Busting Brain Myths

The term neuromyth has been floating around the neuroscience twittersphere over the past few weeks and causing a bit of a rumble among the neuroscience […]

The term neuromyth has been floating around the neuroscience twittersphere over the past few weeks and causing a bit of a rumble among the neuroscience bloggers. In the last twenty years, neuroscience’s popularity has grown dramatically and with it, the propagation of incorrect or misinterpreted statements about the brain. But what exactly is a neuromyth, how did they come about, and can their survival be dangerous?

Brain myths: where do they come from

“Is it true we only use 10% of our brain?”

If you work in neuroscience, these types of misconceptions about how the brain works are not uncommon. The term ‘neuromyth’ has come to describe scientific findings that have been heavily skewed, misquoted or largely misinterpreted, and somehow have clawed their way into common knowledge.

These brain myths may have their origins in some form of evidentiary research, but they have been distorted or misconstrued, sometimes due to exaggerated simplification. One of the problems facing science communication is the tendency to want to over-simplify research to the point of inaccurately translating its results for the non-expert. The uncertainties and complexities of research and experimental findings cannot possibly be condensed into a simple sentence. Whatever their source, brain myths have made their rounds and are now well entrenched.

My personal favourite is the aforementioned “10% of our brain” neuromyth. Some believe that it originates from an argument by psychologist William James, who was thought to have said that ‘we never fulfill the full extent of our intelligence’. Others attribute the quote to Einstein. Now heavily distorted to refer to “brain power” in general, this common belief is, indeed, a myth. Firstly, it is very unlikely that evolution would have allowed 20% of our entire available energy supply to be sent to an organ that is only 10% active. Secondly, evidence from head injuries and stroke patients have shown us that we use our entire brain; each brain area has a specific function, and damage to even a small part of it results in an associated cognitive or behavioural deficit. For example, the infamous case of Phineas Gage, who survived an iron rod through the head, provided insurmountable evidence for the role of the frontal lobe in dictating personality. Perhaps more obscure was the case of patient LM, whose damage to a particular region in her occipital lobe was matched to her inability to see moving objects. Her case led to the characterisation of a rare condition called akinetopsia, or motion blindness, and confirmed the role of this brain area in perceiving movement.

Another favourite and similar to the “10%” myth is the belief that somehow, one side of our brain dictates our personality. The myth that “I’m a left-brain person because I’m more of a rational thinker” and “women are more right-brained and more emotional” is most likely rooted in 19th century doctrines that the brain’s two sides, or hemispheres, are isolated entities. This myth may have picked up momentum with evidence that some functions, such as language production and numerical processing, are carried out primarily in the left hemisphere. Other functions, such as emotional processing and intuition, are mainly found in the right. Neurologists Broca and Wernicke showed that the brains of patients with language difficulties, analysed post-mortem, had extensive damage to the left temporal lobe whilst the right hemisphere looked unaffected. Studies with right hemisphere damage patients note that they struggle identifying the emotional meanings of words. Gradually, these findings built the myth that a particular hemisphere can also dictate the personality traits typically associated with these functions.

Although the brain is made up of two distinct sides, these two are heavily interconnected via the corpus callosum. The hemispheres therefore cannot and do not operate in isolation. Although some tasks functions may dominate in a particular side, all cognitive functions require interaction of the left and right hemisphere. Furthermore, the implication that personality traits follow similar hemisphere preferences has absolutely no scientific validation.

Neuromyths and education

Neuromyths have trickled quite obviously into the education sector. By influencing teaching, the fear is that neuromyths are wasting time, money and motivation, and perhaps misplaces focus onto certain types of teaching methods that end up being useless or even detrimental for learning.

A perfect example has been the use of commercial ‘educational’ programmes such as the Brain Gym. Although claiming to improve brain abilities and the skills required for learning, such as auditory or visual awareness, these types of programmes have not actually been scientifically validated. Despite this, a recent survey showed that 39% of interviewed teachers have used this method, and a 2012 paper revealed that 82% of teachers in the study had encountered the program (or similar) in their schools.

The same 2012 study presented a set of neuromyths to a group of teachers and asked them whether they thought these statements were correct or incorrect. The most prevalent myths, believed by over 80% of the teachers, were the Brain Gym, the left and right brain, and the myth that certain learning styles are best suited for different students. For example, this neuromyth explains that a ‘visual learner’ would be best suited to receiving primarily visual content. There is very little evidence that this actually works, and some studies even argue that compartmentalizing a student in such a way could be harmful for his or her learning process. Of the teachers interviewed, 76% were currently using this ‘learning styles’ approach.

An interesting finding from the study was that the teachers most interested in neuroscience research in general were the ones most susceptible to believing these neuromyths. The problem with this is that these teachers are perhaps more likely to implement incorrect and potentially harmful brain based teaching strategies.

Eradicating the neuromyths

The solution? Better communication between the research being done and the teachers trying to implement it. Neuroscience research showing that a particular brain area is active in a particular task has very little direct implications for education because it was never intended for that purpose. And yet, neuromyths encourage the morphing of scientific results into something more tangible. As outlined in this blog post, we should be encouraging more scientific research that directly investigates how we learn and retain information in an educational context, so that the science that we do apply to teaching is based on validated and appropriate methods rather than misrepresented and exaggerated neuroscience.

Neuromyths have evolved from a tendency to oversimplify, misrepresent, and perhaps even sensationalise scientific evidence. The complex uncertainties of research cannot be translated into a single all encompassing sentence; attempting to do this has probably been the cause of today’s neuromyths. The detrimental effects of propagating these brain myths, particularly in the context of education, is a waste of time, money, effort and could even be harmful. The solution is to stop cutting corners when communicating science, and instead to depict it with all its warts and holes.

About Gaelle Coullon

Gaelle is a graduate student at St Johns College, studying for a DPhil in Clinical Neurosciences.