Three Facts or Three Myths About the Brain?

Patrick T. Randolph, Western Michigan University

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This article is the sixth in a multi-article series based on “What Every Teacher Needs to Know About the Brain,” a presentation given at the 2013 ITBE Convention in Lisle, IL.
One of the most phenomenal organs in the human body is the elegant and ever so intricate universe known as the brain. And yet, despite all the new insightful discoveries that neuroscience has made in the last few decades, much of the inner workings of the brain continue to baffle neuroscientists in every corner of the globe. In addition to these mysteries, popular opinion and even ELL textbooks treat certain brain myths as facts. I would therefore like to expose these accepted “facts” and show that they are indeed nothing more than fabricated “brain myths.” Let us begin with the one we hear the most frequently.


Brain Myth #1: We use only 10 percent of our brains.
Brain Fact: We use almost 100 percent of our brains.

Although this myth is very popular, and you will hear it everywhere—from cocktail parties to college classrooms—it is completely untrue. It’s difficult to track down who exactly started this myth. Chudler (2012) claims it could have been a misunderstanding of Albert Einstein's, Pierre Flourens', or Karl Lashley’s work, or it could have been a misinterpretation of something they said.

We can, however, easily prove that we use the entire brain by looking at position emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. These scans demonstrate that the brain engages in a myriad of processes while doing any number of activities (Helmuth, 2011). For example, let’s say a wife and mother sits down to breakfast with her family. Even this task will require the brain to be highly activated in a number of regions. The woman will look at her husband and children (this action engages the occipital lobes that deal with vision). At the same time, she listens to them chatter on about the day’s schedule (this works the temporal lobes that are responsible for hearing and memory). Then she might take a bite of her pancake (this elicits activity in her parietal lobes that deal with sensory functions like taste and temperature). And most important, she will be paying attention to how much her loved ones are eating (this judgment calls on the frontal lobes, as they take care of reasoning, decision making, and help with various kinds of memory). As we can see, even this simple task of sitting down to breakfast requires a great deal from the brain!

What this means for us in the ELL classroom:
If our brains are engaged at almost 100 percent during the day, then teachers can take advantage of this by using many different kinds of realia, integrating the senses to reinforce recall of information, and providing as many techniques as possible to help students improve their language skills. The more ideas we use to encode the newly learned information or skills, the more the students can develop associations and connections in the learning process (Medina, 2009).

Brain Myth #2: Our brains can consciously multitask.
Brain Fact: “Research shows that we can’t multitask” (Medina, 2009, p. 85).
Like Myth #1, you will see ELL textbooks that feature the art of multitasking. But such a phenomenon is simply not true. “Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time” (Medina, 2009, p. 84). This might seem to contradict our previous myth, because I showed that our brains operate at almost 100 percent. Myth #2, however, is about our brains’ conscious capabilities regarding multiple activities. That is, we are not talking about breathing and walking at the same time, but rather, we are talking about consciously attending to two things at once.

A good example of this is the art of playing an instrument. Take the piano for instance. If you try to play it while simultaneously focusing on each, specific note, the result will be one of noise and not music.
The most powerful example of how multitasking doesn’t work comes from the National Safety Council. They report that currently in 2014 there have been about 461,751 auto crashes that have involved drivers using cell phones. That is essentially one every 30 seconds (National Safety Council, 2014).

What this means for us in the ELL classroom:
What we need to do is come up with a better lecture and note-taking method for all learners—domestic and non-native speakers alike.
If we think about the process of note-taking in a typical lecture, we are forcing our ELLs to multitask (i.e., do something literally impossible) at a very complex level. Essentially,
  1. we are asking them to pay attention;
  2. we are asking them to do this in their non-native language;
  3. we are requiring them to make sense of the meaning in English (this is difficult with so many cultural references, idioms, and other language chunks tossed in);
  4. we are assuming that they will write all the important points down; and
  5. we are asking them to keep up with the native speakers of English in the class. 
A history instructor at a university I once taught at in Wisconsin had a brilliant answer to this. He would lecture for 10-minute intervals and ask his students to simply focus on listening. Then, before moving on, he would give them a few minutes to discuss and write down the most important points and examples from the 10-minute segment.
This was a very economical and effective way to conduct a lecture. Students could focus on one “skill” at a time. Most lecturers, however, continue to embrace Myth #2 without seeing a need to focus on the brain fact.

Myth #3: Our adult brains cannot generate new neurons.
Brain Fact: We continue to generate new cells as long as we stay physically active (Ratey, 2009).
Ironically, the great father of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, set this myth in motion. In his renowned work, Degeneration and Regeneration of the Nervous System, he claimed the adult neuron system is unchangeable and fixed. No new neurons in the brain could ever be regenerated (1928/1968). This myth has been perpetuated for decades in pop culture both in the U.S. and abroad.
We now know, however, that this is not the case. Our brains actually do have the ability to create new neurons throughout our adult life. This process of creating new “baby” neurons is called neurogenesis.
 Physical exercise has a great deal to do with supporting and aiding in the process of neurogenesis (Pereira et al., 2007; Ratey, 2009). Results from many studies show that physical exercise helps the hippocampus produce new neurons. This is extremely exciting because the hippocampus is also a major center for learning and memory. As a consequence of this wonderful marriage between neurogenesis and learning, more neuroscientists are researching the positive effects of physical exercise on the hippocampus.
What this means for us in the ELL classroom:
The new discoveries about neurogenesis and learning are truly exciting for us because we, as instructors, actually have the ability to help our students create new neurons by encouraging physical exercise in our classrooms. Ratey, who has researched exercise’s benefits on learning, has shown that “exercise improves learning” because “it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus” (2009, p. 53). And the more active neurons there are, the better our students can enhance their memory and learning via producing a deeper network of neurons prepared to make connections associated with their language skills.
Concluding Remarks:
The three myths addressed above are all significant because their corresponding truths have very positive consequences in the ELL classroom. Knowing that we can tap into almost 100 percent of the brain opens up a myriad of fascinating possibilities in terms of helping our students learn and remember the information we teach. Being aware of the shortcomings of multitasking can make us more aware of how we present the material. And facilitating the process of neurogenesis will help keep our students young and curious for decades to come.
Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to

Patrick T. Randolph currently teaches at Western Michigan University where he specializes in creative and academic writing, speech, and debate.

Chudler, E. H. (2014). Do we only use 10% of our brains?
Retrieved from
Helmuth, L. (2011). Top ten myths about the brain.
Retrieved from
Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
National Safety Council. Retrieved from
Pereria, A. C., Huddleston, D. E., Brickman, A. M., Sosunov, A. A., Hen, R., McKhann, G. M., … Small, S. A. (2007). An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 5638-5643.
Ramon y Cajal, S. (1968). Degeneration and regeneration of the nervous system  (R. M. May, Trans.). London, England: Hafner Publishing. (Original work published in 1928)
Ratey, J. J. (with Hagerman, E.) (2009). Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London, England: Quercus.

*Photo Credit: Kelly Cunningham

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The ITBE Link - Summer 2014 - Volume 42 Number 2

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