Sorry Morgan Freeman, You're Wrong. We Do Use All of Our Brains.

It was painful to hear Morgan Freeman's awesome voice perpetuate a commonly held science myth in the trailer for the new movie "Lucy." The premise of this film is that a young woman uses "more than 10%" of her brain and obtains superpowers. A quick Google search reveals multiple articles dispelling the myth that we only use 10% of our brains as seen here, here, here, here, and many others. Yet, despite all these attempts to educate the general public that we do in fact use all our brains, a recent poll by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research found 65 percent of Americans still believe that people only use 10 percent of their brains! 

Like I mentioned above, there are already many articles existing which dispel this myth, but I will quickly summarize some main points.  If we did only use a small fraction of our brains, most brain injuries would not be a big deal instead of being rather traumatic. I worked in a hospital for an internship where I assessed brain injury patients and the doctor I worked for never said  "well good thing this guy got hit in the part of the brain he doesn't use!"

Now as neuroscientist who does neuroimaging research I have scanned well over 100 brains and have spent countless hours analyzing brain data despite being young in my career. In fact, much of my previous research was looking at whole brain activity during neuroimaging scans. Unsurprisingly, whole brain analysis entails analyzing activity for the entire brain! Additionally, from an evolutionary point of view, it would make zero sense to have an organ (our brain) use such a great deal of resources, but only use a small fraction of its capabilities. 

I understand that science fiction movies should not be cited as scientific fact and we are usually asked to suspend some disbelief while watching them. I am fine with this; however, I find it rather obnoxious that a major film would totally ignore the wealth of neuroscience research that disproves its premise. I understand why they would use such a premise as it does sound sexy and the majority of Americans do believe in this myth as I noted above. What mostly bothers me is that such a premise CAN be sexy in 2014. I understand how believing that we only use 10% of our brains sounds nice because of all the potential that stems from such a claim. However, it is still patently false and I'd like to see the day where that is common knowledge. We may not know if an alien race would have superpowers on our planet like Superman, but we should at least know that we use all of our brains. 

Pseudoscience and Psychopathy

I wrote a guest post for the Skeptical Raptor blog about my thoughts on neuroscientist James Fallon's psychopathy story. Here is an excerpt:

"My intention is not to claim that Dr. Fallon is lying and purposefully simplifying science to make a profit. I would need much more evidence for that. However, I am arguing that the news articles covering his story do not provide enough details to support his claims. I find it rather troubling that no one is even addressing this so I wanted to blog about it. It is also troubling that Dr. Fallon has not been more explicit about the limitations of his findings as he should surely be aware of them as an accomplished neuroscientist. America often ranks pretty poorly in scientific literacy and this is an example of the result. People should at least have a working understanding of the scientific methodand not blindly believe an authority figure with an interesting story."

Pseudoscience in the Media

 My good friend Sarah showed me a clip of the celebrity physician Dr. Oz discuss a near death experience (NDE) with some 'experts' and a patient who claimed to have had one. I'll briefly summarize the clip and address some major concerns I had with it.

    Dr. Oz brings on a lady who was hit by a truck while riding 
her bike and claimed to have a near death experience. Before that, Dr. Oz talks to a grief consoler who doesn’t say anything of value in my opinion. He mentions how people often see their mother before they die, but doesn’t bring up any statistics or research studies. Then an emotional video plays about the accident the lady had and she then comes on to speak. Basically, after she was hit by the truck, she saw a light and experienced some euphoria despite how badly damaged she was. Then they have a physician who is a near death experience expert and talk to him. 

Let's disregard the clear appeal to emotion from this and just get to the facts. The NDE expert first discusses how improbable it is that people have memories despite being so injured. However, he doesn’t mention how these memories might not be from the actual event, but could be formed afterward. Dr. Oz does actually start to explain what physiologically may happen during an NDE which actually isn’t too bad. The problem is that he doesn’t go into details of an opposing side of NDE. Sam Harris does a great job explaining the other side here after a neurosurgeon claimed his NDE was ‘Proof of Heaven’. 

Basically, the brain releases a spike of the neurotransmitter DMT when it is damaged which causes some pretty trippy psychological effects. This could account for all the types of hallucinogenic effects in the brain, yet it is never mentioned here. Even if we had NO idea of why people would have these sorts of NDE’s it doesn’t prove there is consciousness outside the brain, it just suggests we still have a lot to learn about how the brain works. The NDE expert then mentions how he has studied thousands of patients and has seen similar things to the lady on the show. This again doesn’t prove in any way that there is consciousness outside the brain. The expert tries to prove how DNE’s are medically inexplicable with how blind people have visual NDE’s. I was surprised to see there actually was a journal article written by him on this subject. However, it was written in little known “Journal of Near Death Studies”and had all sorts of issues.  

During the show, they made it seem like they interviewed these blind participants who 'saw' right after their NDE right after it happened. However, in the study they searched for blind 
people who said they had a NDE. Beyond that, they only recorded data from those who "had appropriate qualifications for our study" That’s right, they only collected data from those who confirmed their hypothesis. That is why this was published in “Journal of Near Death Studies” instead of Science. 
This study looked for people who confirmed their hypothesis and found them. Impressive. Again, my issue is even if this study was designed better it doesn’t say anything about supernatural. The journal article even admits that some of the blind participants admitted they did not know what the researcher meant by ‘seeing.’ How can we be sure that the blind who reported seeing just described what they might think seeing could be. Perhaps these blind people had DMT in their brain and allowed to feel like they were seeing. Blind people do have dreams and a brain injury could just alter them during their NDE. Perhaps those who they picked to respond were lead to believe they had some out of body experience due to cognitive bias. The important issue here is that just because we don't understand everything about the brain; it does not mean there is not a scientific answer for it. To say because we don’t understand something and that must mean it is unexplainable is simply willful ignorance. 

The overlying problem with all this isn’t that this episode of Dr. Oz didn’t really explain NDE’s in detail. It is that pseudoscience in the media has terrible implications. People watch these doctors say things on television and believe them simply because they are authority figures. The scientific method is never mentioned. Publishing in a good scientific journal is hard! These reviewers are really tough, I know from experience. When I submit an article for publication in a high quality science journal, I wish I could just say “hey trust me because I’m getting a PhD” or “I only recorded data from those who confirmed our hypothesis” and still get published, but that’s just not how it works. The scientific method is not understood well and having it bastardized in the media doesn’t help. Americans already do not have very good science literacyand having pseudoscience only causes further problems. We need more television shows and other media which explain the actual method of science and not just the sexy results.