Great Myths Of The Brain by Christian Jarrett (book review).

Following on from the other Wiley ‘Great Myths’ books, we have ‘Great Myths Of The Brain’ by Christian Jarrett. There are some 41 myths which is why the number isn’t included in the title. I’m only going to pick out some highlights because it makes more sense to read the book for yourself. However, Jarrett does sub-divide some the myths and if they were numbered based off that, there would be many more. The opening introduction includes a large box with what the media gets wrong and how to spot their mistakes.


Jarrett does compare from various newspaper sources before dismissing many of them. I do wonder if there were other sources he could have referred to as being wrong. After all, not all newspaper journalists make things up, they will contact ‘experts’ far more than read books or even ‘borrow’ and propagate off each other. If the latter is the case, then it demonstrates how reporters and journalists are also the victims of believing what they see in print and need to get back to their roots and research properly than assume anything.

As lot of these beliefs have been nurtured in the press and fiction, if you’re considering using any brain conditions in your stories in any media, read this book first and start getting things right. More so as Jarrett also points out the truths as well so having the counter-arguments will prepare you for any debate. Our own reality is constantly being updated, so this is a good way to start.

Too often, authors don’t often research accuracy but repopulate their stories without checking the current tropes of what is considered possible or not from old sources. With Science Fiction, this is even more important and books such as this should be considered as essential reference book. Have I been sucked in by relying on brain myths? Oddly, Jarrett other than discussing empathy, does even touch on extra-sensory perception and telekinesis.

If you ever wanted the rationale why the old philosophers thought intelligence was in the heart and not the brain was because the former was hot and the latter was cold toteh touch. As simple as that, such weird associations are made.

Only using 10% of the brain is something we’ve been dismissing already in recent years but seeing the statistics Jarratt provides, the belief hasn’t gone away yet. It looks like this myth survives based off people who have survived serious brain injury. Mind you, the way some people think, I would think that statistic would be how much of your brain uses for conscious thought with the rest running on automatic. Based off of that, I suspect some of you will think many people use less than 10% anyway.

The preference for women to prefer pink to blue is a bit different. More to do with our forebears or would it be forebearesses adapting to find red fruit, making it easier to spot. That sounds more like evolution in action. In some respects, I would have thought this trait would have been bred out by now unless, of course, alternatives were truly bred out and that means this particular gene is sex-linked.

Sometimes, something that looks like a myth has an area of truth. Take pregnant women being forgetful. Thinking about, I would have thought someone would have addressed the fact that they are having to rotate through more things per day and, whatever sex, this makes any of us forgetful as we can only keep so many things in our active consciousness. Women are also more focused after the baby is born for similar reasons but it isn’t linked necessarily to pregnancy.

Something I didn’t know was that humans are adapted to sleeping at night in two extended naps so if you wake up for a while during the night, you should regard that as being quite normal and just turn over and keep sleeping.

Something I did know was that sleep paralysis is confused with alien abduction, although I can’t help think that in some people it might be hitting their sensory perception and confusing their dreams. Remember how you interpret outside noises into aspects of your dreams which is also covered here.

Although it’s a myth that you can learn from tapes while asleep, sleeping does in fact enable your brain to process any lessons learnt during the day to make it easier to recall them the next day. So after a busy day revising, get a good night’s sleep is actually a help.

Likewise, I agree with him that although the human brain can be likened to a computer, it is doubtful that a computer brain can be built in a similar way. From my SF perspective, I would hope we might be able to do some things a little better with an AI than what we have in our noggins. As Jarrett points out, looking at the origin of the brain, so much of it is makeshift added on top of the original reptile brain.

Something that is less mythical is how mirror-neurones result in empathy but not how it can strengthens in herds but allows us to get on better with each other. I would have liked to have seen this explored with other species, like the cat family, who can literally can turn it off or manipulate humans by it.

There is a look at Omega 3 although I do think Jarrett is a little off here as no one ever claimed that it would improve intelligence just enhance concentration, although maybe I was never caught in this most recent myth. He does point out that is more effective anyone over eight years of age, which I would think is an attribute to brain requirement.

One myth that stands up is that sugar rushes make kids hyperactive. It isn’t so much the chocolate or sugar but the other natural ingredients it contains. If anything, eating chocolate reduces the amino acid tryptophan in the brain and makes them sleepier but there are other effects from other amino acids as well so things aren’t quite clear cut. As with anything, it’s what we eat that affects us and everything needs to be in moderation. I’ll add a further note to that, just because something alleges to be something, don’t take it on face value. Compare the ingredients of white chocolate across brands if you don’t believe me.

Good news for video-gamers, what you learn from playing them enhances your skills in other things you do, although I hope it isn’t for firing a gun but for acts of concentration. Mind you, it’s probably safer to get any aggression out of your system by shooting at monsters than your own species. From my own occasional use, I’ve noted sharper eyesight close up and better co-ordination.

The examination of our other senses is a topic I’ve discussed before. We have far more than five senses and Jarrett shows how they co-operate in providing your world picture. Jarrett points out that sight is not as good as you might think, especially in how slow it can be and how much the brain has to compensate for what is seen and let’s not even talk blind spots. If you’ve ever wondered why time seems to slow down in a spot of danger, then you’re really seeing how slow your sight really is in absorbing information. What he points out in how by playing up other senses to improve a meal’s taste does make me wonder why more people aren’t jumping at this in other ways.

The examination of the results of concussion and brain damage does show how much the brain can recover by itself or how its abilities are spread throughout this vital organ. Surely, next to the liver, it must have the best back-up system ever.

I liked his examination of photographic memory which is sort of a misnomer. It is possible to memorise text but it’s not done as a visual image like you would with what people look like.

One important topic everyone should read is what to do when faced with a victim of epilepsy. I was taught years ago just to move things away from them when they have a fit so they don’t hurt themselves and certainly never to put a spoon or other object in their mouths. Here, you can blame TV and films for making such mistakes or just showing how mistakes propagate amongst the medically untrained. Medical dramas should know better. At least in the UK, accuracy of medical practices on TV is by law because people use what they watch as recorded in the press.

The final myth that Jarrett hits is chemical imbalances in the brain which oddly medical people do actually use to tell patients but it appears more to hang a problem on as a reassurance than what is going on.

As you can tell from the length of this review, there is a lot to be learnt from this book. I certainly learnt a few things even if I wasn’t always taken in by some of the myths out there. The brain is a remarkable organ and clearing away the myths to see what is really there will show its true strengths and if you use in your fiction, make for better up-to-date stories. Read, digest, learn and dispel those myths.

GF Willmetts

November 2014

(pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 333 page illustrated indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-118-31271-1)

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