Why do we believe so many misconceptions about the brain, or “Neuromyths”? According to one study, the public believed 68% of common Neuromyths, especially when findings were accompanied by brain images (and even when the underlying science was faulty).
In this article, we will bust two of the most popular Neuromyths and discuss the reasons behind their allure – namely the cognitive biases of overgeneralization and oversimplification.
Myth 1: Debunking Learning Styles and the Oversimplification Bias:
One of the most trusted education Neuromyths is the theory of learning styles – that students have auditory, visual, or kinetic preferences for learning. In one study, up to 96% of teachers believed and applied this theory in their classroom. However, multiple research groups have revealed there is insufficient evidence to support the idea of one dominant learning style.
This neuromyth came out of a misinterpretation of how specific regions of the cortex have specific roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing (occipital, temporal, and parietal lobes, respectively). This specialization created the assumption that students should learn differently “according to which part of their brain works better,” explains neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones in his Nature piece on debunking learning styles. But, “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”
The cognitive bias underlying the learning style neuromyth is oversimplification – we tend to rely on a single factor or framework to explain all of behavior, when in reality this is an oversimplification of human complexity. In the last 20 years the field of neuropsychology has shifted to emphasize the MANY factors that influence learning and cognition styles, such as: genetics, cellular and molecular profile, environmental factors, stress level, mindset, goal, and more.
So, describing yourself as a “visual” or “kinetic” learner is catchy but invalid. Broaden your thinking to consider the many factors that impact cognition – and this will help you better cater your environment to your learning needs.
Myth #2: Debunking Left versus Right and the Overgeneralization Bias:
Another hugely popular brain concept is that the two hemispheres of our brain can help explain personality traits or skills. Right brained people are supposed to be intuitive, creative, and qualitative, while left brained people are more analytical and quantitative. Left vs. Right brain is an easy framework to use, but unfortunately there is no scientific evidence to show that personality traits come from one particular area or side of the brain. Even further, there is no evidence that being strong in the left hemisphere means you are weak in your right. One study found that brain scans of individuals demonstrated similar activity on both sides of the brain, regardless of one’s personality.
This very common Neuromyth comes from an overgeneralization of scientific evidence: studies demonstrate lateralization (or one-sidedness) to certain cognitive skills and behaviors. For example, the right half of the brain controls movement of the left arm and leg (and vice versa) and the control center for language resides in the left side of the brain (for most people). However, the reality is that while some basic functions are localized to specific regions of the brain, any complex behavior and cognition attributed to the right or left hemispheres is actually much better explained by talking about interconnected networks spread across the entire brain.
Here is the good news. If you’ve always thought of yourself as a numbers rather than art person, that doesn’t have to change. But it’s inaccurate to think or talk about these traits coming from one side of your brain – and even further that being a numbers person should hold you back from discovering your creative side.
As we saw in our last article “Debunking the Lizard Brain,” there are many misconceptions circulating out there – myths about how the brain works, what it is, and what all of this means for how we should live our lives and structure our societies. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for believing Neuromyths. Instead, our wish is that you become aware of cognitive biases and curious about the underlying evidence whenever you hear a Neuromyth.
Our brains evolved oriented towards survival – not truth, reason, or answers – so we’re bound to make some mistakes. That we don’t automatically have all the answers is part of what makes this journey of learning and applying Neuroeducation so exciting. Welcome on this fascinating ride along with us.
Written by: Wendy Swire (Head of the DC Neuroleadership Group) and Daisy Banta (Head of Research, DC Neuroleadership Group)