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False beliefs about the brain, but true neuromyths!

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Published the 1/17/2021

In the field of cognitive science, some of the most widespread and persistent misunderstandings about the function of the brain and its role in learning are called neuromyths. They are one of the objects of study in the field of neuroethics. They consist of the spread of misconceptions that can affect many areas, including the scientific approach to education. Indeed, in recent times, an increasing number of misconceptions about the brain and learning have begun to circulate. Education is concerned by these neuromyths, which often take the form of theories about how we learn. They are based on scientifically accurate facts, which makes them all the more difficult to identify and refute. These neuromyths are incomplete, exaggerated or even completely false. It therefore seems important to disqualify them in order to avoid too great an impact on the school system. Neuromyths are difficult to dispel because they are based on, or may contain, elements of proven science.

The Brain and Learning project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the United Kingdom defines a neuromyth as "a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, misreading or scientific underestimation put in place (by brain research) to argue for the use of brain research in education or other contexts" (OECD, 2002).

Causes of the onset and maintenance of neuromyths

Neuromyths often result from the excessive generalisation of scientific research. For example, research on hemispheric specialisation and dominance has given rise to the myth that people have a brain on the right or left, and that the balance between the two is a desirable effect that should not be taken for granted. As a result, special training is offered to bring the brain into balance. This neuromyth is partly the result of discoveries in neuropsychological literature and neuroimagery demonstrating the lateralization of certain cognitive skills, namely language. The fact that some neuromyths are vaguely based on misunderstood or over-exaggerated discoveries may make some of them difficult to dispel.
Some neuromyths are distortions of scientific facts, i.e. they result from oversimplifications of scientific findings. They may also be the product of scientific hypotheses that are maintained for a certain period of time and then abandoned due to the emergence of new evidence, as in the case of the Mozart effect. The Mozart effect claims that listening to Mozart would improve spatial skills. Demonstrated in a few studies, this effect was eventually discredited by new research, but it still cost the governor of Georgia (USA) $105,000, who invested in music CDs to supposedly promote the development of newborns.

Myths can arise from misinterpretations of certain results. This is the case with the myth of the first three years, which asserts that learning depends only on neuron growth and activity, and that no other period is as effective as the first three years of life for learning (in general), because this is the limited window of time during which synaptic growth occurs. The myth does not take into account the different stages of maturation of the human brain and the prolonged learning of life based on functional rather than anatomical brain plasticity.

We see neuroscience everywhere!

Neurophilia is a phenomenon that affects both science and public opinion. It is a matter of systematically seeking biologically determined and causal explanations, without taking into account other factors, such as psychological explanations. Neurophilia, or Brain-hypnosis, does not only affect the field of education. Indeed, neurosciences are now part of popular culture: they are present in fictions, advertisements, promotions, the media... This public presence poses two major problems related to the generation of neuromyths. The first concerns the media, which does not report the true data of neurosciences and brain imaging faithfully (67% of the data that the media transmit does not come from this technology). The second is a factor related to imagery and general thinking, which says that imaging techniques will allow direct access to thoughts, without taking into account complex processes. All this creates judgemental biases, favouring the emergence of neuromyths.

Teachers and educators - sometimes under influence

If the media have their share of responsibility in the generation of neuromyths, neuroscience is also a field that lends itself to misunderstanding and false beliefs. It seems difficult to read an image resulting from a brain imaging without first having the specific skills to understand it. Images from imaging techniques have a strong influence as they are more read and believed by scientists and people in general, compared to text or graphics. The same applies to neuroscientific jargon: people tend to believe more information using neuroscientific jargon, even if it is false. Neuroscience is more attractive because it seems more concrete and, for individuals, provides a solid scientific basis (= reductionism). This is where teachers can be influenced by neuromythics. One might also think that educators, who are sensitive to critical thinking, would not be sensitive to neuromyths and their transmission. However, the increase in the number of pseudo-scientific and supposedly brain-based teaching methods attests that neurophilia has acquired an interest in education in a way that can be confusing and that an effort is needed to separate the false from the true. Indeed, scientists and educators are not working together to produce common educational theories and practices inspired by the functioning of the cognitive-brain pair and consistent with the goals of education. It is likely that in such a framework, the number of neuromyths would be considerably reduced.

The proliferation of neuromyths due to multiple factors

Neurophilia and the interpretation of neuroscience are not the only causes of the proliferation of neuromyths. Illusions, heuristics and reasoning biases contribute to the birth and reinforcement of neuromyths, notably through the resilience of misconceptions. Illusions concern common beliefs that are resistant to knowledge, even if the person acknowledges the error, the illusion persists. Heuristics (see the article in the neuropsychology section on "Heuristics") and biases are shortcuts, automatic paths facilitating decision making which can sometimes produce deviations from what is considered rational reasoning. These shortcuts taken by cognitive biases are very present and favour the appearance of neuromyths and their stabilisation over time. We can therefore think that a certain number of cognitive biases favour the persistence and transmission of neuromyths.

Interpret to confirm ingrained biais

Pasquinelli (2012) linked three cognitive biases to neuromythesis. The first is the soothing function that certain neuromyths seem to fulfil, facilitating false beliefs. Adherence to neuromyths has been correlated with the educational precariousness of the country. When teachers are poorly paid, when the level of pupils' examinations is low, neuromyths are more present due to the complexity of certain school situations.

Confirmation bias is also widespread. This is the tendency to seek out or interpret new information in a way that confirms previous beliefs. It involves the search for evidence that is compatible with one's own assumptions and the denial, rejection or distortion of evidence that is not. Although confirmation bias is a cognitive phenomenon, it can be fuelled by the desire to find evidence to support our beliefs. Confirmation bias can also foster a propensity for correlation, which is the perception of a statistical association between two phenomena that ultimately have no effect on the other. For example, sleeping with shoes is correlated with waking up with a headache. Can we conclude from this that sleeping with shoes causes a headache? A more likely explanation is that these two events are the result of too much drinking. Correlation does not mean causality! Specifically, confirmation bias may predispose teachers to be concerned about positive results and to forget missed results and thus overestimate their interventions associated with subsequent improvement. Confirmation bias also has the advantage of helping us to resolve conflicts within conflicting information (as in the Mozart effect) by confirming our own opinions. An educator will therefore be more likely to look for scientific sources that support his or her false belief rather than the other way around.

The third bias concerns conceptual change. For Deaudelin, Richer & Dussault (2005), conceptual change refers to the process of modifying a person's mental representations. These representations are made up of constructs, concepts and beliefs, maintaining relations between them. Conceptual change is made up of three different degrees of change that refer to a simple addition, a slight restructuring and a major restructuring of these representations. This definition of conceptual change evokes the teacher's difficulty in updating his mental representations, concepts and beliefs, which echoes Pasquinelli's more singular definition. For Pasquinelli (2012), the expression conceptual change was coined to describe the difficult task of overcoming false beliefs. These distorted ideas and beliefs are often resilient because of the cognitive coherence system (we remain coherent in our beliefs, even when they are false we continue to believe them). They include metacognitive illusions which result in an optimistic view (overestimation) of our cognitive capacities, which can therefore also lead to adherence to certain neuromyths, such as the belief that humans use only 10% of their brain capacity.

Doudin, Tardif & Meylan (2015) describe a fourth bias corresponding to that of availability. It describes the tendency of teachers to rely on first available sources rather than verified statistics. The authors also refer to the tendency to forget the source of information and its validity. These two aspects of the availability bias could, in their view, partly explain the resilience of neuromyths, irrespective of their scientific and practical value.

References :

Deaudelin, C., Richer, J. & Dussault, M. (2005). Changement conceptuel chez des enseignants en situation de développement professionnel : une méthode d’analyse. Nouveaux cahiers de la recherche en éducation, 8, (1), 169–185.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educ. Res. 50, 123–133.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews. Neuroscience. 7, 406–413.

Howard-Jones, P. A., Franey, L., Mashmoushi, R., & Liao, Y.-C. (2009). The neuroscience literacy of trainee teachers. Paper presented at British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Manchester.

Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, (October).

Lilienffeld, S., Ritschel, L., Lynn, S., Cautin, R., Latzman, R. (2014). Why ineffective psychotherapies appear to work : a taxonomy of causes spurious therapeutic effectiveness. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, (4), 355-387.

Macdonald, K., Germine, L., Anderson, A., Christodoulou, J., & McGrath, L. M. (2017). Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(AUG), 1–16.

McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition. 107, 343–352.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2002). Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. Paris : OECD.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2007). Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science, Paris : OECD.

Pasquinelli, E. (2011). Knowledge- and Evidence-Based Education: Reasons, Trends, and Contents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(4).

Pasquinelli, E. (2012). Neuromyths: why do they exist and persist? Mind, Brain, and Education, 6, 89–96.

Pickering, S. J., & Howard-Jones, P. (2007). Educators’ views on the role of neuroscience in education: findings from a study of UK and international perspectives. Mind, Brain, and Education. 1, 109–113.

Tardif, E., Doudin, P., & Meylan, N. (2015). Illusions et biais. In E. Tardif & P.-A. Doudin, Neurosciences et cognition : perspectives pour les sciences de l’éducation (pp. 66-68). Louvain-La-Neuve : De Boeck supérieur

Waterhouse, L. (2006). Inadequate evidence for multiple intelligences, mozart effect, and emotional intelligence theories. Educ. Psychol.41, 247–255.


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