Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience

Course No. 1671
Professor Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
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Course No. 1671
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Examine the special neurons that might play a role in how we socialize with others.
  • numbers Learn how our senses use "shortcuts" to create the illusion that we're seeing objective reality.
  • numbers Discover the truth behind claims that brain games and brain foods can make us smarter.
  • numbers See how magicians use the brain's inherent weaknesses to convince us their tricks are real.
  • numbers Explore the interconnected relationship between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Course Overview

With its 86 billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of intricate connections, the human brain is mystifyingly complex. Which explains why, despite lightning-fast advancements in neuroscience, there’s still a lot that we don’t understand. And even what we think we understand may not be completely accurate. In fact, much of what the public thinks about the brain is based on popular myths that have perpetuated despite the passage of time and the proliferation of brain research.

These myths include the idea that you’re only tapping 10% of your brain’s potential; that creative people are dominated by the right side of their brain; that your brain is perfectly capable of juggling multiple tasks simultaneously; that there’s a hidden message in your dreams; and that our dependence on technology is making us less and less intelligent, just to name a few.

These and other popular myths all derive from the fact that the brain, for all its complexity, is still very much an imperfect system. As popular Great Courses instructor and award-winning professor Dr. Indre Viskontas of the University of San Francisco puts it, “for all its beauty, the brain can be messy, random, and inefficient. It can be prone to mistakes from the lowest levels of perception to the highest levels of complex decision making.”

To start building a more straightforward, accurate understanding of current breakthroughs in neuroscience, and how they’re reshaping what we thought we knew about the brain, you have to start by shattering popular brain myths. Exploring these myths is also a fun way to engage with neuroscience—to get an accessible look at an often-intimidating field of study—as well as a chance to think more deeply about who you are and why you do the things you do.

Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience is an eye-opening, rewarding course in which Dr. Viskontas guides you through the neuroscience of everyday life, separating myth from reality, fact from fiction, and truth from falsehood. Each of these 24 lectures focuses on a single powerful, prevalent brain myth, and uses it as a launch pad from which to explore myriad topics in neuroscience: decision making, memory, dreams, emotions, neuroplasticity, consciousness, mental illness, and much more. How has neuroscience helped us conquer the human mind like never before? What uncharted territory still remains to be mapped? This course, whether you choose to experience the lectures in order or by your interests, is the perfect place to find the answers.

Three Principles of the Brain

According to Dr. Viskontas, when busting the myths about the brain, it’s important to keep several key ideas in mind. These fundamental principles form the architecture of Brain Myths Exploded, and they serve as a scaffold on which you can hang new information about the brain as it’s discovered and reported in the news.

  • The brain is not perfectly designed. Contrary to what you may think, the human brain is a product of evolutionary forces, and as such is a constant work-in-progress filled with short cuts that can help us—but that also leave room for potentially harmful errors.
  • No brain region is an island. The power of the brain lies in the interconnectedness of its parts (including the amygdala and the hippocampus), as well as the malleability with which it wires and rewires itself with everything you experience in life.
  • There are two systems of thought. Our behavior is influenced by two kinds of thinking: the slow, deliberate, rational type that we think guides most of our decisions, and the fast-thinking, automatic processes that actually influence us much more than we know.

Popular Myths, Hidden Truths

Each lecture in this course is a stand-alone examination of one particular myth related to neuroscience. But Dr. Viskontas doesn’t just settle for obliterating these myths once and for all. Instead, she replaces these myths with scientific facts gathered from experiments, research, and case studies. The result is an eye-opening adventure into the latest understanding of why the brain works the way it does. And the truth is much more interesting.

  • The bigger your brain, the smarter you are. While there is a correlation between the size of an individual’s brain and some measures of his or her intelligence, it’s only moderate. One has to consider a host of other factors, including the amount of white matter in the brain, which can indicate how quickly your neurons communicate with each other.
  • Our memory is an accurate, objective record of the past. Our memories are anything but objective. The truth is that every time you pull out the “file” that contains a memory, you have to “rewrite” the whole story. And your current beliefs and emotional state affect how that memory gets rewritten and stored once again.
  • Our senses reflect the world as it exists. While evolution has given us a powerful sensory system, it doesn’t capture the world as it is. Instead, our brains pick and choose only tiny bits of information, and fill in the details to give us a perceptual experience of the world we can actually use.
  • Our dreams have secret meanings. Contrary to what Freud believed, there is currently little evidence to suggest the subconscious uses dreams to communicate its desires. Neuroscientists have come up with several theories about why we dream, including one that posits we dream in order to consolidate our memories, and process emotions.
  • Our brains are unbiased. Unfortunately, prejudice is ingrained in the human brain, and our behavior can be affected by biases of which we’re not aware. These implicit biases can hijack our rational minds and lead us to behave in uncharacteristic ways.

Other topics you’ll explore through the lens of mythbusting include:

  • how magicians use the brain’s own weaknesses to convince us of their tricks;
  • controversies about brain differences between men and women;
  • the level of addiction we have to social media tools like Facebook and Twitter;
  • which specific neurons play a role in how we socialize with other people; and
  • the importance we should give to brain games and brain foods.

Enrich Your Sense of Wonder

As a prominent, award-winning science communicator who has spent her career involved with the multidisciplinary intricacies of neuroscience (including its relationship to memory, music, reason, and creativity), Dr. Viskontas makes this intellectual journey detailed, rewarding, and accessible. She brings a skeptical, but always open-minded, perspective to each of the 24 questions tackled in this course.

While the topics delve into hard science, you never feel like you’re out of your depth. Rather, Dr. Viskontas uses her engaging teaching style—combined with brain scans, 3-D animations and illustrated diagrams of the inner workings of the brain—to guide you through sometimes-mysterious, often-uncharted territory.

“With each new discovery, the story just gets more interesting,” says Dr. Viskontas. “I hope I’ll enrich your sense of wonder at that amazing and often baffling thing: the human brain. And I hope you’ll leave this course with a better sense of how your own mind works—and how it will continue to change in the future.”

However you choose to enjoy this fascinating course, you’ll be left with insights that will put you on the cutting-edge of our current scientific understanding of the brain, and that will help you better determine the hard scientific truths behind the breaking news (and myths) of tomorrow.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Is Your Brain Perfectly Designed?
    Begin the course by debunking one of the most fundamental myths about the human brain. Along the way, discover how our brains are shaped by evolution and experience, which neurons are responsible for self-awareness and motor coordination, and why the brain is still very much a work in progress. x
  • 2
    Are Bigger Brains Smarter?
    When it comes to brains, size doesn't matter as much as you think. Here, explore concepts including the Encephalization quotient (which compares brain mass to body mass), the g" factor (a long-sought-after standard of cognitive ability), and the lessons scientists have learned from studying the brain of Albert Einstein." x
  • 3
    Is Mental Illness Just a Chemical Imbalance?
    According to Dr. Viskontas, major psychiatric illnesses aren't just the result of chemical concentrations in the brain. The focus of this lecture is an intriguing exploration of two disorders that have proven to be far more complicated and nuanced in our understanding of mental illness: schizophrenia and depression. x
  • 4
    Are Creative People Right-Brained?
    Think your brain is divided into a creative side and an analytical side? Think again. The two hemispheres of your brain are actually quite interconnected. Discover what neuroimaging has revealed about the way our brains think and create, and why it's all about collaboration-not competition. x
  • 5
    How Different Are Male and Female Brains?
    We're always hearing about studies that find significant differences the brains of men and women. How should we be thinking about gender differences in the brain? How are these differences misinterpreted? What are the differences in the male and female amygdala and hippocampus? Which genders express which emotions more openly? x
  • 6
    How Accurate Is Your Memory?
    In this lecture that unpacks the accuracy of your memories, learn how information is encoded, stored, and retrieved in the brain; examine how Alzheimer's disease and amnesia affect the brain's ability to remember; and explore the Seven Sins of Memory," including absentmindedness, memory blocking, and misattribution." x
  • 7
    Do You Only Use 10% of Your Brain?
    Are you using your brain to its fullest potential? Here, clear up some of the mystery about how much of our brain power we're using. As you'll learn, you use a lot more of your brain than you think, whether you're practicing a new skill or simply zoning out in front of the television. x
  • 8
    Do You Perceive the World as It Really Is?
    According to Dr. Viskontas, the biggest myth about our senses is that they reflect the world as it actually is. Using vision as an example, discover how your sensory system uses shortcuts and fills in details to create, from portions of the environment, the illusion that you're perceiving reality objectively. x
  • 9
    Is Your Brain Too Smart for Magic Tricks?
    We've all been fooled by a magic trick at one point or another. But we rarely stop to think about how magicians are simply manipulating pre-existing shortcomings in our minds. Here, explore some of the neurological principles magicians rely on, including selective attention, inattention blindness, and change blindness. x
  • 10
    Is Your Brain Objective?
    Contrary to what you might believe, we don't weight evidence equally before building personal beliefs. Instead, we're beholden to confirmation bias. Is this a bug our brains could do without? Is it an evolutionary advantage? Can it also lead to sublime experiences (like appreciating a piece of music)? x
  • 11
    Do You Have 5 Independent Senses?
    Discover why your senses aren't as separate as you think-and why you actually have more than five. Topics in this lecture include proprioception (sensing where you are) and synesthesia (a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense causes the involuntary activation of a different sense). x
  • 12
    Can Certain Foods Make You Smarter?
    In this lecture on brain food," consider the scientific truths behind the food fads that make headlines; test out the myths associated with foods like fish oil, vitamins, power drinks, chocolate, and tea; and ponder the potential of smart pills (known as nootropics) such as Adderall and Ritalin." x
  • 13
    Can Brain Games Make You Smarter?
    An increased focus among scientists on neuroplasticity (changes in the brain's biology) has led to a flurry of brain-training games and tools aimed at improving our cognitive skills. Here, probe the potential of these games, and consider some alternate ways to train your brain, including exercising and socializing. x
  • 14
    Does Your Brain Shut Down during Sleep?
    What, exactly, happens when you fall asleep? Why do our brains need sleep in order to function? What are some of the neurological dangers of not getting enough sleep? What are the sleep patterns of other animals, and how do they compare to our own? Dr. Viskontas provides some answers. x
  • 15
    Are Your Decisions Rational?
    When we make decisions, we're actually swayed by things that any truly rational human being would ignore. Why do our brains work this way? Explore the mental laziness" hardwired into our nature, and why we easily fall prey to superficial judgments. Central to this idea: the brain's two thinking systems." x
  • 16
    Are You Always Conscious while Awake?
    In this lecture, probe the eternal problem" of consciousness-perhaps the most difficult topic in all of neuroscience. How have scientists tried to determine what consciousness is and how it works? Along the way, examine several theories, including the intriguing idea that consciousness is nothing more than a neural afterthought." x
  • 17
    Are Other Animals Conscious?
    Continue exploring consciousness with a consideration of its appearance in other animals. Scientific studies in animals ranging from primates to octopi have uncovered some illuminating insights into how animals can potentially show complex behaviors (including compassion, self-recognition, and generosity) we typically associate exclusively with conscious humans. x
  • 18
    Can You Multitask Efficiently?
    Multitasking is a critical skill in today's world. But does it really work as well as you think? Dr. Viskontas lays bare the neurology of the multitasker and uses key studies to draw several powerful conclusions, including that doing two things at once is impossible when both tasks require your conscious attention. x
  • 19
    Are Dreams Meaningful?
    Consider some of the potential roots (and purposes) of dreams and how neuroscientists study them. While dreams continue to remain mysterious, some theories posit that dreams play a role in consolidating your memory, and that they can be driven by emotional events (including traumatic ones). x
  • 20
    Can Brain Scans Read Your Mind?
    Discover what neuroimaging can-and can't-tell us about how the human mind works. First, examine what brain scans are actually showing us. Then, consider three regions of the brain prone to common misunderstanding in the media: the amygdala, the reward circuitry, and the prefrontal cortex. x
  • 21
    Can Adult Brains Change for the Better?
    Just because you're an adult doesn't mean you can't still learn and master new things. After considering how neuroplasticity works in a toddler's brain, explore how exercise and musical training are two ways to influence the growth of new neurons and the formation of new synapses (known as neurogenesis). x
  • 22
    Do Special Neurons Enable Social Life?
    From mirror neurons to von Economo cells, learn the role that special neurons might play in human social behavior. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of how we interact with and understand people, but myths about these special neurons abound. x
  • 23
    Is Your Brain Unprejudiced?
    You might not be racist, but your brain likely is. How did neuroscientists come to this startling conclusion? And what can we, as individuals, do about it? Find out in this fascinating lecture on the neurology of prejudice, implicit and explicit biases, stereotyping, and in-group preferences. x
  • 24
    Does Technology Make You Stupid?
    In this final lecture, ponder several prevalent myths about the relationship between technology and the brain. Among these: smartphones are killing our attention spans, social media is addictive (and leads us to be less social), computers make us less intelligent, and search engines are destroying our memory. x

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Indre Viskontas

About Your Professor

Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Dr. Indre Viskontas is a Cognitive Neuroscience Affiliate with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, where she has studied the emergence of creativity in patients with dementia.Dr. Indre Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is pioneering the...
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Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear, interesting, and effective. I had watched this professor's earlier course and knew this one would be good. She is careful to define terms or concepts and offers examples by way of illustration at every turn. The idea of examining misconceptions (myths) in popular understanding of neuroscience is a great format for the course. It was excellent!
Date published: 2020-07-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Straw man When discussing global warming, she sets up a straw man and then attacks that. While thousands of scientists disagree with her viewpoint, the silly straw man creation was quite obvious. Ironically, this was on a lecture of being objective.
Date published: 2019-12-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent topic and discussion Each lesson covered a common misconception in clear and convincing discussion. Very informative and well presented and very clear to even those without neuroscience background.
Date published: 2019-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation My requirement from a generic TGC lecture like this (other than a few specific ones) is to get some knowledge about the topic and not to become an "expert" in it. If your requirement is the same, then go ahead with the rest of the review. Presentation : The first thing I need in any course is, it should capture my attention and I should not be forced to watch/listen to it just so that I can complete it.. This lecture more than satisfied that. I've listened to plenty of audio courses (especially TGC courses). This is the only one where I'd think "oh the lesson is over already" when it ends. The flow is fantastic. I'll blindly buy any other course from the same professor just for this aspect. Content: I was amazed at so many myths that I used to believe. The explanations to tell me that they are myths and are not true satisfied me. I don't want to research further and gather counter points and judge if the professor is right or wrong. As I said, I'm a causal listener and don't want to be an expert.
Date published: 2019-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative! A vast insight into the working of the brain through exploring common myths. I learned a lot and highly recommend.
Date published: 2019-06-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting lesson titles and presentation. In lesson 22 she used a disparaging tone when referring to chimps as monkeys, bur cimps are apes, not monkeys. This makes me wonder how much else of what she said was inaccurate.
Date published: 2019-06-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Serious Flaws The information part of this course seems okay, though not remarkable, but the "myths" set-up adds nothing but red herrings. The professor is so captured by the materialist/evolutionish mindset that she seems totally unaware of the fact. For example, she describes researchers, 30 years after Einstein's death, handling his brain, which she refers to has his "mind." She also seems to pick and choose a great deal how to interpret correlations. When it comes to mental illness, she wants to deny that it is caused by chemical imbalances, despite the clear fact that fiddling with chemical balances can have affects. I'm not saying it is or isn't, but her denial seems inconsistent with the facts she reports. If she weren't captured by the idiotic "myths" approach, she could simply report the facts: we don't have a good theory of mental disease, but we're pretty darn sure it's a real thing and that it seems to have, in at least some circumstances, physical manifestations, i.e. abnormalities in brain chemistry. Furthermore, again for reasons we don't understand, some chemicals, like SSRIs, can "cause" changes that often look like improvement. Those two sentences are a more accurate description of what we know about the chemistry of mental illness than her entire "myths" based lecture. When it comes to "are men's and women's brains different?" she interprets the fact that they (obviously -- could anyone doubt it?) have many similarities as somehow meaning that they are not different. Obviously there's a tremendous overlap between the distribution of male brains and female brains in terms of structure and function. But there is also statistically irrefutable evidence that male behavior is different from female behavior on average. And given her materialist view, she has to at least consider that this is biological and not environmental. Surely she knows that men are more violent, in essentially every culture ever studied. But, perhaps because it's not politically correct, she denies the differences are in the brain.
Date published: 2019-04-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A monumental feat of illogic! It's no coincidence that the word "exploded" is in the title of this course, because its very first lecture featured a feat of illogic so massive that my brain actually exploded. If this thinking is typical of the course, than the course is worthless. I sent it back. Let me specify: Prof. Viskontas cautions listeners to avoid the temptation to look to evolutionary explanations to provide a "just so" story for how our minds are. Fair enough. She then gives an example. Why are toddler boys more interested in vehicles while toddler girls are more interested in dolls? She cautions against accepting the evolutionary "just so" story as an explanation. Again, fair enough. The reason she gives for accepting the "just so" is faulty. She claims these stories "feed the myth that evolution had some design in mind." Indeed it might feed that myth. But it doesn't make the argument wrong. Perhaps the argument is true and we should still be cautious about believing the myth for other reasons. That's illogic number one. Illogic number two is this: even if the argument for the evolutionary reason for these differences is faulty, that doesn't mean that these differences are not evolutionary in origin. Professor Gimbel's Logic course will teach you that making a bad argument for a proposition doesn't make that proposition false. Perhaps the proposition is true but for a different reason. Satisfied that she's destroyed the argument for evolution, she doesn't explore any further reasons why somebody would believe the evolutionary argument. The third illogic is the cherry on top of her illogic sundae. Prof. Viskontas concludes on the basis of the above reasons that the "just-so" story evolutionary explanation is wrong. She then argues (without providing any additional reasons) that our current social environment is a much more likely explanation for these differences between boys and girls. I can't help but notice that hand-waving about our "current social environment" is a form of "just-so" story. If "just so" stories about evolution ought to "make you cringe", how come an evolutionary "just-so story" about our current social environment is a more likely explanation? What sloppy thinking! I have no desire to be "taught" further by a professor who insults my intelligence this much. For the record, I have no educated opinion as to why toddler boys and toddler girls are different and I'm skeptical both of the social and the evolutionary argument.
Date published: 2019-03-05
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