Neuroscience’s evil twin: The Neuromyth

“Effective teaching might be the hardest job there is”

– William Glasser

With the advent of neuroeducation, an offspring of neuroscience and psychology that informs educational policy, educators are being bombarded with various new findings- all promising magical results and startling discoveries. It is glorious to think of scientists in lab coats using brain activations to tell layman what happens when they learn or remember, but herein lays its very danger. Much like the game of Chinese Whispers, things begin resembling the truth lesser and lesser with each passing minute. And just like that, neuroeducation switches to its ugly alter ego of neuromyths.

A neuromyth is “a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”. Neuromyths are becoming a hindrance to the education system worldwide, and the ways in which they arise are numerous (Pasquinelli, 2012).

Scientific facts, when distorted, turn into neuromyths. For example, a popular myth states that children learn better when they are taught by their preferred learning style (which can be visual, auditory or kinaesthetic); and this myth is based on the finding that these modalities are based in different parts of the brain. This however, ignores the fact that these regions are highly interconnected and that children do not actually process information better when they depend only on one modality. Therefore, scientific facts can be oversimplified and then misinterpreted.

Neuromyths can also be the result of actual scientific facts that have later been disproven. A prime example would be that of the Mozart Effect- that listening to classical music boosted one’s IQ points. This was quickly debunked, as studies failed to replicate it.

Finally, and most commonly, neuromyths can be because of the misinterpretation of scientific results. A good look at the idea of ‘critical periods’ of learning (that certain types of learning only occurs during certain times in life, especially childhood) exemplifies this. However, it is now seen that although there are prime ages for learning (eg. Acquisition of words, distinguishing between visual stimuli), this is hardly set in stone.

Teachers, or educators are more likely to fall susceptible to neuromyths possibly because of the sheer amount of information they encounter about the brain, both correct and incorrect. It could also be a backfiring effect, as teachers who are more eager to implement these neuroscientific findings out of sheer goodwill often come across neuromyths because they look for quicker solutions. What darkens the picture is the fact that neuroscience novices are no better than laypeople at distinguishing fact from reality, it is only the experts who are able to do so!

Resolving the issue of the perpetuation of neuromyths (and the horrors of products like the Brain Gym that still exist despite having no scientific backing) would be a two-way street involving increased communication from both parties: educators as well as neuroscientists. Neuroscientists need to make sure that translations of their work in the media are not miscontrued, and developers of educational products need to hire educational consultants who have credentials in the field of neuroscience. On the other hand, initial teacher training for educators should necessitate looking at findings with a critical eye, and not judging any article with brain images as more scientific (as people are found to!).  

It’s quite often that one hears of the common saying of half-baked knowledge being a dangerous thing. This, however, is much more frightening when put in regard to people who are expected to dispense knowledge- our teachers. Being consumers of knowledge, a critical appraisal of the product we consume is therefore essential.

Sneha Mani