Neuromyths: The 10 Top Misconceptions about your Brain

Thomas Moran
Feb 5 · 9 min read

(And How You Can Use Them to Your Advantage)

Image Credit: Syd Mead

“ Myths which are believed in tend to become true.”

— George Orwell


Definition


Introduction

The term “neuromyths” was first coined by an OECD report on understanding the brain. The term refers to the translation of scientific findings into misinformation regarding education.

Once these myths take hold in the public consciousness, it’s often difficult for people to separate brain facts from fiction.


Separating Fact from Fiction

The use of neuroscience in education is very young, relatively speaking. Neuroimaging technologies and functional MRI have really only developed over the last 20 years.

Neuroscientists can point to some aspects of how different parts of the brain function and connect with one another, but when it comes to education, no one can definitively outline more than a few broad concepts.

“Much of what is published and said is useless,” says professor Kurt Fischer who leads the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) graduate program at Harvard University. “Much of it is wrong, a lot is empty or vapid, and some is not based in neuroscience at all.”

“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that–thoughts.”

— Alan Lokos

The Myth List

1. Left Brain vs Right Brain

Image Credit: Wellness 360

FALSE. The left and right hemispheres of the brain work together. There is no evidence that people’s learning differs in important ways based on one hemisphere being more dominant than the other.

ORIGINS. This may have emerged from a misunderstanding of the split-brain work of Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry, who noticed differences in the brain when he studied people whose left and right brains had been surgically disconnected.

While it is true that specific hemispheres of the brain are responsible for generating specific functions like speech, creativity etc, it actually takes both hemispheres of the brain to process all of these functions.

Experiments conducted on brain scans in the University of Utah found that while certain pockets in the brain register high neural traffic during specific processes, neural activity is not confined to one hemisphere, thus challenging this brain dominance theory.

2. We only use 10% of our brains.

FALSE. A healthy person uses 100 percent of his or her brain.

ORIGINS. One possible origin is the reserve energy theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis in the 1890s while working with child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is a plausible claim.

However, brain imaging has yet to produce evidence of any inactive areas in a healthy brain.

See here for an entertaining and fascinating discussion on this topic from the TED Educational talks series:

3. Learning styles

FALSE. Many individuals will state preferences for the way in which they want to learn, but there is no evidence that matching a teaching technique to a preferred style will improve learning, despite this hypothesis being tested multiple times.

There may even be harms associated with the use of learning styles, wherein learners become ‘pigeonholed’, perceiving that they may not be suited to types of learning that are not matched to their ‘learning style’.

Despite this lack of evidence, a 2012 study demonstrated that a belief in the use of learning styles is widespread amongst teachers, and a 2015 study showed that the majority of research papers in higher education research mistakenly endorse the use of learning styles.

Appealing to multiple learning styles can be useful because cross-connections are created when people perform tasks in a manner different from their “preferred” cognitive style.

It’s the variety of brain regions recruited through multiple neural pathways that makes learning most effective for all learners.

4. Critical Periods

FALSE. Brain development continues well into adolescence and adulthood, especially the development of the pre-frontal lobes, which are critical for executive reasoning and decision-making.

ORIGINS. Even though the connections between neurons, called synapses, are greatest in number during childhood, many of the published studies that have to do with teaching during these “critical” time periods involved rats and mazes, not human beings.

This is the belief that the brain is plastic only during certain “critical periods”, and therefore learning must occur during these periods.

If this were true then effective educational interventions or enriched environments would have to coincide with these periods which is just not true as lifelong learning would not work.

5. Synaptogenesis Theory

Image Credit: EPR

Learning is due to the addition of new cells to the brain.

FALSE. Learning arises from changes in the connections between brain cells.

It was found that rats raised in a laboratory with an environment that is enriched with stimuli to encourage learning have 25% more synapses than controls. This effect occurs, however, whether a more stimulating environment is experienced immediately following birth, or during maturity.

6. A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backward.

FALSE. People with dyslexia have a specific difficulty with decoding written words.

For most individuals with dyslexia, this difficulty relates to the mapping of sounds to letters, rather than the visual appearance of words.

Although some individuals with dyslexia may reverse letters when reading and spelling, it is not a very common occurrence and many individuals with dyslexia do not make such reversals.

7. Mental capacity is something you are born with and cannot be changed.

FALSE. Mental abilities do have a genetic component, but they are also heavily influenced by environmental factors, and rely on adequate experience in order to develop.

This is the misconception that the brain is static, unchanging, and set before you start school.

The most widely accepted conclusion of current research in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity: Our brains grow, change, and adapt at all times in our lives.

“Virtually everyone who studies the brain is astounded at how plastic it is,” Kurt Fischer.

Read more about growth mindsets and learning techniques you can actually leverage here:


8. When we sleep, the brain shuts down.

FALSE. Patterns of brain activity shift when we go to sleep, but the brain is active 24 hours a day, whether we are sleeping or awake.

9. Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability.

FALSE. There is little consistent evidence that classical music — the so-called “Mozart effect” — has an impact on children’s reasoning ability at any age.

10. Multitasking

Image Credit: ProvideSupport.com

FALSE. The brain can’t attend to two or more attention-rich stimuli simultaneously — simply put, multitasking doesn’t work.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.

A 2000 study by Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues provides a deeper of understanding of what this means for learning. The authors discovered that there were significant differences between encoding and retrieval activities involved in processing information created through multitasking.

The researchers demonstrated that encoding requires more attention than retrieval and that divided attention during the encoding phase of learning significantly reduced memory.

Since encoding is the first of three memory stages (storage and retrieval are the other two), the implication is that the quantity and quality of memory is profoundly influenced by multitasking.

See here for more on how this works in my previous post:

In another study it was discovered that memories acquired when multitasking use the striatum, a region of the brain poorly suited to long-term memory and understanding.

Learning that happens while multitasking cannot be generalized and does not result in understanding or the ability to recall when needed. While learning without multitasking, the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in sorting, processing and recalling information, and critical for declarative memory (memory for facts and events) was active.

The distractive beeps, however, shifted activity away from the hippocampus to the striatum. The implication is that learning with the striatum leads to knowledge that cannot be generalized well.


Why We Believe

If you assumed that many of the above neuromyths were true, you are not alone. For example, regarding dyslexia, the researchers found that 76% of the general public mistakenly believe that dyslexics see words written backwards.

The researchers found that a core group of “classic” neuromyths were clustered together in the public consciousness. These included myths related to learning styles, dyslexia, the Mozart effect, right-brain/left-brain learners, and using 10 percent of the brain.

What Does Work?

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

— Bruce Lee

Avoid actions that hinder learning effectively, such as procrastination, over-learning, multi-tasking, illusions of learning, and lack of sleep.

Some key techniques to help you learn most effectively however, include:

  • Visualization, deliberate practice, spaced repetition and interleaving.
  • Moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while mild and extreme stress are detrimental to learning.
  • Adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise encourage robust learning.
  • Active learning in which the students engage the material they study through reading, writing, talking, listening and reflecting. It takes advantage of processes that stimulate multiple neural connections in the brain and promote memory.
  • Spaced learning. Neuroscientists have discovered that repeated stimuli, with precisely timed gaps, are one of the most reliable ways to convince neurons that an event is memory-worthy.
  • Metaphors and analogy. One of the best things you can do to remember, and more easily understand concepts. Often, the more visual, the better.

Why it matters: Accelerated Learning

Learning involves creating mental models of the world around us.

So gaining an insight into how our mindsets and psychological constructs work together with the explicit use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies can be leveraged as a framework to enable us to learn faster and more effectively.

In future posts, I will be diving into more detail on these individual learning strategies as well as exploring the topics of motivation, cognitive biases, fluid intelligence, mental models, growth mindsets and the pivotal roles each play in learning along with the best up-to-date tools and data analytics available for you to use right now.

In the meantime why not head over to www.optimizme.com and sign up for early access to the platform we’re building to harness the power of all of these accelerated learning strategies…

I’m really excited for you to join us as we embark on this journey to build and validate the first part of our platform — the the world’s best online course aggregator and discovery portal.

The OptmizMe Platform

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Thomas Moran

Written by

Full Stack Engineer, Blockchain and AI Enthusiast, Lifelong Learner, Founder at http://optimizme.com

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