The Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Misconceptions About Productivity, Self-Improvemen

Self-improvement and productivity literature is a mixed bag to say the least. Sometimes it can be highly useful and provide invaluable insights to help you get more from yourself and from your relationships; but at other times, it amounts to nothing more than weak pseudo-science and urban myth with a lot of marketing behind it. All this to con an audience into spending small fortunes on what’s essentially drivel…

The useful stuff, as you might guess, is the stuff that’s founded in science and in common sense. These are the texts that can help us to understand more about our own minds and the psychology of interactions. The ones we want to be careful of, are the ones that are based on myth, hearsay and outright nonsense. Read on to discover some of the biggest myths of popular psychology and self help. If you read a text that quotes these subjects as though they were absolute truths, it’s time to move on and find another source of information.

The Top Myths of Self Help

‘We Only Use 10% of Our Brains’

This is one of the ones that irks me the most as a psychology graduate. If you believe this commonly shared misconception, then we only ever use 10% of our brain power meaning that we could in theory be 90% smarter (with various books claiming to help you to ‘unlock more of your potential’). In reality though, there isn’t any known part of the brain that we don’t use – it’s just that we never use very much of it at the same time. Certain areas of your brain light up when you imagine a pony or when you hear a song, but only ever a small portion at once. Perhaps there is a way to enable more efficient multitasking and more widespread simultaneous use of the brain, but don’t trust any source that tells you you’re only ‘accessing 10%’.

We Stop Creating New Brain Cells When We Reach Adulthood

To be fair, scientists used to think that this was the case. Recently though, it was discovered that we can indeed create new brain cells in certain parts of the brain suggesting an impressive capacity for learning even when our brain is fully developed. This is called ‘neurogenesis’ and is closely related to brain plasticity.

Something to Do With Quantum Physics…

Too many self help books claim that consciousness or other aspects of the brain are related to quantum physics. This is based on ‘research’ that shows how being consciously aware of something can affect particle at a quantum level. The research is good, but what’s lacking is the understanding. These studies showed that it’s impossible to measure the state of quantum particles without impacting on the results – to claim that this is proof for a ‘quantum consciousness’ is nothing but hokum (to quote Sheldon… ).

The Left and Right Brain

We do indeed have two hemispheres to our brains which are connected via a nerve cluster called the ‘corpus callosum’. However some of the claims that you will read based on this fact are rather wild to say the least. There is little evidence for people being ‘left brain’ types and this won’t really have much bearing on the way you work either. If you want to understand the concept of left and right brain a little better, there are some interesting videos on YouTube of patients who have severed their corpus callosum or who have had whole hemispheres removed.

The Mozart Effect

Which brings me on nicely to the so-called ‘Mozart effect’… This describes the belief that listening to Mozart can help you to work more effectively and potentially even to become smarter. In reality though, no strong effect has ever really been shown by studies. While it may help to make you less distracted when working (by making the process of working less dry and dull without distracting you with lyrics), classical music isn’t going to turn you into Einstein.

Brain Pills Make You Smarter

It’s not that pills like Modafinil don’t have an effect on the brain, it’s more that ‘smarter’ is a very tricky term to define. While you might be able to increase your memory, or your attention, or your wakefulness, factors like creativity and non-verbal problem solving are unlikely to be impacted so it’s hard to say that you’re truly ‘smarter’. Be warned as well, that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. In other words, if you are enhancing your memory or your attention, you’re probably also going to find there are side effects. Even caffeine has side effects.

Visualising Success

One of the most common tropes of self help literature is the advice that you should try visualising what you want to achieve and your success strongly on a regular basis in order to bring it about. The idea is that once you know what you want, ‘the world will move out of your way’.

It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately research doesn’t quite back it up. In reality, dreaming about relaxing on a yacht with a cocktail and Jessica Alba is only likely to prevent you from recognising the potential challenges and thus end up making mistakes. What’s much more constructive is to get out of dreamland and then to plan the steps you need to go through realistically.

The Subconscious

Want a quick sign that a blog or book doesn’t really know what it’s talking about? Just look out for any use of the word ‘subconscious’. The belief is that our subconscious is the part of our brain that motivates many of our actions but which we cannot access – as described by Freud. Close, but not quite; actually it is the ‘unconscious’ that Freud described. He described us as having unconscious thoughts – you’re either conscious of them or you aren’t there is nothing in between.

To be fair, the term ‘subconscious’ has become so widespread that sometimes even people who do know what they’re talking about will use the term to make their writing more accessible. Still though, it’s actually based on another misconception.

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