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The Royal Society of Edinburgh Tall Tales about the Mind & Brain

Lecture Wednesday 5 September 2007 at the RSE Speakers: Professor Michael C Corballis, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland and Professor James E Alcock, Department of Psychology, University of York, Toronto. Conference Thursday 6 Friday 7 September 2007 at Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh Speakers: Professor Sergio Della Sala FRSE, University of Edinburgh and Chairman of the Conference Organising Committee; Professor David Myers, Hope College, Holland and Professor James E Alcock, University of York, Toronto Scientists from different disciplines, including psychologists, neuropsychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, social scientists and neurologists, discussed topics which are popular for everyday press coverage but rarely addressed from a purely scientific perspective. In particular, the conference aimed to present experts views on popular misconceptions about the functioning of the mind and the brain and about human behaviour. As is the case for other sciences (for example physics and chemistry) the questions that interest the general public are different (often more general) from most of the questions that the neuroscientists deal with in their research. Sources of everyday information such as magazines, newspapers, popular press and TV often report on how the mind works. This conference aimed at discussing what we really know about the functioning of the mind. Using a scientific approach, the speakers contributing to Tall Tales addressed questions that they are likely to be asked at cocktail parties. These questions included: Do we really use only 10% of our brain? Can we stimulate the creativity of the right hemisphere? Can we believe our memories? How can we improve our learning skills? Can one become more intelligent listening to Mozarts music? Does the size of the brain matter? Does the moon influence our behaviour? Is bilingualism good or bad? Can we trust our intuitions? Can we detect a liar? The conference was unique in that rather than sharing scientific issues with peers, it was intended to disseminate knowledge and aimed mainly at high-school teachers and their upper year pupils, along with a few science journalists and other interested lay-people. In a recent survey of teachers, almost 90 per cent thought that in the design of Educational programmes, knowledge of the brain was important, or very important. However, this recognition is not necessarily always beneficial. Some enthusiastic educationalists have over-simplified findings from neuroscience and over-interpreted the outcomes. This has given rise to a number of tall tales on how the brain works which are influencing teaching and educational programmes based on the misuse of neuroscience discoveries. We live in a credulous world: factual information provided by the media is comforting while the doubtful scientific approach is perceived as distant and somewhat dull. Tall Tales showed that science can be fun and creative. Sergio Della Sala Chair of the Organising Committee Human Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows The RSE is Scottish Charity No. SC 000470