Myths About the Brain

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As is usual for SYSK, Josh and Chuck go over some, but not all, of the entries in this list of ten common myths about the brain. While it lives there in your noggin you don't really have much of a grasp on your brain and how it works. You think you do, but you don't.

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Josh Clark: Hey and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant and this is Stuff You Should Know the podcast.

Chuck Bryant: Greetings, Earthlings.

Josh Clark: Hello everyone.

Chuck Bryant: Brains, brains, brains.

Josh Clark: That's right.

Chuck Bryant: That's my intro.

Josh Clark: You didn't do it ten times though.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, no one wants to hear that.

Josh Clark: And we're not gonna even talk about ten brain myths, even though this episode is called ten myths about the brain.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. If you're new to the show and you've never heard us do one of our famous top tens, then you probably don't know we rarely cover all ten. We will tease you a bit with six to eight and they say, "Go read the article if you want the other ones."

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: And in this case, we have actually covered a couple of the things before, so there's no point in rehashing. So I guess I just felt the need to explain that.

Josh Clark: You laid the ground rules pretty well, man.

Chuck Bryant: So a top ten that is really not ten.

Josh Clark: So we have brains in our heads and I think most people walk around feeling like they have some ideas about the brain, some understanding, but it turns out that some of them are wrong. There's myths out there. And some of them have kind of interesting, weird origins, too. Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I thought this was a pretty cool article because we've covered the brain a lot, and it's one of our favorite, favorite, favorite subjects so it's kinda cool to root out some of these things that - a couple of these I thought were true.

Josh Clark: Well, for example, your brain is gray.

Chuck Bryant: I thought that to be true.

Josh Clark: And it's understandable why, too because people call the brain gray matter. Apparently, Hercule Poirot - I just said that like a dog.

Chuck Bryant: No, that was right. That's an odd name to have to say though.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it is, especially from my tongue.

Chuck Bryant: Marble mouth.

Josh Clark: He used to call his brains his gray cells. So yeah, everybody thinks the brain is gray. And it is gray. There are very much lots of gray areas called gray matter, but there's other colors to the brain, too.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, this kind of knocked me out because I had no idea that the brain was also white, black and red like our Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Falcons.

Josh Clark: That's right. Everybody's brain is walking around a Bulldog fan.

Chuck Bryant: So like you said, there is a lot of gray matter, cells, neurons connecting to each other. There is also white matter.

Josh Clark: Well, that's the stuff that connects them.

Chuck Bryant: Well, the white matter is the nerve fibers, right?

Josh Clark: Right, so it connects your gray matter regions to one another.

Chuck Bryant: Got you. So that makes sense.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: But what about the substantia nigra, Latin for black substance? There is part of your brain that's black. I would think that would be scary like it's dead.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you would think so, but that region of the brain, it has to do with motor control, like fine control. And that's the - they think that possibly, that's what Parkinson's damage comes from or Parkinson's disease is located there. And the reason it's black is because of neuromelanin, which is a pigment and I was very curious why your brain would need any kind of pigment whatsoever.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, did you get to that?

Josh Clark: Yeah, it turns out they don't know, but they think that it basically takes - it removes heavy metals from your bloodstream from that area and that they also think that it has to do with - there's adrenochrome. Do you remember that from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: So that stuff is real and your brain produces it as a byproduct of some of those normal processes. And we would all be totally psychotic apparently from the stuff it wasn't for neuromelanin, they think, basically getting rid of it.

Chuck Bryant: So we depend on that color, well, that pigment at least.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Not for coloring in this case, but for some other stuff.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I couldn't - the reason we think gray besides people calling it gray matter is because usually when we see a brain that's floating in a jar it has been turned gray from the formaldehyde and stuff, but I couldn't find any kind of picture of an active brain with all these colors. I guess that's impossible unless they just -

Josh Clark: Peel your skull off and take a picture real quick.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I'm sure those exist. Why couldn't I find a picture? Josh Clark: I don't know. Yeah, they do brain surgery with the healthy, living brain.

Chuck Bryant: I didn't look super hard though. That's the secret.

Josh Clark: So there you go: red, black, white and gray, your brain.

Chuck Bryant: All right, No. 2) listening to Mozart makes you smarter.

Josh Clark: Yeah, this one I thought was proven, but apparently not.

Chuck Bryant: I did, too because Baby Einstein, if you've never heard of that, that is - parents are loving this stuff; big, big, multimillion dollar industry of packaging classical music and poetry and stuff like that to play not just to your baby and toddler and growing child, but for your fetus as well even. The Mozart Effect is what it's called so babies can be smarter.

Josh Clark: Right and apparently, the Mozart Effect is trademarked by a guy named Dan Campbell who basically puts together Mozart in CDs and books and stuff like that. The thing is this Mozart Effect was first noted in the '50s, I think, by an ear, nose and throat doctor named Albert Tomatis.

And he said that his patients who were struggling with speech and auditory disorders showed improvement when they listened to Mozart specifically. And then in the '90s somebody else apparently conducted a test at the University of California Irvine that showed that people's IQ scores improved after listening to Mozart. And then the Mozart Effect was born.

Chuck Bryant: Well, so based on these studies I would think that it does make you smarter. So is that true?

Josh Clark: Apparently, not necessarily, no.

Chuck Bryant: Because these are all myths.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that UC Irvine study in particular was kind of taken out of context, I get the impression. And they were saying, "Well, we never said it makes you smarter. We just said it improved people's ability on the specific temporal spatial test; this one specific thing. We didn't say it makes you smarter. That's the popular media that did that." Chuck Bryant: Right. So things got a little twisted around over time and since then, they have not been able to duplicate these results from that original test. So it turns out it probably won't hurt you any, but listening to classical music is not going to actually make you smarter.

Josh Clark: But they have found that learning to play music can do a lot of stuff. It improves concentration, self-confidence, coordination.

Chuck Bryant: Oh really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. And you mentioned people playing Mozart to get the Mozart Effect for their fetuses. Have you ever heard the one that you get a new wrinkle in your brain every time you learn something?

Chuck Bryant: I knew that wasn't true.

Josh Clark: It sounds a little bit like an angel gets his wings every time a bell rings.

Chuck Bryant: Totally. That is not true, but there are some cool little factoids in here. One of which is that by the time you reach 40 weeks old you have the same brain - it will get larger, of course, but you have all the same little folds and crevices called gyri and sulci all folded up together. And the reason it's folded up together is because our brain is large and the skull isn't, so it needed to scrunch itself in there as we evolved. And I think if you unfolded all that the brain would be the size of a tennis court.

Josh Clark: No, no. That's the intestines.

Chuck Bryant: Right, a pillow case. Okay, that's still pretty big.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's huge. And that's why we're so smart, which kind of leads us to another myth that humans have the biggest brain, which is not the case, which makes sense to me.

Chuck Bryant: I thought this one was pretty cool actually.

Josh Clark: A lot of people walking around think that because we're so smart we must have the biggest brain, but if you think about it, no. A whale's gonna have a bigger brain than a human brain -

Chuck Bryant: That is true.

Josh Clark: - because whales are enormous.

Chuck Bryant: Yep, our brain's about three pounds. A whale, a sperm whale is about 17 pounds.

Josh Clark: Yeah, which is a huge brain. So why aren't sperm whales running the planet? The reason why - it doesn't really matter the size of the brain. It's the size of the brain to the rest of the body. That ratio is what matters.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I thought that was super interesting. They use dolphins as an example because a dolphin's brain is about the same size as a human's brain. Dolphins are super smart, but an average dolphin weighs about 350 pounds. I don't know - does it say how much the average adult weighs? It's not 350 pounds.

Josh Clark: I would say depending on whether it's male or female, anywhere between 100 and 200 pounds. There's an average somewhere in there.

Chuck Bryant: And whether or not you live in Detroit. Sorry. And then they also go on to name some other animals, which was just sorta cute to think about a beagle's brain is 2.5 ounces, cute little beagle.

Josh Clark: They're very cute.

Chuck Bryant: And a sparrow has a brain that weighs less than half an ounce. That's adorable.

Josh Clark: So again though, it's the brain size to body size ratio and in humans it's one to 50. Most other mammals, it's one to 180 and then in birds it's one to 220 typically.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, but we do have - humans compared to mammals have the largest cerebral cortex, which is really where - that's the money section.

Josh Clark: It's also the newest part of our brain. It's on the outer most surface and that's where all the higher functions are carried out.

Chuck Bryant: And that's what really separates us.

Josh Clark: That's why we run the planet.

Chuck Bryant: Otherwise, we'd just be orangutans.

Josh Clark: What about subliminal messages and we learn from those?

Chuck Bryant: That is a falsehood, sir. I guess that's the spoiler. All these are false.

Josh Clark: Yeah, well, they're myths.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, they're myths, but back in the 1950s there was a marketing executive, a researcher named James Vickery who - everyone always heard you go to the movies and they flash up Coca Cola and popcorn.

Josh Clark: I thought that was a myth.

Chuck Bryant: I did, too, but that's true. They did that in 1957.

Josh Clark: Yeah, there's still in this article from the movie Picnic starring Kim Novak and over Kim's face it says, "Hungry? Eat popcorn" and it's from a frame of the movie.

Chuck Bryant: So that's one-three thousandth of a second and Vickery said, "You know what? Sales increased in the theatre by 18 percent for popcorn" - I'm sorry, "for drinks and by 57 percent for popcorn thanks to these messages."

Josh Clark: Yeah, and everybody said, "Okay well, we're very interested in basically psychologically manipulating everybody into buying our product," so they started putting that stuff in jingles and movies and television. And they found pretty quickly that it actually doesn't have an effect.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah well, they banned it first of all. The FCC banned it in 1974 because they did think it worked at the time, but then later on, it turns out that James Vickery just lied about the results; not true at all.

Josh Clark: He's like, "Hey, I was the sales guy, not a scientist. What did you expect?" So yeah, like you said, the FCC banned subliminal advertising in general, which is a good move because if it did work that's not okay. Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: But a lot of people still think that it's still around and that it actually does work.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, but it is not true, and they even tested this in Canada evidently on TV. They flashed the message "Call now" during a broadcast and I guess nobody called. Maybe they didn't give a number.

Josh Clark: Right.


Chuck Bryant: People are like, "I feel like I need to call somebody, but I don't get it."

Josh Clark: I wonder though if they were studying the wrong thing. Call now makes sense, but what if it has to be much more explicit, like, "Hungry? Eat popcorn." You can eat popcorn. Maybe that would make you grab a bite of popcorn if it were in your lap. Maybe it has to be more direct like, "Hungry? Go buy popcorn at the front concession stand now."

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Because then your brain would obey that command rather than a roundabout command that's the result of something you have to do, telling you to go do that thing. Maybe that would work.

Chuck Bryant: So you're leaving the door open for this for further testing?

Josh Clark: I could see it subliminal, below the limen, which is the threshold of our conscious awareness.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it looks like limen by itself.

Josh Clark: That's what's in Sprite.

Chuck Bryant: But if you said subliminal then somebody would just punch you upside the head. Where are we now?

Josh Clark: We are on the idea that brain damage is always permanent.

Chuck Bryant: I didn't know that this was a thing. I didn't know that people said that.

Josh Clark: Sure.

Chuck Bryant: I never heard that.

Josh Clark: Well, I think the point of it is that the brain can't repair itself once it's damaged and that's absolutely not true.

Chuck Bryant: No, it's not true.

Josh Clark: The brain is extremely resilient and so much so that there's this thing called plasticity, which is - it kinda ties into that idea that you get a new wrinkle when you learn something. That's not true, but your brain can rewire itself. That's how you learn and unlearn behaviors through brain plasticity.

Chuck Bryant: Yes. So I guess there is some truth in that. Neurons, they are damaged, they cannot grow back, but thanks to plasticity that will make new neural connections and sometimes in surprising ways, which is why if you had a stroke and damaged part of your brain you can relearn to speak perhaps if you've lost that ability by forging these new connections.

Josh Clark: There's a girl out there who has only one hemisphere of her brain. That's it.

Chuck Bryant: Born that way?

Josh Clark: I don't remember if she was born that way or if it was the result of surgery or damage or something, but she's got half of a brain. Her brain has just one hemisphere and she has binocular vision. She can see out of both eyes, which they had no idea how that was going on.

And they finally went in and looked, I guess using an MRI and they found that her optic nerve that should be connected to the missing hemisphere had basically grown to go patch into another part of her brain on the other side. And it basically hijacked this other part of her brain and was using it for sight.

Chuck Bryant: That is unbelievable.

Josh Clark: That's the brain.

Chuck Bryant: I wonder what you lose though. I wonder if it forges a connection at the expense of another. You know what I'm saying?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Is she like, "Yeah, I can see through both eyes, but I can't tie my shoe any longer?"

Josh Clark: Yeah, maybe. It's possible, but the brain would say, "Well, it's better you can see. Somebody else can tie your shoes."

Chuck Bryant: Well, that makes me wonder though, I wonder if there's an order to it all, like if the brain knows what's more important.

Josh Clark: Yes, there is as a matter of fact. This ties into that idea that you only use ten percent of your brain.

Chuck Bryant: Wow. All right, let's hear it. Well, that's not true by the way.


Chuck Bryant: It's a myth.

Josh Clark: Right. And actually, that one has a pretty interesting origin doesn't it?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. They're not quite sure where it came from. It seems like it's always been around though, the notion that you only use ten percent of your brain. But they think it may have come from American psychologist, William James in the early 1900s when he said "The average person rarely achieves but a small portion of his or her potential" and it was just sort of twisted into ten percent of your brain is used. And people - you see people taking advantage of this notion all the time with self-help books like, Tap into the other 90 Percent and it's just bunk.

Josh Clark: Right. And this is where it ties in. It is bunk in that all regions, all physical regions of your brain are being used, but there's a theory that's around for savantism that explains savantism, which I wanna do some day.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Josh Clark: We need to write the article on it.

Chuck Bryant: We've covered it a lot in different areas.

Josh Clark: It's so fascinating.

Chuck Bryant: Totally.

Josh Clark: There's a theory right now that savantism is from the result of brain damage. What savantism is is the result of the brain's tyranny of the frontal lobe is what it's called.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: And basically, the idea is that your frontal lobe decides what's important and it bosses around all the other regions of your brain to carry out this very smooth, efficient, streamline process that basically it decides is the most important.

And in doing so, it casts to the side a lot of other stuff like the ability to make great art or the ability to count a bunch of matches that just fell on the floor, whatever, and that savantism is the result of this executive function, this tyranny of the frontal cortex being disrupted so that maybe you aren't the most efficient shark in the tank any longer and you're not out there and going, going, going and trying to compete and beat everybody else.

But there's all these other things that are now free to just kind of blossom like artistic - deep, amazing artistic abilities. That's this theory.

Chuck Bryant: Boy and we're just now learning this stuff.

Josh Clark: But it suggests that maybe we do only use a portion of our abilities, not physical. We're using 100 percent of the physical parts of the brain, but what we're using it for is at issue. Do you see what I'm saying?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. So there's definitely something to that. Yeah, I trip out on the brain a lot like when I'm studying it for the podcast. I'll get sidetracked. This morning, I was reading this article and I just had one of those little flights of fancy where it amazed me that I was looking at these printed shapes on a paper that formed words into sentences that I understood and had meaning. I just was amazed by the brain just laying in bed this morning. I'm reading these words that make sense and I'm speaking words that have a symbol form on a paper. I promise you I wasn't on LSD this morning, but I just had one of those moments where it just totally amazed me that I was even able to read.

Josh Clark: That's awesome. So the brain basically made you impressed with itself?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it did.

Josh Clark: And while you mentioned LSD I guess we can say in passing apparently, drugs do not create holes in your brain.

Chuck Bryant: That is not true and there's a lot of back and forth over how much damage drugs do to your brain at all, how repairable that damage is. And there are studies going on all the time about long term drug use and the results. One of them, interestingly, found that they think that some long term use of some drugs can cause structures in the brain to grow and that is why addicts may have a hard time kicking the habit because they've grown a certain part of their brain, I guess, to depend on that.

Josh Clark: It rewards it. Your limbic system is strengthened.

Chuck Bryant: It's very interesting. And alcohol does not kill brain cells. It damages the dendrites that we've talked about and those are the ends of the neurons where the connections are taking place.

Josh Clark: Right. So it makes your neurons talk sideways to one another.

Chuck Bryant: The brain cells are still there, but they just can't talk to one another.

Josh Clark: They're like, "I love you pal."

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, pretty much. And there's something - a neurological disorder called Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome and that is - can result in a loss of neurons in the brain, but that's basically what I think of when I think someone has pickled themselves with alcohol. That's kind of what's going on.

Josh Clark: Right, but it's actually not the alcohol that's killing brain cells; it's from a deficiency in thiamine. Chuck Bryant: Yeah, isn't that amazing?

Josh Clark: Yeah. So if you have a thiamine deficiency you can get this Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome and that's a B vitamin. And if you are an alcoholic you typically aren't absorbing your thiamine like you would if you weren't an alcoholic, which is why it's associated with alcoholism, but it's not alcohol killing brain cells.

Chuck Bryant: Right. And it's much easier for me just to say they've pickled themselves on booze, which is really sad. We're laughing, but it is super sad -

Josh Clark: Yes, it is.

Chuck Bryant: - if you ever met anyone that was pickled from years of alcohol abuse.

Josh Clark: Well yeah, any addict suffering as a result of their addiction is extremely sad.

Chuck Bryant: It is. So that's all I got. How many was that?

Josh Clark: Sevenish, eightish.

Chuck Bryant: Six-and-a-half?

Josh Clark: Something like that. If you want to learn the fate of the other remaining brain myths from this top ten list type in brain myths in the search bar at and it will bring this article up.

Chuck Bryant: And actually, we sort of have issue with one of them we left of, which was the decapitation. They said it was a myth, I guess. I didn't even read it.

Josh Clark: Kind of.

Chuck Bryant: Didn't we say it was -


Josh Clark: They even say in there, they're like, "Yeah, it's gonna last for a couple of seconds," which is what we said in the podcast, but for some reason they made that seem like that's nothing. But then they said that it's an extremely painful way to die because you are conscious afterward. It was kind of a cluster.

Chuck Bryant: Mixed messages.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So I said search bar, which means it's time for listener mail.

Chuck Bryant: Yes. I'm gonna call this poopy time. We did our podcast on fecal transplants and we've had all manner of poopy emails coming in. And I'm gonna share one from Jacob Karns.

"Hi Josh, Chuck and Jeri" - and he spelled Jeri right - "I just finished the fecal transplant podcast and felt compelled to write in after you mentioned the norovirus, which I was afflicted with about two weeks ago. It didn't last long; just about 24 hours, but it hit instantly like someone flipped a switch. I will spare you the details, but it was nearly the worst I've ever felt. The day after was nearly the best I've ever felt due to the euphoria of still being alive, but for the following week, my gut just felt like it wasn't right. My hunch is that it was - really messed with the internal flora."

Josh Clark: He needs some Kombucha.

Chuck Bryant: What's that?

Josh Clark: Oh, it's this fermented basically probiotic drink that's - I guess it's eastern. It's really delicious. There's some very delicious Kombucha drinks out there and it supposedly promotes colonization in your gut.

Chuck Bryant: You drinking that stuff?

Josh Clark: I love it.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Where do you get it?

Josh Clark: Whole Foods has this kind called GTs and they have a specific flavor called gingerade. It's so good.

Chuck Bryant: I'll have to check that out. Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: All right, he follows up to say - this is my favorite part - "Like I said, I felt compelled to write after you mentioned the norovirus, but I felt obligated after you brought up the terror of your young selves' experience when you had the misfortune of using the bathroom after your fathers." Remember that, old man poop?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: "When I was a child my father liked to enjoy a cigarette while doing his business. So when I" -

Josh Clark: That's so '70s.

Chuck Bryant: It is very '70s. "So when I heard the call shortly after him I was subjected to the putrid No. 2 smell mixed with the stale cigarette smoke. And to this day I have trouble separating the latter from the former. As I grew up, the need to look cool convinced me to try and take up the habit of smoking" -

Josh Clark: To look cool on the toilet.

Chuck Bryant: - "numerous times, but my childhood association has at least helped me come to my senses." So he never learned to smoke because he associated it with his dad's poop.

Josh Clark: That's good.

Chuck Bryant: Whatever works.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: "Thanks for another great podcast, guys. Jacob Karns."

Josh Clark: Yeah, I guess for all of you smoking out there -

Chuck Bryant: Take it to the toilet; see what happens.

Josh Clark: Take a big whiff of poop while you're smoking a cigarette and that'll probably break you of your habit. Mixing disgust with anything will break you of habits, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. Josh Clark: If you have a habit breaking tip - bad habit breaking tip we wanna hear it because that's a demonstration of brain plasticity as you know. You can tweet to us at syskpodcast. You can join us on You can send us an email to and you can join us at our home on the web,

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Duration: 25 minutes