FOLK NEUROSCIENCE Popular misconceptions
■ The “left-brain” is rational, the “right-brain” is creative
The hemispheres have different specialisations (the left usually has key language areas, for example) but there is no clear rational-creative split and you need both hemispheres to be successful at either. You can no more do right-brain thinking than you can do rear-brain thinking.
■ Dopamine is a pleasure chemical
Dopamine has many functions in the brain, from supporting concentration to regulating the production of breast milk. Even in its most closely associated functioning it is usually considered to be involved in motivation (wanting) rather than the feeling of pleasure itself.
■ Low serotonin causes depression
A concept almost entirely promoted by pharmaceutical companies in the 1980s and 90s to sell serotonin-enhancing drugs like Prozac. No consistent evidence for it.
■ Video games, TV violence, porn or any other social spectre of the moment “rewires the brain”
Everything “rewires the brain” as the brain works by making and remaking connections. This is often used in a contradictory fashion to suggest that the brain is both particularly susceptible to change but once changed, can’t change back.
■ We have no control over our brain but we can control our mind
The mind and the brain are the same thing described in different ways and they make us who we are. Trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water.
If there were a celebrity among brain chemicals, it would be dopamine. Supposedly released whenever we experience something pleasurable, it’s forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. The Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.
There are too many bad examples to mention in detail, but I have some favourites. The Sun declared that “cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine” because they apparently cause “a surge of the reward chemical dopamine to hit the decision-making area of the brain”. The article was topped off with a picture of Katy Perry, apparently a “cupcake fan” and, presumably, dangerously close to spiralling into a life of frosted-sponge addiction.
The dopamine stereotype is not just reserved to the jauntier sections of the tabloid press. It can also be used as a way of making any of your views sound scientific. It’s a simple formula – if you disagree with something, just say it releases dopamine and imply it must be dangerously addictive. Forbes magazine recently ran an article claiming that America’s gun culture could be due to firearm addiction because dopamine is released, it claimed, when a shot is fired “meaning not only are guns addictive, but automatic weaponry is far more addictive than most”.
Dopamine is indeed involved in addiction, but it isn’t a “pleasure chemical”. In fact, dopamine has lots of functions in the brain – being involved in everything from regulating movement to the control of attention. In great part, its effects depend on which of the brain’s pathways it is operating in.