Neuro Myth, So What?
Why Should We Care About Neuromyths?
In this final of our three-part series on Neuromyths, we ask the ultimate question: So What? WHY should executive coaches, educators, business leaders and consultants think and care about debunking neuromyths? We are not neuroscientists. How does valuing scientific integrity impact us in Applied Neuroscience. There are two compelling reasons that apply to all of us broadly about the Why.
Recognizing when to use and not use scientific models
As the famous quote from E.P Box goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The scientific process is often misunderstood. It does not reveal “truth” but rather relies on running experiments over and over to find replicable results—which eventually become trustworthy enough to get to be called facts. Facts then get assembled together into general theories about how the world works. Therefore, theories and models are always a work in progress. It is best to think of them as metaphors and approximations of the world based on the best evidence available at the time.
Let’s go back to Neuroscience here: Dr. Paul Mclean’s Lizard Brain theory was based on his experiments using the best technology at the time (microscopes). When advanced genetic testing became available years later, neuroscience had to adjust the theory to accommodate new insights and technology rendering Lizard Brain inaccurate science.
A take-away is neuroscience, in fact any science, offers tools but not the truth. Here are two tips to use going forward:
- Look for the evidence. If there aren’t reliable and replicable studies to back bold claims, then it is likely ideology, not science.
- Think like a scientist and be open to being wrong. If a brain fact, tip, or trick just doesn’t seem to be helping you, rethink your own interpretation or seek out an alternate insight.
Beliefs about your own brain and neuroscience impact behavior and world views.
Let’s share an example of how your own beliefs and using neuroscience can help shape behavior regarding something as important as decision-making. Let’s go back to the idea of the Lizard Brain – that emotions and instincts are lower-order compared to rationality and reason. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio at San Diego University has spent his life’s work uncovering the integral role that our bodies and emotions play in decision-making. We know the prefrontal cortex / executive brain does not work alone, but rather relies on emotional and somatic brain circuits for decision-making. Tapping in to our feelings instead of trying to override them will help provide greater insight and wisdom. In turn, by ignoring Lizard Brain, it will help you become a smarter and more compassionate decisionmaker.
We also wrote about beliefs in Learning Styles and Left vs. Right Brain. These neuro myths are ideas that supposedly reveal how to learn most effectively or whether to pursue left vs. right brain activities (art vs. math). However, solid studies in the field of neuroeducation have shown that teaching kids about neurons and neuroplasticity, rather than these two neuromyths, better encourages a growth mindset—which not only enhances performance in many areas of school and life, but also improves self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability).
A key take away here is always start with yourself. Intentionally seek out and consume evidence-based findings about the brain and behavior and think critically about whether those findings are shaping your behavior and worldview for the better.
Accumulating evidence in neuroscience is that our underlying neurobiology is an immensely complex and interconnected system—ironically probably too complex to completely comprehend itself – just as our interactions with the world and people around us are also becoming increasingly complicated.
To help manage this complexity, we then use communication tactics and cognitive heuristics to simplify brain science down into digestible models—hence metaphors like the Lizard Brain to make it less confusing. Knowledge is power but should be wielded carefully.
Here’s our best advice: Take a curious but hesitant stance when consuming scientific information and become aware of how your own neuroeducation shapes you for better or worse. Ask yourself the key question: “How is this model or metaphor serving me?”
If a piece of neuro knowledge is evidence-based, if it helps your find peace, improves relationships or performance, or helps you achieve goals without harming others, then we believe it is helpful and worthwhile.
Wendy Swire (head, founder of DC Neuroleadership Group)
Daisy Banta (head of research, DC Neuroleadership Group)
June 8, 2021