Neuromyths and adult learning

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In a previous article post I noted that we, as humanity, are in an era of replacing some well-established beliefs about human brain. This transition is also expected to change more misperceptions about concepts such as talent, intelligence, human capacity etc. All this is based on the so-called neuromyths which basically refer to commonly-held but false ideas about brain and its functions that are gradually dispelled upon scientific evidence (Howard-Jones, 2014; Torrijos-Muelas et al., 2021; OECD, 2007).

Neuromyths are generated for various reasons such as oversimplified interpretation of precious knowledge, misunderstanding of findings, warping of facts, or inadequate methodological developments during initial brain investigations (OECD, 2002). For example, brain function in the past was being examined by psychologists. However, neuroscience (=the science of the brain and nervous system) has progressed significantly during the last decades mainly due to technological and equipment advancements that allow deeper observations ‘inside’ the brain, revealing findings opposite to our previous ‘common truths’.

But what does this have to do with learning? Neuroscience can give valuable insights on our cognitive functioning which refers to how the brain learns, retrieves, and applies information or any intellectual activity in general. In fact, because of its important implications in education, a branch has been emerged forming the field of educational neuroscience (or neuroeducation; Brown & Daly, 2016; Montero & Camacho, 2019; OECD, 2007). Neuromyths, which is the focus of this short article, are directly related to educational practice as they deal with misperceptions about human ability and may work against educational achievement. Therefore, dispelling of neuromyths is essential for educators as well as learners. Below, four common neuromyths along with scientific evidence of proving wrong are discussed. Please be warned that the following facts might oppose your already established beliefs, but in any case enjoy the reading.

  • We only use 10% of our brain. As one of the most widespread and enduring false beliefs, the 10% myth most probably have come to your ears. In his effort to motivate people, Williams James in 1907 said that we often use less of our average mental and physical power and much of our resources remain unlocked (James, 1907). With the same intention, Albert Einstein answering a question about his intelligence during a radio interview, noted that he only uses 10% of his brain and encouraged people to simply think more. Without any official investigation on this statement (not even the interview recording), the 10% myth became viral and mentioned several times in books and even academic articles converting it to an accepted ‘truth’. However, later research showed that all areas of our brain are active in any given moment indicating that we use the 100% of it, even when we sleep (Beyerstein, 1987; Hughes et al., 2013; OECD, 2007). Depending on the activity, certain areas are triggered more than others each time, nonetheless there is no evidence to demonstrate that we use only the 10% of our brain. Just like other misconceptions, people converted an opinion about human potential to a brain functioning fact. Although we today know that our brain does not waste 90% of its capacity, it is still unclear about the level of our limits and potential.

 

  • The VA(R)K (visual, auditory, read/write, and kinaesthetic) learning styles. More and more teachers, educators, and students are today convinced by the idea that individuals learn better according their VA(R)K learning style. This concept arose during the 1920s by a group of some exceptional psychologists and gained much popularity throughout time. However, recent findings agree that VA(R)K is an oversimplified theory on how the brain learns and does not reflect three (or four) learner categories, as we all use more than one sense during the learning process (Bailey et al., 2018; Geake, 2008; Dekker et al., 2012; Purdy & Morrison, 2009). Moreover, other studies indicated a weak agreement between students self-reported learning style and VAK questionnaire (Krätzig and Arbuthnott, 2006), as well as teacher evaluation on students learning styles (Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2018). Although a lot of educators make use of the VA(R)K ideas in practice, from a different point of view this is detrimental for learners. Focusing on the developed or preferred learning senses only, does not allow a holistic progress of learners, which better reflect on the various work and life conditions outside the classroom (Cuevas, 2015; Newton & Salvi, 2020).

 

  • Human brain is mainly developed up to the age of three. This is often related to concepts of brain plasticity, neurogenesis, and synaptogenesis. In short, many scientists in the past had supported that neurons’ development and synaptogenesis are completed until adolescence, or by the age of three, or even until birth. For that reason, this belief was linked to the idea that rich brain stimulating environments during infancy would improve brain development, and consequently learning ability later. As a consequence, children that were not ‘lucky’ to be exposed to such environments, they would grow up condemned to their ‘lost’ capabilities. However, all this has been proved wrong. Neuroscientists today agree that plasticity is a core brain function during adulthood and synaptic connections are formed throughout the life cycle (Kelsch et al., 2010; Levitt, 2003; Lledo, & Saghatelyan, 2005; Rakic et al., 1994; Song, 2005). On the other hand, enriched environments for children do not ensure improved brain development and learning capability later in life (Goswami, 2005). In addition to this, synaptic development neither during the infancy nor during adulthood was not found to be related to a greater learning capacity (Bruer, 1998). Therefore, we would better stick to the idea that we are lifelong learners and able to develop our capabilities in any given moment of our life.

 

  • There are left-brain and right-brain learners. Certain brain functions have been repeatedly linked to each of the two brain hemispheres. For example, it is said that left hemisphere is responsible for rational and analytical tasks while the right one is for creativity and imagination. This false dichotomy about the brain is being extensively used to determine identities, personality types, or preferences and talents, which make polarisation of things even more intense. For example, if a child is doing well in math it is seen as a future analyst or accountant. If a creative curiosity is identified, then an artistic identity and profession is attributed to it. However, this appears to be another oversimplification. Split-brain experiments dispelled the theory of ‘functioning specialization’ showing that it is more complex than previously believed. For example, it has been observed that both hemispheres are involved equally and communicate during both creative and analytical tasks (Helding, 2014). In fact, most functions require both hemispheres to work simultaneously despite the fact the certain areas are activated more each time (Corballis, 2014; Della Sala, 2007; Wager et al., 2003; Zalewski et al., 1992). Therefore, it might be naïve to view various disciplines as opposite and categorize people and abilities. In addition, you could probably know people that are excellent in analytical tasks and at the same time admired about their creativity!

Neuromyths have emerged from proving our beliefs and perceptions wrong upon scientific evidence. We need to trust science, but at the same time stay humble in front of evidence as contradictory findings are always possible. A single study cannot justify a fact. During the last decades we made great steps as humanity on the exploration of human brain, and it is possible that much more will follow. We need to expect findings that will opposed our beliefs and remain open to accept them. Beside this, we still know very little about brain which remains to be the most complex ‘machine’ that exist on earth.

 

Demos Michael is project researcher at CARDET (Center for the Advancement of Research & Development in Educational Technology) while his expertise focuses on educational research. He is interested in topics related to equity and inclusion of educational effectiveness, as well as non-cognitive processes that affect academic achievement. More specific fields of interest are motivation, achievement choices, expectancy beliefs, mindset, perseverance, persistence, self-efficacy and others. He has been recently involved in the implementation of various projects in adult education and other research activities. He believes that all individuals have a special capability on at least one domain where they can develop genius.

References

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This article was first published on EPALE.

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