Flashback to 1971. Tucking into lunch in the dinner hall of St Mary’s Primary School, Haddington. Dispatching first the veg and slices of unnamed quadruped so that I could save the best until last (the chips), I note that my neighbour is clearing away his chips first. “Do you not like chips?” I ask. “Aye” he replies, stunned “that’s why I’m eating them first!”
This Copernican adjustment in world view flashed through my mind today while deciding which Scottish Learning Festival Event to reflect upon and write up first. I’ve decided on a “chips first” approach and would like to try to convey the immense sense of fun and engagement in Sergio della Sala’s talk, “Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain.”
Professor in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at Edinburgh University, Sergio Della Sala sought to explode some of the myths which belabour lay thinking in the emerging field of Mind, Brain and Education. He began by wondering why we willingly accept so much as fact while wondering so little about the veracity of the evidence. Do we have a propensity to believe? According to an the following experiment, we may. A grammatically incoherent sentence was shown to three groups of people whose knowledge of neuroscience was described as – novice, student & expert. All agreed that it made no sense. Some equally incoherent neuroscience mumbo-jumbo was inserted, and all but the expert group believed that the revised sentence now made sense.
In an attempt to prove that we in the audience are as prone to embrace myths as anyone else, a picture of Popeye appeared on the screen. We were agreed upon his legendary strength and its origins in consumption of spinach – which is rich in iron. False. A decimal placement error in an 1890s table of nutrients in vegetables led to lasting belief in the properties of this suddenly less appealing vegetable.
He then went on to supply examples of myths in neuroscience:
- Fears have been expressed about bilingualism in young children weakening cognitive abilities. Not only is there no evidence to suggest this but Della Sala promised to outline non-linguistic cognitive benefits of bilingualism in the question session if anyone was interested.
- We only use 10% of our brain. This claim by Dale Carnegie appears to be a paraphrasing of William James’ conviction that many people only use 10% of their potential. There are no spare, un-used areas of the brain. I had heard this idea before in the context of evolution being a very fuel-conscious process where nothing surplus to requirement survives.
- The Mozart effect – the idea that merely listening to the music of Mozart is sufficient to bring about heightened cognitive abilities. It seems that there is very little evidence for this apart from a slight raising of attention levels which could be achieved by listening to almost anything. As I suspected active involvement, as opposed to passive listening, is required for the claimed benefits to ensue.
- Hemisphere myths – that breathing through the right nostril alone can enliven the creative right side of the brain regardless of the fact that oxygen is delivered to the lungs and that, even if it weren’t, the nostrils are not the sealed chambers required for such a dream to take place. Apparently the charge for one session of training in this art was $400.
Now that we know what we don’t know – is there anything we do know? The great paradox of science is that function is revealed largely through the study of dysfunction. Sufficient evidence of lesions in an area of the brain, and of the resultant deficits, confirm where some processes are housed. Injuries to the right hemisphere appear to cause problems in:
- orientation – resulting in a drawing being skilfully copied with the exception of the orientation of the object
- directing attention – the reverse of this being contralateral neglect syndrome (contralateral because each hemisphere of the brain controls the opposite side of the body). This can result in half-eaten dishes; drawings where the left side of the page is left blank. A famous case of this concerned Woodrow Wilson’s right-brain stroke during the Treaty of Versailles. More here.
Other interesting demonstrations included one whose intention was to prove the effect of concentration on attention. We were asked to watch a short film featuring six basketball players – three in white clothing, and three in black. Our task was to count the amount of times the white team bounced the ball while passing between themselves – members of both teams were weaving in and out and even passing over the heads of one another. While this was going on, someone dressed in a black gorilla suit walked through the ensemble. Many people did not see this even although it was noted, during the replay, that the gorilla stopped in the middle of the group to beat its chest ostentatiously.
Two remaining issues flagged up interesting and perhaps surprising facts about the nature of free will and memory.
Professor Della Sala’s work on Anarchic Hand Syndrome encouraged us to consider free will as “free won’t” as inhibiting actions plays a larger part in our apparent choices than we might imagine.
To encourage us to consider how we summon up memories, Professor Della Sala showed a list of sleep related words. Although the word “sleep” did not appear, most of the audience were prepared to believe that it did. What we were being asked to consider here is that our memories are reconstructed by us rather than simply being retrieved from a apothecary’s cabinet of stored events. The fact that we were willing to consider a word which should logically have appeared on a list as one that actually did was a very convincing a demonstration of this.
In conclusion, what were we meant to gain from the explosion of so many myths. Could it possibly be considered a negative approach? Apart from the fact that Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain is the title of his recent book (a follow up to Mind Myths) I felt that Professor Della Sala’s invitation to us was that, if we hope to address the field of Mind, Brain & Education, then before it can be any use to us, we need to remove some of the wool which is currently obscuring our view.
As if to convince us of this, the final slide in this fantastically entertaining presentation quoted John C. Lilly:
“Whatever one believes to be true either is true or becomes true in one’s mind.”
The trouble is – how do I know he really said that?