Common myths about the brain debunked

The brain is central to our health and sense of self, but when it comes to how it works, there is still much to be understood. Maybe you've heard that doing crossword puzzles can improve memory, that playing classical music makes babies smarter, or that drinking alcohol kills brain cells -- but are these and other common claims about the brain really true?

An article in this month's issue of Popular Science seeks to separate brain facts from myths.

One of the first questions that come to mind regarding the brain is how much of it we actually use. Science fiction movies and novels often tell us we use only 10 percent of our brain, but it turns out that notion is false -- and actually not even plausible.

"If you only used 10 percent of your brain, you'd basically be brain dead," Michael Nuñez, Popular Science's technology editor, told "CBS This Morning." "Thanks to modern brain scanning technology, we actually know that we're using all of our brain at all different moments and different parts are being activated depending on the activity."

Another common claim is that the brain stops growing as we age, but research shows that is also not true. "What we've found in recent years is that the plasticity of the brain is actually pretty high, so you can continue to develop the brain long into adulthood, which is a relatively new idea in the scientific community," Nuñez said.

You've also probably heard that there are biological gender differences when it comes to the brain -- male brains are supposedly better suited for math and science, while female brains are more suited for empathy. But that's a misconception that's important to correct, Nuñez said.

"Both male and female brains have the exact same cognitive potential and although there are very small anatomical differences, for the most part, the perceived differences between males and females and science and math are because of cultural expectations," he said.

The effect of alcohol on the brain is another popular topic of conversation. Commonly accepted wisdom tells us that drinking booze kills brain cells, but scientists have studied the brains of alcoholics and non-alcoholics and have found the number of brain cells to be the exact same.

"What it [alcohol] does is that it impairs the way that neurons communicate with each other. So in the short term for moderate alcohol use, you're not actually going to be damaging brain cells," Nuñez explained. "You may be impairing things like decision making and speech, but you're not actually killing the neurons in your brain."

And what about the "Mozart effect" -- the notion that playing classical music makes babies smarter? Unfortunately, research has concluded that it isn't real.

Nuñez said he traced this myth back to a 1993 study of 36 college students -- a sample size too small to draw any definitive conclusions -- that found the participants performed better on IQ tests after listening to Mozart.

"Over time, that was extrapolated and even twisted and misconstrued by eager parents who have interpreted it as listening to Mozart makes you smarter when in fact, it's just not that easy," he said.

So what is the secret for a healthy brain? While there's no magic pill, a few healthy habits do help, including exercise, sleep, eating your greens and socializing with others. And while crossword puzzles and brain games are fun and engaging, currently there is insufficient evidence to suggest they translate to significant improvement of overall brain function.

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com