Neuroeducation, a growing field bridging the gap between
neuroscience and education, has been instrumental to bringing tested brain
science research into the classroom—and offering data that has provided
educators with new tools to develop novel classroom techniques (as well as challenge
outdated pedagogical doctrine). But what happens when neuroscience findings are
taken too far? Paul Howard-Jones, a researcher at the Centre for Mind and Brain
in Educational and Social Contexts at Bristol University in the United Kingdom,
cautions that neuromyths, or the “misconception generated by a
misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically
established by brain research to make a case for use of brain research in
education or other contexts” are more pervasive in the educational field than
we might think—and that these neuromyths may, ultimately, work against
“There’s been a growing awareness of the fact that these
scientific misunderstandings have proliferated in the educational community,
and they’re quite widespread,” says Howard-Jones. “And I wanted to demonstrate
that they’ve spread internationally as well.”
In a survey of educators across the United Kingdom, the
Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and China, Howard-Jones found that teachers were quite
susceptible to neuromyths, including the idea that humans only use 10 percent of their
brains and that children are less attentive after consuming sugary snacks.
The results were published in a Perspectives piece in Nature Review Neuroscience in October of 2014. And while
Howard-Jones’ survey did not include American educators, he believes he would
find similar results in the United States, as these ideas have become quite
commonplace across the globe.
Howard-Jones believes that neuroscience definitely has a
place in the classroom—as well as the power to inform sound pedagogy. But for
that to happen, scientists need to help educators separate the proverbial wheat
from the chaff.
“There’s generally a seed of truth underlying all these myths
when you dig into them and try to understand where they come from,” says
Howard-Jones. “But they’ve been quite distorted and that’s troubling. At the
same time, there’s some valuable information about the brain that may be a help
in the classroom, if we can find a way to effectively communicate it.”
In the attempt to do just that, here are a few of the common
neuromyths Howard-Jones highlighted in his Perspectives piece—with a discussion
of where the “seed” of the myth comes from as well as what the neuroscience
findings they are based on can really tell us about human cognition and
Neuromyth #1:Humans only use 10 percent of their brains.
Where It Comes From:The origin of this particular myth is the matter of some debate. Some have
argued that it hails from William James, the father of American psychology,
who, in an essay titled “The Powers of Men,” wrote, “as a rule men habitually
use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they
might use under appropriate conditions,” and “we are making use of only a small
part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
Others link this neuromyth back to so-called “silent cortex”
When neurosurgeons first started stimulating parts of the brain with electrodes
more than a century ago, they found only about 10 percent of the cortex resulted in
visible muscle twitches. This led those researchers to conclude that the other
90 percent of the brain was “silent,” or “uncommitted” to a particular cognitive
function. And further studies by Karl Lashley found that rats could learn
specific tasks even after large parts of their brain had been removed—which
appeared to support the idea that the brain wasn’t being used at its full
capacity, too. Today,
the 10% myth persists, with blockbuster movies like “Lucy” helping to
perpetuate it. But it isn’t limited to popular culture and sci-fi flicks: approximately
50 percent of the teachers Howard-Jones surveyed about neuromyths agreed that humans
only use 10 percent of their brain capacity, as well.
The Reality:As neuroscientists developed newer and more sophisticated tools to look at
brain function, they learned that the cortex is far from “uncommitted.” Marcus
Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of
the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI), was one of the first scientists
to suggest that, even at rest, the brain is working at full capacity.Since then, most neuroscientists have accepted that the brain has a
so-called “default mode,” a sophisticated network of brain areas that remain active
even when the brain is resting.
“When I’m asked what the brain’s job is, if I can sum it up
in one sentence or so, I always say the brain is in the prediction business. We’ve
learned that it’s always on—and most of its energy is devoted to trying to
predict what’s going to happen to you next,” says Raichle. “And I don’t see how
the brain could be in the prediction business if it was working at only 10 percent capacity.”
Neuromyth #2:Eating sugary snacks results in hyperactivity and reduced focus and
Where It Comes From:As researchers study the effect of diet on cognition, one thing is becoming
abundantly clear: diet matters. Understanding how, where, and why, however,
remains a bit elusive. In the 1970’s, many researchers believed that sugary
foods and food additives were linked to cognitive deficits—particularly in
school-aged children. Several correlational studies showed a link between sugar
intake and hyperactive behavior.
These results were only fueled by parental and teacher anecdotes. They
consistently reported that children are less attentive (and more active) after
consuming sugar. Even today, if you offer elementary schoolers a cookie near
bedtime, you’ll likely get an earful from a parent about how that sugary snack
will only rile them up.
The Reality:This particular neuromyth has been around for quite some time—and Harris
Lieberman, a researcher who studies diet and cognition at the U.S. Army
Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, says that, despite several
studies debunking it, it still remains a popular belief among both parents and
educators. It’s a case where anecdote seems to have a stronger pull than sound
“For some reason, nutrition and behavior generates a lot of
mythology. But in the controlled studies that investigated whether sugar versus
placebo made children more hyperactive and interfered with their ability to
concentrate, it’s clear that sugar was not linked to hyperactivity in kids,” he
says. “But it’s very difficult to convince people once they think they are
observing a relationship that it doesn’t exist, regardless of how many
scientists say so and how many studies have been done.”
Neuromyth #3:Hemispheric dominance (whether you are “left-brained” or “right-brained”)
determines how you learn.
Where It Comes From:In the 1960’s, Roger Sperry, Joseph Bogen, and Michael Gazzaniga undertook
what are now known as the “split-brain” studies. The group studied patients,
usually epileptics, who had undergone a surgical procedure that severed the
corpus callosum, or the white matter neural fibers that link the two
hemispheres of the brain. The group discovered that this procedure resulted in
some striking hemispheric differences on cognition. Gazzaniga, in an essay
written for Nature Reviews Neuroscience
about his split-brain research, says, “Nothing can possibly replace a singular
memory of mine: that of the moment when I discovered that case W.J. could no
longer verbally describe (from his left hemisphere) stimuli presented to his
freshly disconnected right hemisphere.”
The group went on to demonstrate that severing the corpus callosum in its
entirety blocks interhemispheric communication—influencing a patient’s ability
to perceive and describe information, depending on which side of the brain it
was presented to.
More than four decades later, the split-brain work has
undergone a metamorphosis in popular culture. It has been co-opted to describe
visual and verbal learning styles, as well as different personality types. Books
and popular periodicals argue that “hemispheric dominance,” or which side of
the brain is more active, tells us about who we are as people. That
“left-brainers” are your more analytical types—while “right-brainers” are more
creative and expressive. And today, you’ll find all manner of educational books
instructing teachers on how to harness the two different hemispheres to encourage
optimal learning in the classroom.
The Reality:Gazzaniga, now director of the Sage Center for the Study of Mind at
University of California Santa Barbara (as well as a DABI member), says he
couldn’t have predicted that his split-brain work could have become such a part
of popular culture when he started the work more than 40 years ago.
“It took off and really had its own life,” he chuckled. “And
it makes sense if you think about it in terms of a very easy way to explain
what you knew about brain mechanisms and cognitive abilities. But it’s overly
simplified and overstated.”
Gazzaniga says that the split-brain work has become
“mixed up” with sound psychological and educational work that demonstrates that
children use a variety of cognitive strategies to solve problems. “There are
some kids who visualize problems and other kids who verbalize them. And some
educators use those terms, visualizers and verbalizers,” he says. “That reality
has been mapped on the right brain/left brain anatomy as an explanation. But
that’s where it falls down. Because the actual neural mechanisms for how these
cognitive strategies work are much more complex than that. Cognition, in
general, is much more complex than that. That’s what we’ve learned over the
years and continue to learn as we study hemispheric differences. It’s all just
a lot more complicated than we ever thought.” [Learn more about right
brain/left brain reality in our primer on the topic.]
Neuromyth #4:Teenagers lack the ability to control their impulses in the classroom.
Where It Comes From:Adolescence is often discussed as a time of storm and stress. Over the past
few years, numerous neuroscientists have tried to explain why teenagers have a
penchant for risky and often impulsive behaviors—a trait that is usually
outgrown by the time they reach adulthood. Larry Steinberg, a researcher at
Temple University, has demonstrated that critical connections between the
motivational centers of the brain and the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s
executive control center, do not fully mature until after
adolescence—suggesting that there is a lack of coordination between two key
brain systems that results in poor impulse control.
This dual-systems framework has led many to suggest that the teen brain renders
adolescents unable to self-govern—and teachers should take this into
consideration when trying to manage middle and high school classrooms.
The Reality:Steinberg’s dual-systems framework has offered neuroscientists great
insights into how the brain matures and develops—but Abigail Baird, a
neuroscientist at Vassar College and DABI member, says we need to be careful
that we aren’t taking this idea of poor neural coordination too far.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, this boy can’t self-regulate
because his frontal lobes aren’t mature yet.’ These assumptions make us prone
to lowering our expectations beyond what is useful. One of the easiest ways to
debunk the neuromyth that adolescents can’t self-regulate is to simply watch
them with their peers,” says Baird. “Because in peer-related settings, we do
see adolescents self-regulate wonderfully. They do it all the time. Think about
it: most teens would never violate something that their peers thought was
uncool. They don’t use outdated slang or a lame emoji. They are constantly checking
themselves against what they should and should not be doing socially, you know,
the things that are most important at this age.”
According to Baird, despite a lack of maturity in critical
frontal lobe connections, even young children can self-regulate when motivated.
But children tend to do so where they see rewards or direct benefit to
themselves. And teachers can help teens self-regulate by making lesson plans
more interesting and relevant—and by imposing consequences for inappropriate
“One important function of adolescence is having and acting
on new, and even potentially risky, impulses so you can make mistakes and learn
from experiences before you are expected to act like an adult. It’s really quite
functional. Not having extraordinary self-regulation enables some developing
teens to gain experience and this experience ultimately helps the frontal lobe mature,”
she says. “But until then, adults and teachers can help teens out by acting as
an external version of that frontal lobe system. We can allow them the space
they need to question and rebel and figure things out while also making sure
they understand that there are consequences when those behaviors go too far.”
[Read more about teen behavior in our 2012 briefing paper, “A Delicate Balance: Risks, Rewards,
and the Adolescent Brain.”]
The Need for Communication
Howard-Jones says that neuroscience will continue to inform the
educational field moving forward. And because of its relevance, it’s even more
important that neuroscientists and educators work together in the
future—focusing on problems that assist teachers in the classroom environment in
a scientific manner.
“The attempts to genuinely communicate between neuroscience
and education are happening more and more—and that’s a really good thing. But
we do see distortions occurring. And some of the problems that are arising in
how those communications are interpreted really echo the processes by which
neuromyths are born,” he says. “I want to emphasize this isn’t about teachers
being silly. It’s about a real challenge that scientists and educators need to
step up to meet. And it’s a challenge that will require collaboration, more
neuroscience education in teacher training and the co-construction of messages by
both teachers and scientists about what these sorts of findings really mean in
an educational context.”
Howard-Jones PA. Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews
Neuroscience, 2014. 15(12): 817-824.
James W. The Powers Of Men: The Keys Which Unlock Hidden Energies, and Stir Men
to Achieve—Such Keys as Love, Anger, War, Duty, the Temperance ‘Pledge,’
Despair, Crowd-Contagion, Christian Science, Conversion, Prayer, Resistance of
Temptation and Other Excitements, Ideas and Efforts. The American Magazine, 1907.
Penfield WP. The Mystery of Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1975.
Lashley KS. In search of the engram. Physiological mechanisms in animal
behavior. 1950, Society for Experimental Biology, 454-482.
Raichle ME. The restless brain. Brain Connect, 2011. 1(1): 3-12.
Raichle ME, MacLeod AM, Snyder AZ, Powers WJ, Gusnard DA and Shulman GL. A
default mode of brain function. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2001. 98(2): 676-682.
Langseth L and Dowd J. Glucose tolerance and hyperkinesis: A Meta-Analysis. Fed
J Cosmetic Toxicol, 1978. 16: 120-133.
Wolraich ML, Wilson DB and White JW. The Effect of Sugar on Behavior or
Cognition in Children. JAMA, November 22/29, 1995. 274 (20): 1617-1621.
Gordon HW, Bogen JE and Sperry RW. Absence of deconnexion syndrome in two
patients with partial section of the neocommissures. Brain, 1971. 94: 327-336.
Gazzaniga MS. Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong. Nature
Reviews Neuroscience, August 2005. 6: 653-659.
Steinberg LA. Dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Dev Psychobiol,
2010. 52: 216-224.
Baird AA, Silver SH and Veague HB. Cognitive control reduces sensitivity to
relational aggression among adolescent girls. Soc Neurosci, 2010. 5(5-6):