How to become a brain myth buster

Reading time: 7 minutes

Did you know that the more you are interested in how the brain works, the more likely you are to believe in neuromyths? Neuromyths are common misconceptions about the brain. Their source can be innocent — people who genuinely believe in those myths — or plain unethical, such as the case of marketers promoting brain fiction so they can sell dubious products to help customers achieve their full potential.

Neuromyths are particularly prevalent in education. Researchers from the Department of Educational Neuroscience at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam explain: “Teachers who read popular science magazines achieved higher scores on general knowledge questions. More general knowledge also predicted an increased belief in neuromyths. These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.”

As we will see, while the sources of neuromyths can sometimes be innocent, their effects can be harmful, especially in a learning environment. But the good news is: anyone can become a brain myth buster and contribute to dispelling neuromyths, whether in education, at work, or in their daily lives.

Brain fact versus brain fiction

According to a systematic review of 24 scientific articles investigating the prevalence of neuromyths, some of the most common ones among teachers, educators, and trainers include the beliefs that…

  • People learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.
  • The first three years of a child’s life determine whether or not they will grow into a successful person (also known as the 3-year myth).
  • Differences in hemispheric dominance can help explain individual differences among learners, for instance “right-brained” people are thought to be better at artistic expression and creativity, and left-brained people to be more comfortable with logical thoughts and calculations.
  • We only use 10% of our brain capacity.
  • Children are less focused after consuming sugary drinks or snacks.
  • Listening to classical music helps make us smarter (also known as the Mozart Effect)

And the list goes on. In a fascinating study about brain myths, researchers asked more than 3,800 people whether they believed in specific statements about the brain. Some of the participants were educators, others were scientists and doctors, and yet others were just members of the general public.

The results of the study were striking. Almost 80% of scientists and doctors believed in one of the brain myths, 43% of them believed in the Mozart Effect — which, as we’ve seen, has no basis in scientific evidence — and almost 50% of educators believed that people are either right-brained or left-brained. As you can see, neuromyths are very common. The problem is that they are also very dangerous.

The dangers of brain fiction

There’s a popular saying that goes: “It’s not so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble, it’s the things we think we know that aren’t so.” There are lots of things we think we know about the brain that aren’t so. But what kind of trouble are we talking about? Believing in neuromyths may seem harmless, but it really isn’t. Neuromyths can lead to:

  1. Wasted potential. If a student is struggling with mathematics and their teacher believes that people are either right-brained or left-brained, that teacher may just stop supporting the student with mathematics — focusing instead on areas where the student is more comfortable. Many talented people did not find their craft easy at first, and believing that believing that some brains are just not “designed” for certain skills may prevent some students from exploring less obvious learning paths.
  2. Misspending. Brain fiction also makes us waste money — whether it’s corporate money, government money, or personal money. Companies are paying for expensive training based on neuromyths, and governments are heavily investing in pseudoscientific educational programmes (a famous example is Brain Gym in the United States).
  3. Discrimination. Finally, brain fiction can be leveraged to support discriminatory practices in education. For example, Leonard Sax, who used to run the National Association for Single Sex Public Education in the U.S., said that boys and girls should be taught differently and separately because of differences in their brains (“girls are using the cerebral cortex while boys are using the hippocampus”).

Whether it’s to avoid wasted potential, misspending, or discrimination, dispelling those dangerous misconceptions about the brain is important for the future of education. And anyone — that means you too — can join the fight.

Becoming a brain myth buster

To become a brain myth buster, we need to ask ourselves: why do we believe in brain fiction? Several factors contribute to the emergence and proliferation of neuromyths.

First, these are remarkably appealing ideas. To believe in the 10% myth is to believe that we may have some untapped potential which we could unlock should we use the right techniques or tools. To believe we are right-brained or left-brained offers a practical excuse to focus on our strengths rather than aim for a well-rounded education.

Researchers have also blamed the inaccessibility of empirical research, which is often hidden behind paywalls, fostering an increased reliance on media reports rather than the original research, as well as the lack of professionals trained to bridge the disciplinary gap between education and neuroscience.

Becoming a brain myth buster requires critical thinking, curiosity, and access to evidence-based sources of information about the brain. Whenever you hear a new claim about the brain, look it up using one of the following resources:

  • BrainFacts.org — And in particular their neuromyths database which answers questions such as “Can you learn in your sleep?”, “Does using your non-dominant hand make you smarter?” and more. The website is run by a group of global nonprofit organizations (the Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and the Society for Neuroscience)  as a public information initiative, not by marketers trying to sell you a brain-training app.
  • OECD database — The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD has published a collection of neuromyths which they thoroughly debunk. These include neuromyths around multilingualism, learning styles, enriched environments, and more.
  • Books about neuromyths — There are two books that are particularly interesting if you want to learn about some of the most common myths. The first one is Great Myths of the Brain, which takes more of a neuroscientific angle, and the second one is 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, which is an easier read and includes many myths rooted in psychology.
  • Blogs of brain myth busters — There are many blogs that are excellent resources, such as Neurocritic, Neurobollocks, and Neurobonkers. Dr Christian Jarrett, the author of the Great Myths of the Brain book has a blog about brain myths. While not updated anymore, Neuroskeptic offers an amazing collection of articles debunking brain fiction and getting the brain facts straight.
  • Applied neuroscience resources — You could also learn more about applied neuroscience by taking a course from a reputable university, or joining one of the many professional organizations offering training that can help you become a brain myth buster. For example, the Centre for Educational Neuroscience regularly hosts events about neuromyths.

After you are done checking a claim about the brain, you can even make a note of it by adding it to your note-taking app and tagging it as “brain fact” or “brain fiction” — after a while you will have your own personal database of information about the brain, which you can use to quickly look up a claim while having conversations with colleagues, friends, or family.

Finally, of course, there is Ness Labs! To celebrate Brain Awareness Week, we hosted an interactive session about brain fiction where we dispelled some of the most common myths. You can watch the recording here and download an editable template to host your own brain myth busting game. Have fun becoming a brain myth buster!

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