Culture

14 Common Beliefs That Turn Out to Be False—And 5 Myths That Stand Up to Science

The upshot? Don’t believe everything you’ve always believed.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Life is full of commonly believed myths and people’s behavior is often guided by those truisms. But are they true? Some are, but many are as false as the idea that tax breaks magically create jobs.

Here are 14 common beliefs that turn out to be fiction; and five more that scientists have discovered are surprisingly true.

1. Talking on your cell phone will give you cancer.

There has been lots of talk over the years about how the radiation from cell phones may be causing brain tumors. As it turns out, not so much. An annual report from the Presidents Cancer Panel found no evidence to support the link between cell phones and malignancies. In fact, while talking on cell phones has increased by sixfold since 1991, the number of brain cancer incidences has actually dropped by half.

2. Holding your laptop on your lap will make you sterile.

This myth grew out of a study by Argentinian researchers in 2011 which seemed to indicate that the electromagnetic radiation from the wifi signal damaged the sperm in a man’s testes. Chalk this one up to media sensationalism. The truth is that the researchers themselves admitted that the setup was artificial in nature. The laptops were placed on laps for four straight hours, a somewhat rare scenario. Not only that, but the normal angle a man would sit would place the computer not on his testes, but rather on his thighs. In rebuking the study, French cancer researchers remarked, “Genotoxicity of radio frequencies is not a matter of opinion: Radio frequency energy absorption cannot break DNA molecules.”

3. You only use 10% of your brain.

Is that so? Then that gunshot to the brain probably won’t do much damage. This myth is very, very false. The brain only weighs a couple of pounds yet it uses around 20% of the oxygen and glucose the body requires. It’s pretty doubtful we would have evolved so inefficiently if the brain was 90% useless. Never mind that, brain scans show the whole organ is pretty darn active. During the course of a normal day, 100% of your brain is chugging away at one point or another.

4. Sugar makes your kids crazy.

Try telling a parent who is watching a roomful of children at a birthday party that all that cake and ice cream hasn’t made their kid a hyperactive buzzsaw. Actually, there really isn’t much evidence to show that the so-called sugar buzz is a real thing (with the exception of a small number of kids with a rare insulin disorder). All that activity is more likely the result of the general excitement of lots of children together, party atmosphere, games, etc. The same thing you might see at the college frat toga party. Of course, that does not mean a lot of sugar is OK for kids. There are plenty of reasons to limit sugar in children, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, inflammation, and even cancer. Just not hyperactivity.

5. A penny dropped from the Empire State Building will kill you if it hits you.

We can all stop covering our heads when we pass the Empire State Building. If someone dropped a whole roll of pennies in the wrapper it might do some damage, but a single penny won’t do much harm. It might sting a little, but that’s about it. Pennies are not heavy enough or aerodynamically designed enough to gather the force necessary to hurt you. Too much tumbling and flipping on the way down.

6. Lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Wrong. In fact, lightning tends to strike the same place over and over again. The Empire State Building gets hit 100 times a year. Any tall structure or tree is prone to multiple hits from lightning during electrical storms. A study in 2003 by NASA pretty much put this myth to rest.

7. Hair and nails continue to grow after you die.

In order for this to be true, you would need to be able to supply nutrients to the hair and body, which means there would still need to be metabolic processes going on, which pretty much means you wouldn’t be dead. So shelve this myth. Hair and nails can appear to grow after death because the skin dries out and retracts, exposing more of the hair and nail roots. But growing? Nope.

8. Eating watermelon seeds will give you appendicitis.

Nah. Just like almost everything we eat, watermelon seeds pass through the system and end up in the toilet. They don’t have much taste, and the body doesn’t have much use for them, but they aren’t harmful. Nor will they make you grow a watermelon inside your stomach.

9. If a jellyfish stings you, urine will help alleviate the pain.

It might make for a good “Friends” episode, but the truth is that urine isn’t the answer to a jellyfish sting. In fact, putting urine on the sting could cause more pain by releasing more venom from the stinger. Better to rub it with vinegar. The acid in the vinegar will counteract the stinger and relieve the pain. In any event, the pain should dissipate within 24 hours.

10. Crossing your legs gives you varicose veins.

Varicose veins are caused when your vascular system works extra hard pumping blood up from your legs to your heart. If the valves in your veins are working inefficiently, blood pools in the vein and out pops the varicose condition. Crossing your legs has nothing to do with varicose veins. In fact, standing a lot will most likely cause the blood to pool. Pregnancy, blunt force (like getting hit by a ball), or genetic pre-disposition are other common causes of varicose veins. Crossing your legs? Nope.

11. If you drop your food on the floor, it’s safe to eat if you pick it up within five seconds.

Maybe. If you are a clean freak and mop your floor often and don’t wear shoes in the house and are sure the dog hasn’t been digging in the yard… otherwise, better discard that five-second rule. The gastrointestinal system is pretty efficient at killing off germs, but you can never tell when a telltale salmonella bug is wandering around on the floor. Researchers at Clemson University found that salmonella can survive on the floor for weeks. Better safe than sorry. Make it the no-second rule.

12. You should wash your chicken before you cook it.

Stop doing this. Not only is it a waste of time (proper cooking will destroy harmful germs), but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, washing raw chicken just splashes potentially dangerous germs all over the sink and counter.

13. Brown eggs are better for you than white eggs.

There is zero difference in the nutritional value or taste of a brown egg versus a white egg. The color of the shell is determined by the breed of chicken who lays the egg. Color and nutrition is an advertising construct.

14. Left-brained people are more logical and right-brained people are more creative.

This myth can largely be traced to the popular book Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, which claimed that the two hemispheres are divided in duties and people are either left or right dominated, with their skills subsequently defined. Research, however, has not borne this out. Our skills are not processed on one side of the brain over the other. In brain scans looking at the activity of over 7,000 areas of the brain, both hemispheres of the brain were equally active in both logical and creative activities.

5 Myths That Aren't So Mythical

And here are five “myths” that turn out to have more to them than even scientists thought.

1. Cold weather causes colds.

Your mom told you to put on your coat or you’ll catch your death, and you no doubt repeated that little homily to your own kids. But it’s not true, right? Cold weather doesn’t cause colds, viruses cause colds. Not so fast. This is one of those myths that was true before it was false before it was maybe true again. It turns out some scientists in Cardiff, Wales at the Common Cold Centre conducted an experiment. They took 180 volunteers and had 90 of them dangle their feet in ice water for 20 minutes. The other 90 twiddled their thumbs for 20 minutes, their feet dry and warm. Within five days, 29% of the ice water volunteers had developed a cold. Among the thumb twiddlers, only 9% got sick. It seems there really is a correlation between cold weather and colds. Ronald Eccles, director of the center, explained that many times people are infected by the cold virus but show no symptoms because their immune systems successfully keep the symptoms at bay.

2. Some people have really accurate "gaydar."

How many people do you know who can immediately intuit whether someone is straight or gay? Impossible. Or is it? An experiment done in 2012 suggested there actually is something to the concept of gaydar. Volunteers were shown photographs of men and women in brief 50 millisecond flashes. The images were devoid of tattoos, hairstyles, makeup, piercings, and other cultural clues. The volunteers were then asked to characterize the men and women as either straight or gay. Sixty percent of the characterizations were correct, 10% more than would be expected by mere chance guesses. It seems that those with good gaydar are particularly sensitive to individual facial features and spatial relationships among those features. The experiment was repeated several times with similar outcomes.

3. All people of races other than mine look alike.

Oh boy. One of our most ingrained stereotypes is that all those (insert race) look alike. Of course, this is not true, but it does tell us something about our perception of people who look different from us. Scientists from Northwestern University took a look at this and what they found was interesting. They hooked up volunteers to an EEG and recorded brain activity. When white participants were shown images of white people, their brain activity appeared to record specific details about the faces being viewed. However, when the white person was shown an image of a person of another race, the brain activity seemed to note the race and then shut down after that. Moreover, the neurons in the brain that were active while viewing same-race images were completely different from the neurons that were firing during other-race images. The theory is simple, and has more to do with science than racism: the brain has more practice differentiating same-race faces because we tend to hang out with people of our own races more than with people from other races.

4. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Really?! Come on now. We all know that the way to a man’s heart is through a body part slightly south of the stomach, correct? Not according to a survey done in Australia in 2009, in which 10,000 people were asked what gave them the most pleasure. For men, sex came in a flaccid fourth, after taste, personal accomplishment and relaxation. The results actually mirrored an experiment done in 1994 in which a neurologist, Alan Hirsch, attached blood pressure monitors to the genitals of male volunteers and subjected them to various smells. The object: to see what smell turned men on the most. The men sniffed Chanel No. 5, lilies, roses, and many other perfumes and aromas. Musky, flowery, the whole spectrum. The winner? Cinnamon buns. Food turned them on the most.

5. Jerking off will make you blind.

All those old-fashioned moms and priests and Republicans are idiots, right? Sort of. But not quite. As it happens, there is something to this silly myth. Don’t worry, continue masturbating. It’s good for you in many ways, but there is a condition called amaurosis fugax, which can result in blindness in one eye for several minutes. One of the triggers for this condition can be an especially pleasurable orgasm. Apparently all that exercise getting to the point of orgasm can block the blood vessels near the eye. Who knew? Yet another reason to avoid driving and masturbating at the same time.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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