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April 17, 2019

5 common psychology myths (and why they may not be true)

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 19, 2023.

    Psychology's philosophies and terms are increasingly being used by laypeople, but there are a number of psychological myths that persist among the general public, Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, writes in a Washington Post perspective piece. Ilardi debunks five of those myths.

    Myth 1: Humans only use 10% of their brains

    In 1907, psychologist William James speculated that humans "are making use of only a small part of [their] possible mental and physical resources," and in 1936, writer Lowell Thomas paraphrased James and claimed that "the average man develops only 10% of his latent mental ability," Ilardi writes. Since then, it has become a common belief that humans only use 10% of their brains.

    However, neuroscience doesn't support the premise that we're not using our brains to their full capacity, Ilardi writes. In fact, the human brain "has little tolerance for waste or excess," Ilardi writes, noting that the 86 billion neurons in the brain are programed to die if they don't properly connect to active, useful circuits. As a result, "anyone who used only 10% of their neurons would be found in an autopsy to have a dramatically shriveled brain"—a state that "is not commonly observed," Ilardi writes.

    Myth 2: Talking about your problems will always help

    Over 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud popularized the idea of a so-called "talking cure," now known as psychotherapy, Ilardi writes. Freud believed that people have an unhealthy tendency to repress any thoughts or feelings that are upsetting, and that simply talking about them could help to alleviate some of that distress.

    The ideas is still a common belief today, Ilardi writes. For instance, he notes that the editors of the online mental health resource Reach Out urge, "If you or someone you know is going through a tough time, talking to someone … really is one of the best possible things you/they can do."

    However, talking about upsetting experiences isn't guaranteed to help alleviate distress, Ilardi writes. For example, a meta-analysis of all published trials on critical incident stress debriefing (CISD)—which is group counseling for witnesses of traumatic events—did not find any benefits to the practice, and other studies have linked the treatment to worse patient outcomes, "perhaps because it forces some people to face painful memories before they're ready," Ilardi writes.

    Further, in a 2007 paper, Emory University professor Scott Lillienfeld presented evidence showing psychotherapy can be helpful, but can also backfire. According to the paper, 10% of psychotherapy patients get worse during treatment, while only about half get better.

    Myth 3: Obsessive-compulsive disorder means someone is very organized

    Hyper-organized people, or "neat freaks," often are referred to as having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, OCD "has little to do with neatness," Ilardi writes. Instead, individuals with OCD typically have a "cascade of unbidden, disturbing thoughts, often in the form of harrowing images that they may feel compelled to ward off with time-consuming rituals," Ilardi writes.

    According to Ilardi, misconceptions about OCD may come from a similar-sounding diagnosis—obsessive-compulsive personality disorder—which manifests itself as a need to have things well-ordered.

    Myth 4: A common symptom of bipolar disorder is mood swings

    It is generally considered that mood swings are a common symptom of bipolar disorder, Ilardi writes., for example, describes bipolar disorder as "'a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings,'" Ilardi notes.

    But mood swings are not a part of bipolar disorder's official diagnostic criteria, Ilardi writes, and while individuals with the condition can experience the lows of depression and the highs of mania, those states often last weeks or months at a time, and rarely change quickly.

    Ilardi notes that a recent study of bipolar disorder found that the majority of married bipolar patients end up divorced, and over a third are unable to hold down a steady job, making the disease "far more serious … than the 'mood swings' of popular imagination," Ilardi writes.

    Myth 5: The best way to fix a chemical imbalance is with medication

    Drug companies frequently advertise that chemical imbalances are the main "drivers of mental illness," and that these imbalances can be fixed with their medications, Ilardi writes.

    But their claims represent an oversimplification of what causes mental illness, Ilardi writes. For example, he explains that depression involves a variety of causes, including neuroinflammation, impaired glucose utilization, and impaired hormone regulation, among others.

    To make matters worse, the idea that chemical imbalances are the main drivers of mental illness may make people think taking medication is the only effective treatment, Ilardi writes. But there are a variety of ways to change the brain's neurochemical profile, he writes, including regular exercise, which helps boost dopamine and serotonin use, increases neuroplasticity, improves cerebral glucose metabolism, and improves sleep quality.

    Ilardi writes that nutrition also can help the brain's chemical balance, and psychotherapy also has been found to alter brain function, according to various studies (Ilardi, Washington Post, 4/12).

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