In this TED talk, Ben Ambridge addresses 10 popular myths about the human brain that many of us still hear consistently or even still believe. We see them all the time, on clickbait articles, on buzzfeed quizzes, in films and television, in books, and sometimes even in classes. Continuing to perpetuate these myths and misconceptions of human psychology is not only irresponsible, but ultimately damaging to our societal perceptions of psychology and difficult topics like intelligence, gender, and mental illness.
So, first, what myths does Ambridge target? Ambridge talks about the myths of,
- Women are from Venus and men are from Mars (gender differences)
- Rorschach ink blot tests
- Auditory, kinesthetic, and visual learners
- Left brain vs right brain learners
- Listening to Mozart makes you smarter
- Attraction is a product of our cultures
- The ‘Hot Hand’ myth
- The Milgam Study
- Detecting lies from body language
- Psychology is nothing more than a collection of theories, all of which have something to offer towards the truth of psychology
So what does all of this even mean? Why are these myths? We’ve all heard most of them, even from well educated individuals. Let’s break them down.
Ambridge quickly summarizes the differences between men and women as, there are some minute differences, but overall, they just don’t really matter. Some women are better with linguistics and grammar than men, and some men are more physically strong and accurate than women, but the difference is so small. Overall, we’re not very different, just because of our gender.
Rorschach ink blot tests, while fun, ultimately cannot and are not used to diagnose mental illnesses or personality disorders. Just because you see a duck but they see a rabbit, doesn’t really mean anything. Off topic for a moment, have you ever taken a Rorschach test? I recall being tested when I was very, very little, as criteria to be accepted into a special preschool program. I couldn’t tell you what I tested or why they were using a Rorschach test!
The third is one I feel we’ve all heard at one point or another, and have even likely been taught this by a teacher. In more than one class, I had teachers ask, or ‘test’ us, on what our best leaning style was. As it turns out, ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what your preferred learning style is. It depends more on the skill you are attempting to learn. As Ambridge notes, it would be very difficult to read or listen to a tape on how to drive, rather than learn it by actually driving. So, future teachers, take note!
While Ambridge does tell us that there is some evidence to support that left handed individuals are more creative, and the right brain does fire a bit more for them, it is not because the right brain is more creative and the left brain is more logical. We use our entire brain constantly, for every activity we do. Even when the corpus callosum (the bit of brain that connects the two hemispheres and allows them to communicate) is severed, we still use our entire brain to perform tasks. The actual reason that left brained individuals tend to be more creative may be that they are typically more ambidextrous than right handers, because they often have to function in a predominantly right handed world. As a result, the two hemispheres of their brain may be communicating more than someone who is not ambidextrous.
As it turns out, listening to Mozart, or any classical music, really doesn’t make you any smarter. It actually depends on what you enjoy. Ambridge comments on a research study in which one group listened to Mozart, and one group listened to Stephen King novels. It didn’t really matter which one was listened to if they did not enjoy it, as it did not benefit them in the long run, but if they had listened to Mozart and really enjoyed it, the test scores were higher. So, lesson learned, do what you like to do before a big test!
While some traits of sexual, romantic, and aesthetic attraction can be rooted in our own cultures (do you like blonds or brunets? Tall or short? Dark or fair?) preferences for age, and the value of physical attraction were a universal constant when studied.
In sports like basketball, there is the myth of the ‘hot hand’, or the idea that someone can be really on or off their game by how many shots they make or miss. It’s very similar to when we flip a coin and begin to believe that we are seeing more heads than tails, and that we will always see more heads than tails. It’s really more a product of randomness, and even though it seems as though a player may be making many more shots than they usually are, it isn’t actually true.
Ah, the Milgram study. As Ambridge comments, if you’re a psychology student (as I am) you’ve heard of this study. The standard telling and retelling of the Milgram Study is that the participants believe the shocks they were sending would be fatal, and they delivered the shocks because the person in the white lab coat told them to. However, the truth is that the participants were told many times that the shocks were not fatal and that they would have no permanent damaging affects, the lab coats were actually gray, and the participants delivered the shocks, not because the lab coats were telling them to, but because they believed they were helping the study and doing what they were supposed to be doing.
Although you may believe that when someone blinks when they lie, or crosses their arms, or looks away, the truth is that many people do not have a tell and most cannot perceive any real change when they are lying, if there is one. Sorry, Sherlock.
And lastly, the most important, the reason why we cannot perpetuate or believe these myths any longer, and why we study psychology. We test, measure, and replicate data in order to get tangible results. Very little about psychology is truly a ‘theory’ in the sense that we cannot test it or replicate our results. What we know about psychology today is based on scientific research and data that can back up and support our conclusions.
By keeping the idea that psychology is comprised of out-dated pseudosciences, we also keep the idea within our society that mental health and mental illness are not to be taken seriously, as well as the idea that psychology isn’t important. This is why, even in the modern, 21st century when we have so much data to back up and show that mental illnesses like depression exist, people still say ‘suck it up’ or ‘you’re faking’.
By keeping these myths in motion, we cannot help ourselves learn and succeed, and we certainly cannot help others. When we learn about our own psychological processes and how to understand what’s really going on, is when we can actually teach and learn about ourselves.