Tearing Down Tall Tales

Review of Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain : Separating Fact from Fiction edited by Sergio Della Sala, Oxford University Press, 2007, 509 pp, ISBN 978-0198568766 (cloth), 978-0198568773 (paper)

Review published in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 14, No.11 (2007), 117-119

“The IKEA catalogue is more practical, colourful and easier to read” claims the editor, and of course he’s right. But although only in black and white, this book is a lot of fun and hugely informative.

If you’ve ever been accosted at a party with a demand to “Explain why I only use 10% of my brain” or “Tell me how your reductionist science can explain telepathy”; if you are oppressed by emails from people who have solved the mystery of consciousness, or know why the full moon causes madness; if you are dubbed a “closed-minded scientist who won’t even look at the evidence for NDEs, OBEs, clairvoyance, spirit communication, dowsing …..” (and I’m familiar with them all) then you need this book.

A readable introduction explores the inconsistency of dualists who use drugs to alter their state of mind while declaring that the mind is a spiritual entity, and the blind spots of such great scientists as Linus Pauling who went to his grave believing that massive doses of vitamin C could alleviate cancer. The personal growth industry makes a fortune out of untested methods when the only known reliable routes to success are skills training, hard work and practice; and subliminal tapes are widely sold when the sleeping brain cannot absorb their advice. And if you ever wondered where that 10% myth came from, I had always thought that it began in the 1950s with EEG machines that could not detect activity deep inside the brain, but apparently it started with William James who said he doubted that many people used more than 10% of their potential. (Although that, of course, could be a tall tale too).

The rest of the book consists of nearly thirty chapters by many well known authors, covering such topics paranormal belief; myths about learning, memory and intelligence; language and communication; and strange brain states and experiences. Some of the “tall tales” are quirky or relatively harmless such as the Mozart effect (Yes, listening to Mozart may have a small effect on one spatial-temporal task but no, it won’t turn your child into a genius) or the widespread belief that the full moon causes accidents or madness (No it doesn’t, and lots of studies have failed to find an effect, but people go on believing just the same). Others concern such big political controversies as race and IQ (Yes, IQ is highly heritable but group differences could still be cultural) and the ‘gay gene’ (there’s no such thing, nor can you reliably tell sexual orientation from finger length, but sexual orientation probably does have a heritable component).

Some of the “myths” didn’t seem to me to be myths at all. One example is the “legend of the magical number seven”. This began with Miller’s famous 1956 paper showing that, by and large, people have a digit span of seven. That is, given unrelated items such as digits of a phone number or meaningless syllables, seven is about the average recalled. I learned about this as a psychology student in the early 1970s and always assumed it was true. So I turned to this chapter with special excitement. Has this simple, foundational fact of cognitive psychology been overthrown while I wasn’t looking? Well it turns out that it hasn’t. Like many other over-simplifications, it has been worked on, challenged, added to, and adapted. The truth about short term memory capacity is far more complex than Miller could have guessed – but that’s just science, and the basic finding remains. To be fair the authors explain all this but they still conclude that Miller’s discovery is not a general rule and is therefore a legend. But if this is a legend then so is nearly everything we know in every branch of science.

For readers of JCS, few of the topics directly concern consciousness, but several are at least obliquely relevant. There are many myths surrounding Freud’s theory of the meaning of dreams. Then there are exaggerated claims that the blind can not only have powerful imagery (which is true) but better visual imagery than the sighted (which is not). The psychology of magic involves misdirection and manipulation, with clever magicians twisting their observer’s suspicions, exploiting ambiguity and change blindness, inducing false expectations and tampering with spectators’ memory of what they have just seen.

Stage magic is at least honest in its deception but other ways of playing with memory or inducing false memories are not, as is explored in a study of memory myths. Nor is the whole left-brain/right-brain myth harmless, according to an amusingly illustrated account of a whole variety of left/right myths. The trouble happens when such ideas escape from scientific scrutiny and make big money for false prophets and charlatans.

The ideo-motor effect is another gift to the unscrupulous. For example chiropractors use gadgets that detect small movements of the fingers, and quacks use pendulums to diagnose disease when the movements observed are caused entirely by the person using the apparatus. It is sad to reflect that Michael Faraday exposed the basic principle involved in his classic studies of table turning in the 1850s, yet these myths are alive and well, and the fraudsters are still getting rich.

Rather different are the myths that turn out to be real phenomena wrongly described. Out-of-body experiences were once described as the spirit or astral body leaving its physical home, but now we know they occur with disruptions of body image processing in the right temporo-parietal junction; where once inducing them meant years of meditation, weird multisensory training techniques or powerful drugs, now they can be induced by direct brain stimulation. Sleep paralysis has even more myths associated with it, from the Kanashibari of Japan to the Kokma of the West Indies and the original incubus and succubus. To my mind this is the most satisfying form of myth busting; when science can show why peoples all over the world have invented similar stories, not because they are fanciful or mad, but because they have been struggling to explain genuinely strange experiences.

Tall Tales is long and rich in detail, and would have benefited greatly from abstracts or chapter summaries. Their absence makes it far less useful as a resource for research, but it still provides terrific ammunition against those troublesome party poopers.