It shouldn’t come as any surprise that when you consider your most valuable organ, the one you decide on is, in fact, the one that suggested that answer. The brain is a puzzling body part if you devote enough attention to it. It’s aware of itself, and it knows that science can’t study it too precisely; but it also has identity issues. A recent survey shows that most Americans still believe they only use as much as 10 percent of their brain in daily life. Conducted on behalf of the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), the survey also reveals four other myths people believe about the brain.
The survey included 2,013 American adults above the age of 18, and was fielded by Harris Interactive.
Myth # 1: We only use 10 percent of our brain.
This myth is perhaps the most widely touted, but also disastrously incorrect. Humans may only use 10 percent of their brains while they rest or perform unconscious, menial actions. But throughout the day, your motor functions and cerebral demands require full use of just about every component scattered around your brain.
"It turns out…that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," neurologist Barry Gordon told Scientific American. "Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy."
Simple acts such as going outside to fetch the morning paper make the brain light up like a lightning storm. The strings negotiating the occipital and parietal lobes, motor sensory and sensory motor cortices, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and frontal lobes each feel a cerebral “tug” at some point in the act. Coordinating the fluid transitions between balance, cognition, and motor skills demands far more than a paltry 10 percent.
How many believed the myth?: 65 percent.
Myth #2: Mental skills decline with age.
It’s easy to imagine a senior citizen withering away in a nursing home, her vision failing and memory clouding. While old age is often thought of as an inexorable decline — thanks to gradual memory loss and decreased ability to pick up certain new skills — psychologists argue that certain mental faculties only get stronger with age.
When it comes to rote memorization or quick thinking, younger adults do tend to perform better. In tests of social savvy and language retention, the sages triumph. People in old age showed greater ability to resolve conflicts, retain an extensive vocabulary, and make character assessments based only on biographical sketches.
“Older people are more satisfied with their social relationships than are younger people, especially regarding relationships with their children and younger relatives,” wrote Laura L. Carstensen, noted expert on socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) — a phenomenon that says people in old age use their limited time to direct energy toward positive ends. “They are more likely to invest in sure things, deepen existing relationships, and savor life,” she added.
Studies have also shown that, while the elderly lack the same skill for memory, they are able to pick up mnemonic tools that elevate their capacity for memory back to younger levels.
How many believed the myth?: 74 percent.
Myth #3: Men and women are at equal risk for brain disease.
To make the claim that men and women face the same risk for developing brain disease suggests that all brain diseases are created equal. In fact, there is a raft of differences between men and women that say a person may face a greater risk for one disease, but not another, simply because of the individual’s gender.
Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disease of the nervous system, typically affects males, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some theories say that this is because estrogen may have neuro-protective effects. Alternatively, the gene that predisposes a person to Parkinson’s could find its link on the X chromosome. Multiple sclerosis (MS), by contrast, is between two to three times more common in women than in men. The gender gap is strongest, in fact, among people who develop MS at a young age.
Both diseases are characterized by deficiencies in the nervous system’s ability to function properly. While each gender may face greater risk for certain diseases, the specific diseases each bear unique risks that apply to one sex more than the other.
How many believed the myth?: 71 percent.
Myth #4: Brain disease is uncommon.
In addition to debunking several common myths, the MJFF survey shed light on important misconceptions Americans had about brain health. One of the more illuminating was the country’s overall perception that brain disease doesn’t pose a great threat to people’s health.
In Europe, 35 percent of the total disease burden was attributed to brain disorders.
The MJFF finding is alarming primarily because of the vast range of duties the brain is called upon to perform day after day. Its purpose is paramount; if anything, the misconception should err on the side of caution and overestimate the danger of brain disease. However, the MJFF’s data revealed that Americans undercut the true risk by nearly half, pegging the average risk at 36 percent.
The actual risk: 60 percent.
Myth #5: Loss of smell can’t predict brain disease.
As it turns out, losing your sense of smell is associated with all major brain diseases, and a full 95 percent of Parkinson’s sufferers have reported losing their sense of smell to some degree. The full loss of the sense is called anosmia, although many patients simply report cases of impaired olfaction, known as olfactory dysfunction.
“Olfactory testing has become a new focus of attention in neurology as well, mainly because many patients with neurodegenerative diseases-including the majority of those with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease-have olfactory loss early on in the course of their disorder,” researchers from the University of Cologne wrote in January.
“Olfactory dysfunction is thus regarded as an early sign of neurodegenerative disease that may allow a tentative diagnosis to be made years before the motor or cognitive disturbances become evident.”
(The MJFF is currently leading a major research study recruiting people over age 60 without Parkinson's who have lost some ability to smell.)
How many believed the myth?: 50 percent.
Past the myths, a number of misconceptions were unveiled as a result of the survey. Despite overwhelming portions of the population agreeing medical breakthroughs in treating brain disease are necessary, only 31 percent believed they could help on their own. According to a press release, younger people were more optimistic than older people, as 41 percent of people 18-34 believed they could personally help find cures, but only 24 percent of people 55+ said they could.
"There are many ways patients and their loved ones can help accelerate the search for cures,” said Deborah W. Brooks, co-founder and executive vice chairman of the MJFF, “such as participating in clinical (human) research studies: providing a one-off blood or saliva sample for genetic testing, or even just completing a survey.”