What is a Neuromyth?
Welcome to our topic-leader post on “Neuromyths.” In case you haven’t heard the term before, or are unsure of what a neuromyth is, allow me to start off with a brief description. Basically, a neuromyth is a commonly held but incorrect belief regarding the structure or function of the human brain.
Here is a partial list of common neuromyths:
- Individual learners exhibit preferred learning styles (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic).
- We only use 10% of our brains.
- There are critical developmental periods after which certain types of knowledge cannot be learned and certain skills can no longer be acquired.
- Certain brain exercises can change the structure of the brain.
- Hemispheric dominance (left brain vs. right brain) can help explain the differences between learners.
- Brain size within the human population positively correlates to intelligence.
- Vaccines cause autism.
- Your brain cannot create new cells.
- Brain damage is always permanent.
- Drinking alcohol always destroys brains cells.
Some of these may have shocked you. Maybe you’ve even come back to this paragraph after scouring the internet in hopes of finding support for a long-held belief. You may have thought that some of these myths were actually true. Sorry, you were “myth-taken.”
How Are Neuromyths Created?
Neuroscience misconceptions usually arise from one of two sources: The misinterpretation of valid neuroscience research or the acceptance of invalid neuroscience research. In either case, the creation of the neuromyth may be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional neuromyths may be created or promulgated for the purpose of selling a product, to validate a treatment method, or to promote an otherwise unqualified subject matter expert or data source. Those that are unintentional are often accepted or spread due to a lack of knowledge or trusting an incorrect source of data.
Most neuromyths are honest misconceptions based on false or obsolete data. Often they’re a passing fad – at least until they are proven wrong. Sometimes they are flat-out fraud perpetrated to sell product or promote an otherwise unsupportable ideology. In any case, neuromyths inaccurately represent brain science research to the public. The effect can be of little consequence or it can be disastrous.
Why Should We Care About Neuromyths?
The impact of incorrect information really depends on the use to which that information is put. Think back to the days prior to the polish astronomer Copernicus. Before his proposal of heliocentrism, the common “scientific” theory was that the Sun and the planets all revolved around the earth. That idea was wrong, but what harm was it doing at the time? They could still somewhat predict the position of heavenly bodies, sunrise, sunset, and the seasons. No problem for the people of that time. Since they couldn’t achieve space travel yet, the danger was minimal. If they could have ventured into space, they certainly would not have liked the results of their calculations if they tried to land safely on the moon!
Another example might be the Victorian “science” of Phrenology. This fad was the study of a supposed relationship between cranium shape and a person’s character or mental ability. As misguided as it was, it remained a fairly benign misconception until it began to be put to “practical” use. Once the science and its derivatives, like primitive anthropometry, began to be used to deny people jobs and assess their guilt or innocence in a trial (1820’s-1840’s), or judge racial superiority (i.e., the events leading to the Rwandan Genocide), the effect of bad science went from innocuous to horrific.
The same dangers exist today when people, for whatever reason, accept the findings of invalid neurological research or in any way distort valid research. Take for example the “learning styles” or “right-brain / left brain” myths mentioned above (#1 and #5 respectively). When teachers make changes to their teaching methodologies based on these erroneous ideas, the result can be anything from learning deficiencies to emotional trauma.
All’s Well That Ends Well?
Science is constantly evolving. Widely accepted information, available at one point in time, may later prove to have been inaccurate. To some degree that’s just part of the scientific process – a means to discover more. We make the best hypothesis we can with the knowledge we have. We apply the scientific method in the hope of deriving some empirical evidence to prove or disprove our theory. If it’s proven correct we move on to the next discovery. If wrong, we re-form our hypothesis and try again. As scientists, “it’s how we roll.” Overall, it leads to progress. For example, today, primitive anthropometry has evolved into at least one science we use to genuinely improve people’s lives – we call it “ergonomics.”
Using Neuroscience Research Safely and Effectively
Good teachers are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the efficacy of their curriculum and methodology. Unfortunately, it’s this very motivation that puts us at the most risk of accepting and applying neuromyths in our face-to-face and online teaching activities. Therefore, educators who intend to apply neuroscientific research must do everything they can to ensure that research is accurate and adheres to the highest standards of scientific methodology, including being completely free from conflict of interest. To do this, we must investigate both the research and the researchers carefully.
To mitigate the dangers of attempting to put inaccurate data to practical use, organizations like Turn-Turtle Educational Media engage in a discipline called “boundary work.” That is, we work on the boundary between neuroscience research and education. We, and others like us, stay abreast of current research findings in the hope of finding new and practical educational uses for the knowledge that research neuroscientists provide.
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