Does the average person only use 10% of their brain capacity?

Lucy 2014 film posterThe new action-thriller Lucy features Scarlett Johansson whose character is kidnapped and forced to work as a drug mule for a gang operating in dystopic Taiwan. After being surgically implanted with a mysterious drug, the substance inadvertently leaks into her body before it can be removed. The drug transforms Lucy giving her new powers including telekinesis, eliminating all sensations of pain, and the ability to absorb knowledge instantaneously.

The release poster for ‘Lucy’ claims that “the average person uses 10% of their brain capacity”, which is a widely perpetuated urban legend. It is believed the myth emerged in the 1890’s, when William James, known as the father of American psychology, wrote in The Energies of Men: “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”

The 10% figure is associated with lack of knowledge about certain sections of the brain. Scientists for a long time did not know the purpose of the frontal lobe of the brain or areas of the parietal lobe, and damage to these areas did not result in motor or sensory deficits. They were deemed ‘silent areas’ of the brain and for some time their purpose remained illusive. Now we know that they are linked to functions such as  planning, motivation, attention, and language processing.

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Can sunshine be as addictive as heroin?

sunbather on beach with bookIf recent media reports are to be believed, then sunshine can be “as addictive as heroin.” Although the study on which the reports were based was carried out on mice, the claims were surprising as sunlight does not typically fall into the list of common addictions such as cigarettes or alcohol. We looked at the media claims and found that the comparison was inaccurate, but ‘tanning addiction’ appears to have a scientific basis and several studies have investigated it.

True or False?

There is no doubt that sustained exposure to ultraviolet light can bring about (mainly psychological) symptoms similar to those that drug addicts experience, although they are nowhere near as extensive. Dr David Fisher who led the study behind the reports, questioned claims that sunshine is “as addictive as heroin” without analysis into the potency of heroin versus UV light. Dr Clare Stanford also told us that a mere ‘prefence‘ towards sunlight does not indicate addiction, and so it is largely false that sunshine can be as addictive as heroin.

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Daily Mail image of “ISIS forces” is actually Iraq national army

In early June 2014 a jihadist group known as the ‘Islamic State‘ (formerly known as ISIS) led a Sunni militant offensive in Iraq, putting the group in the headlines across the world. The offensive saw them capture several cities, primarily in the north and west of Iraq, and severely challenged the government’s ability to administer Iraq as a single entity.

Following these events the Daily Mail, on 25 June 2014, reported on a local militant group merger in the town of Albu Kamal. Depicting a series of images from the conflict, the article claimed that membership of the group could double as a result of the merger. True or False? looked at the photographs and it became clear that in one of the images featured, three men sitting in the back of a pickup truck were wearing army issue fatigues bearing Iraqi national flags. This appeared inconsistent with the beliefs of a group determined to establish a proto-caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq. The photograph carried the caption: “Masked: ISIS forces (pictured) seized Iraq’s main northern city Mosul on June 10…

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World Cup 2014 – Brazil coach Scolari: ‘This was the worst defeat in Brazil’s history’

Brasil defeat to Germany 7-1Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari described his team’s 7-1 capitulation against Germany as “the worst day of my life” and pleaded for forgiveness from the host nation’s millions of passionate fans. ‘Historic Disgrace’ was the headline splashed across  the front page of Brazil’s most influential newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, however the coach did himself no favours when he described the loss as “the worst defeat in Brazil’s history“.

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Claim: ‘boko’ in the name Boko Haram comes from the English word ‘book’

Abubakar ShekauBoko Haram, Nigeria’s militant Islamist group, has caused mayhem through bombings, assassinations and abductions, in an effort to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. In April 2014 the group made worldwide headlines when it abducted more than 200 schoolgirls during a raid in Chibok, Nigeria.

The name Boko Haram, hints at the group’s motives and core beliefs – at least this is what we learn from a recent Telegraph article in which Boris Johnson comments that boko “appears – on at least one interpretation – to be a kind of pidgin word for the English ‘book’. ‘Haram’ means forbidden, religiously prohibited, … . The gist of their manifesto is that Western education – reading a boko – is haram.”

We looked into the meaning and origins of the words boko haram. There is little doubt about haram, a word borrowed from Arabic into the local Hausa language, which refers to things forbidden in Islam (as opposed to things halal, or permitted). The language is spoken by the Hausa population (predominantly Muslim) in the northern half of Nigeria. Dan Murphy in The Christian Science Monitor points out that the history of the word boko is less clear. He discovered the answer in a paper on the etymology of boko, by Professor Paul Newman, an expert on Hausa.

True or False?

The Hausa word boko does not come from the English word ‘book’, so claims that it does are false. The similarity between boko and ‘book’ is coincidental.

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Claim: “Women are legally free to abort a baby because of its sex”

Pregnant Woman in HospitalThe issue of “sex selective abortion” is traditionally framed as a problem common in the Asian continent or South-Eastern Europe. However, in early 2012, The Telegraph carried out an undercover investigation at various abortion clinics in England and found that doctors were willing to authorise abortions for women who objected to the birth of the baby because of its sex. One of the doctors likened the practice to “female infanticide” while the other told a woman it was not her job to “ask questions”. The Telegraph then inaccurately attributed the claim; “women are legally free to abort a baby because of its sex” to Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

True or False?

The practice has generally been deemed illegal, although there is recognition that the broad scope of the Abortion Act 1967 facilitates such procedures in practice. The current law does not preclude a doctor from considering gender as a factor, as long as this is justified on a medical basis, and outlaws abortion on gender grounds alone. This makes the claim false, along with its attribution to Ann Furedi (and BPAS, which distanced itself from The Telegraph’s paraphrasing of her comments).

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Special Report: The facts and figures behind the UK’s economic recovery

MoneyAt the end of April 2014, the Chancellor George Osborne, confirmed that the UK economy had grown by 0.8% in the first three months of 2014, marking a fifth consecutive period of gross domestic product (GDP) growth (the longest since the 2008 financial crisis). Meanwhile, unemployment has dropped to 6.8% (the lowest figure in 5 years) as wage growth slowly begins to catch up with inflation and new jobs are created. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has added to the renewed optimism by forecasting that the UK economy will grow by up to 2.9% in 2014, making it the fastest growing of all G7 nations (a figure eclipsed by the greater than 7% growth predicted for China).

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Claim: ‘Saturated fat is not bad for your health’

The Daily Telegraph reported on 6 March 2014 that a US heart expert, James DiNicolantonio, had claimed that “saturated fat is not bad for health”. In an article published in BMJ Open Heart, DiNicolantonio argues that diets low in saturated fat do not lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease or strokes, or indeed help people live longer. These claims effectively placed him in opposition to decades of established medical and public health advice which has encouraged people in nations such as the USA and the UK to carefully monitor their intake of foods high in saturated fat.

Upon further investigation, it became clear that DiNicolantonio was not alone in the scientific community in holding such views. Many of these commentators and scientists attribute higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, coronary and cardiovascular disease, to the increased consumption of carbohydrates and sugars.

True or False?

With no reference to proportion or moderation, the claim that saturated fat is “not bad for your health” is considered to be largely false.

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Staffordshire University’s response to ‘Tapping Therapy’ article

Media claims about the effectiveness of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are largely false, an article by The Henry Mayhew Foundation revealed. Despite this, doctors and academics are promoting EFT on the NHS, a move one expert has called “irresponsible.”

The BBC and the Daily Mail appeared to recycle a Staffordshire University press release, which says:

“Health researchers from Staffordshire University have called on NHS Trusts across the UK to adopt a new emerging self-help method known as tapping – or emotional freedom technique (EFT) – after its effectiveness for treating a number of conditions was proven (emphasis added).”

Two studies were mentioned supporting this claim, but one was unpublished, so we could not verify its findings. The other study, conducted in 2013 by Antony Stewart, Professor of Public Health, and his team, looked at EFT’s effectiveness in treating various emotional conditions.

The authors claim the results “highlight the successful role of EFT in reducing a wide range of physical and psychological disorders.” However, the paper says “the limitations of the study design … precludes the ability to infer its results to the wider population,” which means EFT was not proven effective. We spoke to experts who supported this view.

Staffordshire University responded by saying:

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Claim: Tapping therapy’s effectiveness “was proved”

On 15 – 16 January 2014 the Daily Mail reported: “Experts are calling on the NHS to start using a new self-help technique, called tapping, after its effectiveness in treating a number of conditions was proved (emphasis added). The BBC ran a more cautious headline: “Tapping therapy helps patients with depression”, calling the treatment very effective (emphasis added). Many people criticised the claims including Dr Ben Goldacre. Alex Langford, a junior Psychiatrist, called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) “dangerous nonsense”.

True or False?

The claim is largely false as the findings of one small-scale study have been overstated.

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