Misconceptions quickly become modern-day facts. Incorrect factoids which we believe to be true, like Napoleon Bonaparte being short, Albert Einstein flunking math as a kid, Vitamin C as an effective treatment for colds, and water swirling down the drain changing direction depending on which side of the equator it’s on, can quickly take on a life of their own. Perhaps the worst thing about popular myths is that they are easy to spread, but almost impossible to get rid of once they’re released in the world. Scare articles and urban legends may get enormous media attention when they first break; retractions and refutations rarely get the same treatment.
Myths, old wives’ tales and urban legends are told as fantastical stories and sometimes interesting trivia, and let’s face it: they feel good to tell, because the teller thinks they are in on something most people don’t know, even if the factoid itself is completely false. But how entertaining a myth is doesn’t change objective reality: a penny dropped from a skyscraper won’t kill a person below, alcohol doesn’t keep you warm, sharks do get cancer, and vaccines will still not cause autism.
False “facts” are typically ones that everyone knows. You probably hear them from people in your everyday lives, from folklore, from books and movies, perhaps even from your teachers who don’t know any better. Here are some of the world’s most well-known myths and misconceptions about everyday things, compiled and debunked. This will likely be the first list of several.
20. The Tongue Map
Remember that famous “tongue map” we were taught in school? You know, the one showing different zones which supposedly taste sweet, salty, sour, and bitter? Guess what – it’s a myth. In reality, all zones can sense all tastes. You may have noticed if you ever tried to put a pinch of salt on the back of the tongue and could still taste it instantly, or if you put something bitter near the front where the sweet zone is supposed to be. Apparently, once upon a time the theory of the tongue map was believed, but further scientific research was conducted, and it turned out to be based on a mistranslation of a 1901 German thesis. Your taste buds are all the same. Now for the kicker: it was disproven all the way back in 1974, but is still taught in some schools.
19. Flight of the Bumblebee
The ever-so-popular bumblebee myth states that aerodynamically speaking, a bumblebee should not be able to fly because it’s too heavy or it lacks the required wing area. This false idea is often expressed as “scientists have calculated that the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but somehow it does.” In reality, the flight mechanisms of the bumblebee have been well understood for many years. This is probably based on French entomologist Antoine Magnan’s book, The Flight of Insects. Using flawed techniques, Magnan postulated that the insect theoretically should not be able to fly. Magnan later realized his error and retracted it, but that didn’t stop the urban legend.
18. “Left Brain” vs. “Right Brain”
On some level, you probably knew those silly quizzes you were taking online weren’t true. Yep, the “left brain” and “right brain” dichotomy is a total myth. Mental abilities and personality traits such as being more “logical” or more “artistic” are not absolutely separated into the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain. While different functions may activate in one hemisphere more than the other, many are activated equally in both halves. Still, people who don’t understand the science continue to pile loads of personality traits into “left” and “right” brain traits. Who says one can’t be both logical and artistic, anyway?
17. Wait an Hour After Eating Before Swimming
Doubtlessly, many of us heard this one when we were kids at the swimming pool. With some parents it was waiting 15 minutes, with others a half hour, or even a full hour. But as it turns out, our parents were all being overprotective. There is no correlation between eating before swimming and an increased risk of muscle cramps or risk of drowning. Our bodies are perfectly capable of doing many things at once, including swimming and digesting. Swimming after a meal will not increase risk of drowning, unless alcohol consumption is involved. This is yet another old wives’ tale that should be laid to rest.
16. Hide Under Highway Overpasses During a Tornado
Some popular misconceptions (read: astrology) are just plain silly, but others are very serious and can be deadly. This clearly falls under the latter. Many people mistakenly believe that if caught in a tornado, the safest thing to do is to take shelter under a highway overpass. To be clear: DO NOT hide under highway overpasses or bridges during a tornado. The narrow, confined space underneath these actually increases the force of the strong tornado winds, putting people at greater risk of severe injury or death. Most overpasses also do not have support beams or girders that could be used as handholds.
15. Swallowing Your Own Tongue
Despite talk about it in movies and TV shows where people have seizures, as well as a memorable line about it in the film version of Silence of the Lambs, it is not physically possible to swallow your own tongue. The only way to truly swallow your tongue is if you cut it off first, because the whole base of your tongue is firmly attached to the bottom of your mouth and has lots of nerves and major blood vessels. The lingual frenulum (the web-like thing of skin beneath your tongue) prevents it from going back far enough in the throat to be swallowed. This bit of fiction about the human body can actually be dangerous, since one of the worst things you can do is put something in a person’s mouth during a seizure to keep them from swallowing their tongue. Since this is impossible, it’s more likely to injure or choke the person having the seizure, and get the other person’s fingers severely bitten.
14. Alcohol Kills Brain Cells
As much as habitual heavy drinkers may like to joke about killing bad memories with lots of rounds, alcohol does not kill brain cells. Even alcoholics who regularly imbibe inadvisable amounts of booze do not have brain cells die. Alcoholism can lead to brain damage through deficiency of thiamine, an essential B vitamin, or through abruptly going cold turkey, which could cause excitotoxicity. Still, both of these causes are indirect at best. Alcohol does have an effect on the brain, such as slurred speech and impaired motor functions, but outright killing neurons is not one of them. Good news for those of us that like to have a few extra drinks on the weekends.
13. Mid-Life Crisis
Here’s another one we’ve all heard, most likely from sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even music albums. Popular acceptance of a “mid-life crisis,” a supposed phase that most adults go through where they question their identity and self-confidence, is culturally widespread. Never mind that there is no science backing up the claim at all. Academic research since the 1980s has shown that there is no set point in anyone’s life when they have a crisis. In fact, some studies suggest the opposite: middle-aged individuals know who they are and can live life in satisfaction and achievement, while the biggest personal crises tend to be in youth when dealing with insecurity and confusion.
12. Five Senses
Okay, this isn’t exactly a myth in of itself, since obviously humans do have the commonly cited five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – first identified by Aristotle. It’s just that we have a lot more than five senses. Depending on your definition, we could have as many as 21. For starters, the sense of sight can be divided into the two receptors, color (cones) and brightness (rods). Humans also have a sense of balance and can sense acceleration, such as in a car. There’s also the sense of pain (turns out yes, that is different than touch), the sense of the position of our body and limbs relative to other parts, and our sense of temperature. Other senses, some of which are debated, include a sense of time, pressure, hunger, thirst, the need to urinate and defecate, blood CO2 levels, and many more. Think about that next time you complain human beings don’t have fangs or wings like other animals.
11. Waking Sleepwalkers
Stop me if you’ve seen this one on Looney Tunes ten thousand times: the idea is that you shouldn’t wake sleepwalkers, because it could harm or even kill them, the implication being the shock could give them a heart attack…or something. The idea isn’t very clear. Anyway, the fact is that waking sleepwalkers does not hurt them at all. While they may be understandably confused or disoriented after waking, the idea that the shock could kill them is a fairy tale. In fact, sleepwalkers are much more likely to be injured if they are not woken, since they tend to lose their balance or trip over household objects.
10. Waiting 24 Hours Before Filing A Missing Persons Report
This is another example of common misconceptions, old wives’ tales, and just plain inaccurate information being potentially dangerous. You do not, under any circumstances, have to wait 24 hours before filing a missing person’s report with authorities. Reports are taken very seriously and investigations are launched no matter how much or how little time has passed. This is also an example of a myth that’s widely believed, even though if most people think through the logic they will realize the idea is ridiculous. As soon as you know an adult or child is missing, report it to the police.
9. Undercover Cops Have to Identify Themselves if Asked
Another ridiculous one. Supposedly, entrapment laws in the United States require police officers doing undercover work or conducting sting operations to identify themselves if asked. On some level, you probably suspected this one was a total load of nonsense, and you’d be right. Cops do not have to identify themselves even if asked flat out, “Are you a cop?” There would be little possibility to do undercover work in the first place if this were true. Furthermore, entrapment laws specifically have to do with goading someone to participate in illegal activity he or she normally wouldn’t be involved in. Chances are if you’re being investigated by undercover cops for drug smuggling and the like, crime is the normal course of business for you.
8. Glass is Really a Very Viscous Liquid
For many years, this “did ya know” canard was actually taught in High School chemistry. According to the myth, glass is not a solid but a very viscous liquid. Supposedly you can tell from stained glass windows in old cathedrals in Europe, where the glass is thicker at the bottom than on the top because the glass slowly “flowed” downward over years and years. We’ve known this old myth isn’t true for a long time now – the thicker parts of old glass were simply part of the production process. The sheets of glass were thicker around the edges and placed in the window frames so that the heaviest side was on the bottom. In addition, many glass structures of even greater age have been found with no such “downward-flowing” characteristics. Glass is currently classified as an amorphous solid.
7. Polygraphs as Lie Detectors
The “lie detector” polygraph machine is so popular that it’s practically a cultural icon at this point. We see it in cinema, in comedies, and in advertisements. When we see a polygraph pen wildly spiking up and down on a moving chart, we know the person must be lying. Polygraph tests are frequently shown exposing criminals or the dishonest in shows like Law and Order. It’s just too bad we don’t have a myth-detecting machine (oh, how I would invest), because this is mostly fantasy and dramatization. In reality, the polygraph device is extremely inaccurate, and the results of a test are not admissible in court unless agreed to by both parties.
6. Sugar Causes Hyperactivity in Children
Yeah, this one seems like it would be true, but it isn’t. Though it widely believed for the past few decades, double-blind trials have shown no correlation between sugar consumption and hyperactivity in children, and no difference was observed between children given sugar-free diets or diets rich in sugar. Even studies specifically looking at children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have found no link at all. Sugar intake and “sugar highs” are the stuff of oral tradition. Diets since the 1970s have advocated the removal of sugar and dyes from children’s diets due to supposed links to hyperactivity. To this day, no scientific evidence exists to support this claim.
5. Plants ‘Convert’ Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen
Yeah, I know. It’s what we were all taught: plants “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen for us to breathe. Thank you, plants! However, the reality is a bit more complex. While plants do take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, they do not “convert” one into the other; the two processes are completely independent. Oxygen produced by photosynthesis is not made from carbon dioxide, but from water. Green plants convert CO2 into sugars in a light-independent process, and convert light to energy with oxygen as a byproduct in a different, light-dependent process. A straight-up conversion from one gas to another doesn’t take place. Plants are still awesome, though.
4. The Great Wall of China Visible From Space
Let’s get this straight: the Great Wall of China is frequently cited as the only man-made object visible from space with the naked eye. This claim goes all the way back to the 1930s (even before there were manned space missions), with some variations even saying the Apollo astronauts could see it from the moon. But this has long been proven false. The reality is that you can’t see the ancient marvel from even low Earth orbit. In a way, the claim fails twice, not only because the Great Wall isn’t visible from that high up, but many other human-created structures are, including the Great Pyramids of Giza, major cities, highways, bridges, and the Greenhouses of Almeria in Spain, just to name a few.
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Worse Than Sugar
Ever since sweetened food and drinks began replacing regular sugar with high fructose corn syrup, people have been blaming it for everything from the obesity epidemic, to cancer and heart disease, and pretty much any other health ailment you can think of. The popular conception is of HFCS as some kind of scary super-sugar that makes people fat, sick, and unhealthy, and threatens to usher in some sort of apocalyptic age of “unnatural” food. Some have even called for a total ban on the stuff, and some grocery store chains refuse to carry it. Hold on to your hats. Studies show that HFCS is still just fructose and glucose, the same old table sugar you were always eating. “Normal” sugar and HFCS contain the same ingredients and have the same effect on the body; literally the only difference between them is the extraction process. Companies put HFCS in everything simply because it’s cheaper to produce and keeps the prices of their products affordable. Of course, there’s no doubt excessive consumption of HFCS is unhealthy, but the point is it wouldn’t be any healthier if it were regular sugar.
2. Eight Glasses of Water Needed Per Day
There are so many myths about health and the human body that just won’t die. Chances are most of us felt nervous because we never followed the nutrition guide in our grade school textbooks that said we needed eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day to survive. “Oh no,” we thought. “I’m so behind, I must be dehydrated all the time!” Well, you can relax. It’s not true. Eight glasses, or in some countries two to three litres, of water a day are not needed to maintain health. In fact, drinking such an unreasonable amount of water can be harmful. The amount of water needed by a person depends on their weight, activity level, environment and many other factors. Like many myths, the source of this one is shrouded in mystery, but most people believe it comes from a 1945 recommendation by the Food and Nutrition Board saying people needed about that much each day. However, the key sentence of the amount was ignored: “Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.” As a result, the recommendation was incorrectly interpreted to mean you had to drink eight glasses of pure, regular water a day, when the water you need can be derived from food, fruits and vegetables, coffee, tea, milk, juice, soups, etc.
1. Humans Only Use 10% of Our Brain
This urban legend is still so widespread that it’s the basis for Hollywood movies. The story goes that most humans only use a tiny portion of their brain, usually given as about 10% or some other small percentage. The (rather anti-social) implication is that most people are stupid, and some “special people” might be able to tap into this unused super-intelligence. Unfortunately for those who might want telekinetic superpowers like the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, this notion is completely false. Humans use virtually all of their brains, all of the time. In brain scans like MRI imaging, all parts of the brain are almost always active, including during deep sleep. It’s long overdue this pseudoscientific folklore was put to rest, though it is still used in advertisements and cited in media as though it were a fact.