Monthly Archives: June 2012

Blogmania

I started this blog back in 2008 at the suggestion of the publisher of my first book. I have posted 372 items that have generated over 3,700 comments. The numbers are ok (700,000 visits) but if you really want to make an impact you need to blog on sites that have huge volumes of traffic.

I have just published my first blog for the Huffington Post which has been an exciting experience and have a steady start on the Psychology Today site. I will keep writing blogs here and of course, it is a handy website to load up showreels and pictures but it will be difficult to keep generating new material. I note that many of the bloggers out there are chasing original material which is why any new science story is immediately snapped up. In my field it is easy to spot where fellow bloggers are getting their stories, mostly from the top journals such as Psychological Science. Their job is made all the easier by many associations providing press releases on home websites.The trouble is that there is only so much information that can go round and many writers end up recycling items in a world that expects rapid online publication as described in Nick Davies in his book on the phenomenon of “churnalism.”

I have to also admit that some of the blogs I write have ended up in my books. For example, one of my personal favorites about being followed by a troll claiming to be Helen Mirren last year ended up in a chapter in The Self Illusion about how the internet is changing the way we portray our selves in the new social media networks. However, unlike churnalism, I have authored much of the material though I accept that this is mostly based on my research of other people’s work.

But there is a danger of trying to write too much to satisfy demands. Only this week, Jonah Lehrer attracted flak from journalists who accused him of self-plagiarizing his own work. He was forced to make a public apology but I fully understand how he came to end up recycling his own writing. I too have done this on occasion as when you write something that really works and then use it again.

So it would be wiser to stop writing for so many outlets. However, this blog is mine and I write it for freedom of expression and no financial gain. (I also don’t get paid for blogging on the other sites FYI). I am also effectively unedited here so I can say what I want and that is a luxury that I will not give up. It may mean fewer postings in future but do stop back for thoughts that I would hesitate to publish publicly on other sites. After all, this is my little baby

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Finally,”The Self Illusion” eBook is Out

Normal blogging services will soon be returned but I am pleased to announce that the Kindle eBook version is now available here on Amazon.com. Apologies to all of you who have been frustrated trying to get an eBook version and I hope that you still have the enthusiasm for it. So far, the signs are all promising. In the meantime, there is an forthcoming episode of “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” being aired this week in the US that I believe will cover some of the material my book deals with. It’s a shame the producers did not know that my book was available. If you are a US viewer and do watch the show, post here to let me know what you made of it. We don’t get the show in the UK until next year I guess.

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Why You Don’t Use Only 10% of Your Brain

No doubt you have heard the saying that we humans only use 10% of our brain. It is a phrase that has been used in adverts for computer hard drives to choosing which airline to fly and is so common that a large proportion around 25-30% of well-educated university students believe that it is true as reported in a paper back in 1998 by Higbee and Clay. Even our kids believe it. Earlier this year, I gave a lecture on the brain to 300 teenage school children. We wanted to get an idea of what they knew already before the lecture so we asked questions such as do you know what a brain cell is called and so on. We also asked them how much of their brain did they think humans use. Nearly all of them gave the 10% figure.

As familiar as the 10% claim may seem, it is a myth. Moreover, it’s a pernicious myth exploited by those who want to sell us hope of greater success by tapping into hidden reserves of mental energy either through brain enhancing programmes or supernatural powers. There is something appealing about the idea that each us harbours untapped powers. The shelves of pop psychology are dominated by books that claim they will help you unleash your full potential and this strategy of selling false neuroscience is shamelessly perpetuated by authors and publishers who think that the public prefer to buy books that they believe will empower them by unlocking the unused secret 90% of their brain.

The truth is you use all of your brain. Humankind did not come all this way down the difficult evolutionary path that ruthlessly whittled away our descendents with less complex brains just so we modern humans could loaf around using only one tenth of that hard won mental machinery. Neurons are continually discharging nerve impulses at a background rate. If they are not active they lose their connectivity. When they are stimulated, this idling rate rapidly increases like the chatter of a Geiger counter but they are always on as it were.

No one is quite sure who started this rumor but some think that it can be traced to the North American father of psychology, William James who wrote in The Energies of Men, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Taken out of context, this could mean that we don’t actually use part of our brain, which is an unfortunate claim coming from someone who otherwise, anticipated many of the major discoveries in the study of the brain and mind.

James was making an impassioned plea to readers in an essay about striving but unfortunately when it comes to your brain, not using any part of it does not make any scientific sense. You can of course, learn to use strategies to improve performance and that is perfectly valid but that does not mean that you are not using some parts of your brain. All of the brain is always on and is always hungry. The brain weighs on average only 2% of the body but uses 20% of the energy. A recent imaging paper by Zhu and colleagues shows that the grey matter, which is predominantly composed of neurons, uses up 77% of the energy requirements of the brain. It may sound like vast amounts of energy are being expended but if you remember that overall hourly body energy usage is about 100W. So the brain uses the equivalent of a 20W domestic light. Maybe that’s where bright ideas come from? Hold on, a light bulb just went on over my head. I feel another urban myth in the making.

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