Myth conceptions about the brain

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Q: Can you uncover the truth about these three neuromyths? Myth #1: Men's and women's brains function differently. #2: You use only about 10% of your brain. #3: The right and left hemispheres of the brain operate independently and determine the "type" of thinker you are.

A"Neuromyths," or false notions about the brain, flourish "because they seem to explain, albeit with dubious logic, otherwise bewildering phenomena," says Sarah Klein in Prevention magazine. Here are some talking-points about these common "myth-conceptions."

- #1: Some people continue to believe that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus," but "gender bias is getting the better of anyone who buys this one." When researchers looked at some Asian and European countries where stereotypical attitudes aren't prevalent, they found that "women's math skills are easily on a par with men's." What structural differences there are between the sexes don't directly affect behavior, personality, or learning. In fact, researchers are unable to identify any given brain as female or male.

- # 2: As cognitive neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn says, "All of us use the entirety of our brains but not every part constantly or equally." For example, the brain stem that controls unconscious activities like breathing functions automatically, while other brain areas are activated only during higher-level thinking, such as reasoning or solving problems.

- #3: Though it's commonly said that creative people are right-brained and logical ones are left-brained, brain scans don't show just one half lighting up with activity. Rather, it's believed that the communication between the two sides likely facilitates our most creative and logical thoughts."

Q: What might saying "I do" do for you? Healthwise, that is.

ATruly the heart of the matter is what matters most here, as researchers at the University of East Anglia found that getting married reduces the likelihood of having a fatal heart attack by up to 14 percent, reports "Discover" magazine. Also, marrieds seem to enjoy better overall general health going by a reduced number of hospital stays.

Q: There's a whole lot about human tears we still don't understand. So why do we weep?

A: Tears are hard to study because weepy donors are rare, especially among men. And studied tears need to be "fresh" for proper analysis, says Noah Caldwell in "Scientific American" magazine. Thus, researchers are still unclear about crying's basic purpose: Is it a primal way to communicate, or a unique key to bonding?

Enter Israeli neurobiologist Noam Sobel, who has perfected a way of flash-freezing tears, facilitating formation of a "tear bank" for researchers around the world. Liquid nitrogen lowers the tears to -80 degrees Celsius, helping preserve their chemicals. Eventually researchers may be able to select tears by age and gender and thereby expedite experiments into crying's many unanswered questions: "Do tears affect mood or appetite? Do the tears of men and women differ? How do emotional and nonemotional tears — from, say, cutting onions — compare?"

And according to Stanford bioengineer Saad Bhamla, one line of inquiry into how tears create a film on the eye could apply to "Silicon Valley's interest in contact lenses that double as a heads-up display, and in the rising cases of dry eyes from prolonged sessions of staring at a computer screen." As he says, "a tear bank for research has tremendous possibilities."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at sbtcolumn@gmail.com.

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