Discover more from John Guy Collick – Writer
Neuromyths in Education
Refuted theories of how the brain works that still persist...
When the OECD published its groundbreaking study Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science in 2007 it devoted an entire section to what it called ‘Neuromyths’ - theories of how the mind works that are out of date and which have been refuted by later research (the less polite term used in scientific circles is ‘Neurobollocks’). When it comes to incorporating the latest findings in the study of the learning brain into education it’s essential to be able to spot what is genuine science, and what is false. The worrying trend is that theories or ideas that have long been refuted in the world of neuroscience still persist outside and are used to inform teaching practice.
There are complex reasons for this, partly to do with the difficulty with which the results of laboratory research are disseminated to a wider public, the increasing lack of scientific literacy in global society and, sadly, opportunists peddling bogus ideas for profit. The issue is compounded by the rapid advances we’ve seen in our understanding of the human mind since the introduction of fMRI scanning in the 1990s.
In this article I thought I’d lay to rest some of the more persistent neuromyths in education that I still hear touted at conferences and exhibitions worldwide, not least because they each offer an interesting example of the disconnect between what the scientists have found, and what the general public still believe.
We only use 10% of our brain
To be fair this is one of those throwaway phrases that has become part of the general lexicon of sayings to do with the human mind. I doubt many people take it totally seriously these days, but it did have huge currency up to the 1970s where it became the goto justification for a whole range of ‘expand your mind’ pseudoscience. Tracing the origin of this belief is tricky. It doesn’t seem to belong to any one individual (though the finger sometimes points at Henry T. Ford), although it emerged at the end of the 19th century. It’s most likely to have been a misreading of the comment “We only understand 10% of the human brain”. It’s completely wrong. The human brain is designed to be efficient, at least from an evolutionary point of view, and we use all of it, all the time. Any brain cells surplus to requirements are ruthlessly culled,
Left Brain Right Brain
This persistent myth has its origins in the work of Roger Sperry who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1981 for his research into patients whose brain hemispheres had been separated (often as treatment for extreme epilepsy). The original findings were conflated into a whole industry derived from the notion that the right brain deals in shapes, colours, music etc. while the left brain processes words and numbers. Perhaps the most famous advocate of this was Tony Buzan who based his personally highly lucrative Mind Mapping techniques on the belief that if we combined the power of both sides of the mind we would unlock our latent genius.
The idea that we are all sleeping Einsteins is a seductive one, and tapped into the general search for alternate states of consciousness and mind-expansion methods (LSD, meditation etc) popular in 70s and 80s counterculture. Like the 10% myth it’s become more of a cliche that accepted wisdom, but I still come across its advocates at international education conferences. Once again, the scientific theory was refuted long ago.
Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles
This is an interesting one, and perhaps the most persistent of the 1980s neuromyths. It’s also a text book example of the disconnect between scientific research and classroom practice. The theory states that students have dominant learning ‘styles’ (also known as ‘multiple intelligences’). Some people are visual learners, others learn by listening or through movement. Rather than go into the neuroscientific basis (or lack of it) for multiple intelligences, it’s worth walking through the history of the theory itself:
1983 Howard Gardner publishes Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
1994 – Sternberg ‘no evidence’ for multiple intelligences
2000 – Howard Gardner himself ‘little evidence’
2004 – Sternberg and Grigerenko ‘no validating studies’
2009 - Association for Psychological Science ‘no adequate evidence’
2015 – Cuevas ‘no adequate evidence’
So as early as 2000, Gardner himself conceded there was little evidence for multiple intelligences or learning styles - so why does the myth persist? Partly this is because of the way brain research is disseminated outside the laboratory. New exciting theories will be seized on by journalists who will invest time, energy and money into promoting the revelations to the educational establishment and the wider public. A refutation of a popular theory doesn’t make good copy, and can be embarrasing if an idea touted at length to justify a whole range of products and activities turns out to be false. So in the case of Gardner everything after 1983, including his own findings, is ignored. The world of education and neuroscience is littered with similar cases - fish oil to boost brain power being another example where cognition enhancing supplements were still being advertised long after the science had been refuted.
Calisthenics to boost brain power
Here we are firmly in the realm of what Ben Goldacre calls ‘woo’ in his brilliant book Bad Science. He spends the second chapter picking apart the claims of the Brain Gym movement which he accuses of peddling ‘transparent, shameful and embarrassing nonsense’. Nobody disputes the benefits of exercise for brain function, but the Brain Gym movement took it several steps further by promoting a load of specific movements and exercises that, it was claimed, specifically enhanced cognition. Examples included holding water in the mouth to ‘hydrate the brain’, rocking the head back and forth to push blood to the frontal lobes and pressing parts of the collarbone with the thumbs.
All of this was wrapped up in pseudo-scientific jargon which, as demonstrated in a 2008 edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, does have a seductive effect on people and make them more inclined to believe what’s being peddled. Statements like “Hook-ups shift electrical energy from the survival centres in the hindbrain to the reasoning centres in the midbrain and neocortex, thus activating hemispheric integration” have no basis in brain reseach whatsoever, but boy it sounds scientific and, sadly, encouraged people to reach for their wallets and sign up for the courses.
In conclusion, the way to avoid these neuromyths continuing to mislead educators is simply to follow the science. Neuroscience itself is a rapidly changing field, especially over the past couple of decades. Like all new areas of study it’s tentative and exploratory and today’s theory may well be transformed, built upon or disproved tomorrow. While it’s not practical for educators to slog through the scientific journals where the process of conjecture and refutation takes place, there are reliable sources that can be used to keep track of new revelations - the magazine Scientific American : Mind or New Scientist being two very good examples.
The second way to arm ourselves against Ben Goldacre’s ‘woo’ is to understand, and teach, the basic principles of scientific thinking so we are better able to identify spurious lines of reasoning and deliberate attempts to bamboozle with fancy talk.