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Neuroscience Myths

Neuroscience Myths in Education

According to common belief, there are many paranormal phenomena of our brains that we have not tapped into. So why don’t we try to make them real? Are they real?

Wouldn’t you like to be like Bradley Cooper’s character from Limitless, who after taking a magical pill, managed to write his book in four days, and went on to become a financial wizard?

It would probably help with the finals, wouldn’t it? That pill allowed using 100 percent of the brain’s abilities. What was that pill made of? Maybe it contained knocked-out doses of fish oils? Who knows!

Joking aside, nowadays neuromyths – myths about the brain – are truly widespread in many aspects of our everyday life. Education is no exception. On the contrary, it is one of the fields with the most myths.

Neuroscientific developments are highly important for enhancing learning efficiency. That is why Y Skills Institute is interested in them.

Modern technologies allow applying various novel techniques and approaches in the classroom. And that’s great!

On the one hand, the gap between neuroscience and education is getting smaller, while, on the other hand, it is getting even larger. Why? As they say, “We wanted the best, you know the rest.”

Proven brain science research is being distorted through misunderstanding or misinterpretation, and we should put a stop to this. Lia Commissar, a project manager at a biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust, explains the reasons why these myths gain such traction: “They seem to persist because they are easy to understand, fit everyday observation, are heavily promoted or are easy to implement,” she said. “However, unfortunately, they often have little or no evidence supporting the impact they will have on learning.”

Neuroscience can make effective learning possible, but it has to be used appropriately. So let’s debunk these myths.

“There’s generally a seed of truth underlying all these myths when you dig into them and try to understand where they come from. But they’ve been quite distorted and that’s troubling,” said Paul Howard-Jones, a researcher at the Centre for Mind and Brain in Educational and Social Contexts at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. “At the same time, there’s some valuable information about the brain that may be a help in the classroom, if we can find a way to effectively communicate it.”

Here is a list of top five the most common neuromyths:

#1 Our brain isn’t at its full working capacity

It has already been mentioned that most people think that we use only 10 percent of our brains. Are you one of them?

According to the surveys, about 40-60 percent of education specialists share this opinion. The popularity of this neuromyth is also much corroborated by sci-fi works and by our unconscious desire for developing latent abilities of our brains.

Indeed, there is no consensus on the origin of this belief. Some believe that it comes from an essay by William James, American philosopher and educator, titled “The Powers of Men”. In this work he wrote that people “use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess”.

Others believe that the myth originates from the theory of “uncommitted” brain areas. About a century ago, when researchers were stimulating parts of the brain using electrodes, they noticed that only 10 percent of the brain was active, so they considered the other 90 percent “uncommitted”, showing no reaction to a particular stimulus.

According to many studies, the truth is that our brain is at its full working capacity all the time, although not all neurons are firing simultaneously. The brain has a so-called ‘default mode’ that represents a sophisticated network of brain parts that are active when seemingly at rest.

With the help of brain imaging techniques, it is possible to see what is really going on with the brain under various conditions. However, such images have partly proved this neuromyth.

If you look at an image made with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), you will probably see that it looks like only small parts of the brain are active, but, in fact, this is a co-product of the way information is processed.

There are operations of varying complexity. When an operation is more complex, certain areas of the brain (which perform it) need more oxygenated blood; correspondingly this results in differences in fMRI images in one region compared to another.

The faith in our untapped potential motivates us to find a key for ‘unlocking’ it. The good news is that such efforts are not futile. Our brain has an exceptional capacity for alteration, which is called plasticity.

Whenever we get a new memory – i.e., when we remember someone’s name or number, recall some facts, or develop a new skill – our brains change.

Memories are kept as patterns of activities between neurons, and after learning something novel, new synapses – the points where nerve impulses are transmitted and received – are formed. We can widen our brain ‘vault’ only through constant practicing. The more we practice by memorizing and recalling, the more volume of our brains will be available for storing new information.

#2 Being left-brained or right-brained thinkers

What kind of thinker do you consider yourself? A left-brained one, someone who is better at the exact sciences and hates writing essays? Or a right-brained one, someone who prefers to learn poems by heart than solve some math problems or equations?

This myth comes from the 1960s when three researchers – Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph Bogen – carried out ‘split brain’ studies. Patients, mostly if whom suffered from epilepsy, were operated on, and the results of the procedure of severing corpus callosum – a bundle of neural fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres – showed huge differences between the sides of the brain.

These neural fibers block communication between hemispheres, which in turn results in significant changes in ability to perceive and describe some information.

Later, the results of the research were transformed into ‘hemispheric dominance’, which can be found in many popular books and journals used by many educators.

Currently, there are a lot of pedagogical approaches that help a teacher find the right way to teach students, depending on the peculiarities of their brain’s abilities.

M. Gazzaniga couldn’t imagine that 40 years ago his research would become so popular and somewhat distorted. He says, “It took off and really had its own life. And it makes sense if you think about it in terms of a very easy way to explain what you knew about brain mechanisms and cognitive abilities. But it’s overly simplified and overstated.”

Only recently, with the help of modern technologies, researchers have been able to analyze the structure and functions of lateralisation (i.e., patterns of brain organization related to hemispheric dominance).

The studies have shown that language relates to the left part of the brain and visual-spatial processing, as well as creativity and taking context into account, relates to the right one. However, language is not solely left-brained.

Only phonological processing depends on the left hemisphere, while the right one is responsible for understanding the context and meaning of language. In truth, the two hemispheres perform almost all operations in tandem.

As for being left-brained or right-brained, individuals differ in structural and functional lateralisation. Handedness is an illustrative example of such differences. However, people do not demonstrate a general hemispheric dominance.

Thus, all the methods, aimed at balancing processing in the two parts of the brain by mixing creative and analytical aspects in tasks, are not effective in scientific terms. Yet they have advantages, such as attracting students’ attention and making lessons more interesting.

#3 Sugary snacks cause children’s hyperactivity

Have you ever watched the movie called See Spot Run, where a kid wasn’t allowed to eat sugary snacks, and his neighbor let him try some? The result was a super hyperactivity. Has it ever happened to you as a child or to your kids? We suppose it hasn’t.

Now, it is hard to say where this myth originates from. In the 1970s, it was believed that school-aged children might suffer from cognitive deficits by consuming sugary foods. Later some correlation research revealed that children become much more active and much less attentive after eating food high in sugar.

Harris Lieberman, diet and cognition researcher from U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, explains, “For some reason, nutrition and behavior generate a lot of mythology. However, in the controlled studies that investigated whether sugar versus placebo made children more hyperactive and interfered with their ability to concentrate, it’s clear that sugar was not linked to hyperactivity in kids.”

Some parents and teachers do see the relation between sugar intake and children’s behavior, and it’s hard to reassure them. Maybe it would be helpful if children do not eat sweets during their studying?

#4 Differences in learning styles

There are particular ways of perceiving information that we prefer while learning. But are they really our ‘learning styles’? Do they help us to study better, or do they simply pin labels on us?

According to the VAK model, learners are typically divided into three categories: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic.

Auditory learners perform more efficiently after attending lectures or taking part in discussions. Visual learners absorb information better when it is presented via charts, diagrams, pictures or images. And kinaesthetic learners cannot sit still for long periods the time – body movement or handout material manipulation is the best way for them to learn new information.

Most teachers all over the world try to adapt to students’ preferences in order to make educational process as effective as possible.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of supporting evidence of such learning divisions, and only a few empirical studies have been carried out so far. Students were given new material according to their preferred learning styles, and then they demonstrated the knowledge they received.

The results of these studies have not proven the learning styles theory. On the contrary, these studies demonstrated that there is no link between reported learning styles of students and their performance. Even so, there are still many commercial tools for measuring learning styles of students, most of which are time-consuming and not cheap.

Of course, the way that material is presented in the classroom remains critical, but the determining factor of choosing the ‘right way’ should be the content of the material rather than learners’ preferences. It is evident that some materials presented in multiple modalities can be beneficial for all students — for example, while listening about cellular texture, it is necessary to see a picture of it or even view it under the microscope.

#5 Gender differences in cognitive abilities

This is an ambiguous statement because there are some biological differences between males and females, but the truth is that these differences are overemphasized in modern society. It is believed that boys are better at technical subjects and girls are better at humanities. Such beliefs may influence the school subjects that students pursue, or the future careers that boys and girls choose.

The myth of cognitive gender differences has been caused by the misinterpretation of specific terms describing cognitive styles used by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge, in his work The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain.

Dr. Baron-Cohen was investigating cognitive patterns in autistic people. He made an assumption that autism may be an extreme form of the “male brain” because, according to his studies, men are better at understanding mechanical systems (systemizers), while women are at understanding others and communicating (empathisers).

Hundreds of tests have been carried out to determine group gender differences. Some of them have proven Baron-Cohen’s theory of systemizers and empathisers, as girls showed person-oriented preferences and boys showed systems and machines preferences.

However, the results of other tests, such as word fluency tests, show that most differences in performing certain tasks are caused by the strategies men and women apply.

For example, if you ask a woman to name animals, she may start listing domestic animals and then move on to wild animals, whereas a man may try to recall all domestic animals he knows that will take more time and result in a shorter list.

Regardless, we cannot deny that almost all math professors are men. How can it be possible? If we think about our time in school, surely we can remember some of our female classmates who were A students, not only in math but across all subjects. Why haven’t they become math professors?

The answer is attitude and societal expectation. Parents make girls think they are not as competent in math as boys are by supporting this myth in everyday communication.

If teachers, in turn, give tests emphasizing that boys can perform better, then boys will perform better. But if teachers say that a test is as easy for boys as for girls, or simply do not mention anything at all, boys do not show better results than girls; sometimes they even underperform.

So do not think you are unable to learn something just because you're a woman or a man. All those tales you used to hear about your possible incompetence have nothing to do with your cognitive abilities. Just don’t think about them. All you need is to find the most effective strategies, approaches or tools that will help you learn whatever you want.

PROPERLY SELECT WHAT YOU LEARN

Of course, there are many more myths than just these five. But the neuromyths that we described all demonstrate the importance of selecting information before using it in a teaching environment.

That is why Y Skills Institute strives for debunking myths and introducing only real scientific conclusions into an educational setting.

And, yes, fish oils containing Omega-3 fatty acids are very good for your health, but they don’t have beneficial effects on the health of the brain. These acids are vital during fetal development, when embryo organs become fully developed, and during first two years of life. Unfortunately, they do not improve learning.