5 myths and facts you ought to know about your brain

The brain is an enigma about which several myths have been perpetrated. Here, we examine some common brain myths encountered in the Indian context

Some foods are good for the brain

This commonly held belief pertains to certain types of food being 'good' or 'bad' for the brain. The list of things considered 'good' runs from fish and walnut to cauliflower and cabbage. The brain is an energy-intensive organ, critically dependent on adequate levels of glucose in blood and B vitamins.

A regular, well-balanced diet is all that one needs to consume as 'brain food'. Eggs, wheat germ, unpolished rice, fresh milk and organ meat are good sources of B vitamins. As for 'bad' brain foods, there aren't any.

Ageing leads to forgetfulness

Forgetfulness is often considered to be a part and parcel of the ageing process—an inescapable reality that comes with growing old; nothing can be farther from the truth than this!

There exists sufficient scientific evidence to prove that normal ageing, while associated with mild decline in the speed of processing and acquiring new skills, is NOT associated with forgetfulness or a state of dependence.

Serious and frequent lapses in memory could be a sign of dementia, a condition for which the causes range from multiple strokes and Alzheimer's disease to brain tumours and infection. Early detection of dementia can significantly attenuate the progress of Alzheimer's disease and reverse changes due to infection and nutritional deficiency.

The bigger the brain, the smarter one is

This is a misconception that even many educated and well-informed people subscribe to. By that yardstick, an elephant or sperm whale would surpass even humans for the post of the smartest species on earth, thanks to the size of their brains.

man playing chessThe factors that actually impact the intelligence of a species are the ratio of brain weight to total body weight and the extent of convolutions [called gyri] on the brain surface. The higher the ratio of brain weight to total body weight, the smarter is the organism.

In humans, this ratio is the highest, at about 1:80, while the gargantuan sperm whale's brain to body weight ratio is about 1:200. No surprise therefore that these gentle mammals do not amuse themselves by playing games of chess with each other on the high seas!

Humans also have the largest number of convolutions per unit area of brain surface. In other words, the human brain is highly folded and compacted on itself allowing an exceptionally large surface area, where complex neural processes take place.

Brains of large mammals like the elephant and the whale are relatively smooth and lack this ingenious infolding of brain tissue. Clearly, in matters of the mind, size does not really matter.

Listening to classical music makes children smarter

Another myth that often enjoys currency is that listening to classical music helps brain development. Some other fancy interventions used to 'smarten up' children, such as, extensive tutoring, reading classical literature aloud, instructions in ballet dancing and mathematics are also doing the rounds.

There is little scientific evidence to support any of these. Smart parents have smart children because of the transfer of superior genetic material from parents to children. Smart parents tend to be wealthier and can therefore spare the skills or hire the expertise to make their genetically superior offspring brighter than youngsters hailing from less-privileged backgrounds.

Epilepsy means madness

Epilepsy, a neurological disorder with a tendency to recurrent seizures [fits] is a fairly common condition. Unfortunately, this disorder has earned some uncanny associations, including possession states and mental subnormality.

The fact is that the vast majorities of patients with epilepsy are intellectually competent and can function as effective and contributory members of society. They are often not the preferred choice in the employment market and tend to be stigmatized by society.

Epilepsy should be understood and accepted as a paroxysmal disorder of the brain; just like migraine and a person with epilepsy should be treated just like any other normal individual. Often, the myths surrounding brain disorders seem absurd and quirky, but for someone who is suffering from a brain disease, these myths could prove to be discriminatory and hurtful.

Hence, a deeper understanding of this mysterious organ would pave the way for a better management of its disorders.

This was first published in the May 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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