Tatiana Chekryzhova/Shutterstock
Source: Tatiana Chekryzhova/Shutterstock

Neuromyths are common misconceptions about how the mind and brain function. Once these myths take hold in the public consciousness, it’s often difficult for people to separate brain facts from fiction. Previous research has found that belief in neuromyths is common among the general public, as well as teachers, in other countries. But until recently, there was little empirical evidence about the extent of neuromyths in the United States.

A new study by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from academic institutions including McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, American University, MGH Institute of Health Professions, the University of Denver, and the University of Houston reports that neuromyths are surprisingly common, both in the general population and among those who have taken classes in mind-brain science. The findings were published August 10 in Frontiers in Psychology.

According to the authors, “This study is the first to use a large sample from the United States to compare the prevalence and predictors of neuromyths among educators, the general public, and individuals with high neuroscience exposure.”

Kelly Macdonald of The Development Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Houston played a key role in spearheading this study. During her early training to become a teacher, Macdonald encountered neuromyths being perpetuated in the classroom and was curious to see how widespread neuromyths were among various groups of Americans. 

For this study, Macdonald and colleagues gathered survey responses and demographics via an online survey hosted by TestMyBrain.org. This survey asks a variety of questions about your background and then asks respondents to choose "True" or "False" in response to a series of 32 questions about common neuromyths. Below are eight highlights taken directly from the quiz:  

1. Some of us are 'left-brained' and some are 'right-brained,' and this helps explain differences in how we learn.

FALSE. The left and right hemispheres of the brain work together. There is not strong evidence that people's learning differs in important ways based on one hemisphere being more dominant than the other.

2. Brain development has finished by the time children reach puberty.

FALSE. Brain development continues well into adolescence and adulthood, especially the development of the frontal lobes, which are important for decision-making.

3. Learning is due to the addition of new cells to the brain.

FALSE. Learning arises from changes in the connections between brain cells.

4. A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backward.

FALSE. People with dyslexia have a specific difficulty with decoding written words. For most individuals with dyslexia, this difficulty relates to the mapping of sounds to letters, rather than the visual appearance of words. Although some individuals with dyslexia may reverse letters when reading and spelling, it is not a very common occurrence and many individuals with dyslexia do not make such reversals. (Click here for more.)

5. Mental capacity is hereditary and cannot be changed by environment or experience.

FALSE. Mental abilities do have a genetic component, but they are also heavily influenced by environmental factors, and rely on adequate experience in order to develop.

6. We only use 10 percent of our brain.

FALSE. A healthy person uses 100 percent of his or her brain.

7. When we sleep, the brain shuts down.

FALSE. Patterns of brain activity shift when we go to sleep, but the brain is active 24 hours a day, whether we are sleeping or awake.

8. Listening to classical music increases children's reasoning ability.

FALSE. There is little consistent evidence that classical music (the so-called "Mozart effect") has an impact on children's reasoning ability at any age.

Why We Believe

If you assumed that many of the above neuromyths were true, you are not alone. For example, regarding dyslexia, Macdonald et al. found that 76 percent of the general public, 59 percent of educators, and 50 percent of people with high neuroscience exposure mistakenly labeled the fourth item above as "true." 

Overall, the survey revealed that the general public believed 68 percent of the neuromyths, educators endorsed 56 percent, and respondents with neuroscience training believed 46 percent. In an exploratory factor analysis, the researchers found that a core group of “classic” neuromyths were clustered together. These included myths related to learning styles, dyslexia, the Mozart effect, right-brain/left-brain learners, and using 10 percent of the brain.

The authors conclude, "These findings suggest that training in education and neuroscience can help reduce but does not eliminate belief in neuromyths." Next steps for the team will include the development and dissemination of various training tools designed to systematically debunk neuromyths for people from all walks of life. Additionally, the researchers want to develop comprehensive online training modules for educators that will target general misconceptions about learning and the brain, tailored to dispel the most prevalent neuromyths simultaneously.  

References

Kelly Macdonald, Laura Germine, Alida Anderson, Joanna Christodoulou, and  Lauren M. McGrath. "Dispelling the myth: Training in education or neuroscience decreases but does not eliminate beliefs in neuromyths" Published online Aug. 10, 2017. Frontiers in Psychology. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01314

Dekker, Sanne, Nikki C. Lee, Paul Howard-Jones, and Jelle Jolles. "Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers." Frontiers in Psychology 3 (2012). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Pasquinelli, Elena. "Neuromyths: Why do they exist and persist?" Mind, Brain, and Education 6, no. 2 (2012): 89-96. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2012.01141.x

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