Debunking Brain Myths

4 Learning-Development Myths You Need To Stop Believing

There’s a lot of info floating around about the 3-pound organ of think meat you call the brain — how it looks, functions, grows, responds to the environment, and shapes personality. But, in their efforts to soak up neuro-knowledge, scientists hit some bumps along the way. And this has led to a lot of bunk brain-claims known as neuromyths.

You know how some people like to say that we “only use 10 percent of our brain”? That’s one of the most popular neuromyths (Thanks, Lucy). It’s an unsubstantiated claim that’s somehow slipped through and become known as fact. A lot of neuromyths crop up whenever conversations turn to kids and learning. When a parent says their kid is “more right-brained than left-brained?” That’s one. Studies have shown that teachers who are knowledgeable about and interested in brain research are more susceptible to neuromyths than teachers who don’t follow neuro news.

You’ll only need 10 percent of your brain (again– a myth) to get through these 4 other widely popular neuromyths which you start ignoring with 90 percent of your brain.

Myth #1: Every Child Has An Optimal Learning Style

This myth haunts the education system like a cold sore. The basic idea is that every student has one optimal learning style — visual, auditory or kinesthetic, typically. To help students reach their full academic potential, teachers need to tailor instruction methods accordingly.

At first glance, this theory might sound sensible. And, evidently, a lot of teachers have bought into it: In one 2014 paper, Paul Howard Jones, a neuroscience and education professor and neuromyth debunker extraordinaire, found that 93 percent of British teachers believed in learning styles. And a 2015 meta-analysis (a study of studies) found that the majority of recent papers on higher education either directly or implicitly endorsed the theory.

But the idea that kids are best-equipped to soak up information and concepts that are presented in one, preferred modality isn’t supported by research. In fact, one study from the University of Southern California found that students tend to learn less via the learning styles with which they’re most comfortable.

So why do people keep the myth alive? Well, the theory might seem valid because, as Howard-Jones pointed out, it’s grounded in a genuine fact — that there are different cortical regions for processing visual, auditory, and sensory information. Based on that fact, learning-style proponents believe students learn best using their strongest cortices. But, as Howard-Jones wrote, “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”

Myth #2: Kids Are Either Left-Brained Or Right-Brained

You’ve undoubtedly heard the tall tale that people who are artistic and intuitive are right-brained and analytical, while verbal types are lefties (brain-wise). While this idea offers a tidy framework for understanding individual learning differences in children, it doesn’t reflect how the brain actually works.

The myth is thought to have originated in the 1960s, during research on epilepsy patients who had their brain hemispheres surgically separated. Researchers discovered that once split, the 2 sides of the brain functioned somewhat independently.

Now, it’s true that some cognitive processes mainly take place in one hemisphere — it’s called lateralization. The left side, for instance, is responsible for speech production and most aspects of language processing. But — and here’s the unfounded leap that birthed this myth —  the fact that language functions mainly occur on the left side didn’t mean that a verbal superstar primarily relies on that side.

In fact, research has shown that creatives and logical folks alike use both sides of their brains, roughly equally. In a 2013 study, researchers at the University of Utah analyzed brain activity in more than 1,000 people and found no evidence that anyone heavily favored one side of their brain.

Myth #3: Simple Exercises Can Integrate The Right and Left Hemispheres

Introducing: Brain Gym, a perceptual motor program that was developed in the ’70s by a kinesiologist. Originally, it was intended for children with disabilities but is now marketed as a means of brain enhancement for the general population. Brain Gym is used in some Australian and UK schools, though experts have vocally dismissed it as pseudoscience.

The basic idea is that practicing 26 simple motor control exercises, such as crawling and yawning, will stimulate coordination between parts of the brain, thus facilitating the flow of information and sparking “rapid and often dramatic improvements” in practically every facet of learning.

The underlying science is, as a 2009 meta-analysis said, “explained by a simplistic model of brain functioning.” And the evidence that Brain Gym works is similarly hollow. In 2 studies, students did show improvement in certain motor skills and balance but didn’t exhibit any resulting academic lift. Other studies depicted Brain Gym as even less effective, even for improving physical coordination. Howard-Jones, who co-authored the learning styles critique, hilariously called Brain Gym “complete bananas.”

And while Brain Gym may not be popular in the US, but be wary of any person or company making similar claims.

Myth #4: Brain Training Games Hone Cognitive Skills

Lumosity and other proprietors of cognitive fitness claim that playing brain games can strengthen cognitive skills such as working memory. Unfortunately, the evidence is scant. In 2014, international scientists published letters of consensus against brain games, calling them out for pushing snake oil, more or less.

Now, research does show if you play brain games every day, you’ll probably get better at those specific games — but your high scores will not translate to overall cognitive improvements. Long story short: Kids don’t need to head home after school to play sudoku.