Three years ago, the film Lucy came out starring Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous heroine who is implanted with drugs that allow her to use the full capacity of her brain rather than the mere 10 per cent that the rest of us supposedly use. In response I wrote an article for WIRED “All you need to know about the 10 per cent brain myth in 60 seconds“. Soon afterwards I received an angry, acerbic 1,200-word email from a reader: “I am obviously not going to insist you take your article down since that isn’t my place,” she wrote, “but you should certainly not feel proud to be spreading such misinformed information to the public”.
What particularly shocked me was not just the tone of the correspondence, but the fact this email, endorsing the 10 per cent brain myth, came from a Masters student in neuroscience at Yale. But perhaps this wasn’t such an odd occurrence. A new US survey published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that belief in brain myths remains widespread, and moreover, that extensive education in neuroscience seems to provide little protection from such beliefs.
Kelly Macdonald at the University of Houston and her colleagues, including Lauren McGrath at the University of Denver, recruited a total of 3,877 people to take a survey of brain myths hosted on the Testmybrain.org website. This included 3,045 members of the general public, 598 teachers, and 234 people with “high neuroscience exposure” (defined as having completed many college/university courses related to the brain or neuroscience). The researchers had sent messages to neuroscience email lists and social networks to attract people with neuroscience training to take the survey.
The survey featured 32 statements about the brain, 14 of which were true (e.g. we use our brains 24 hours a day) and 18 of which were false (e.g. we only use 10 per cent of our brain). Many of the items were the same or similar to those used in earlier surveys of belief in neuromyths among teachers in the UK and The Netherlands. The participants’ task was simply to indicate which statements were true and which were false.
The good news is that teachers endorsed fewer brain myths than the general public, and those participants with neuroscience training endorsed fewer brain myths than teachers. And yet, all three groups still displayed high levels of brain myth endorsement, especially for what Macdonald and her colleagues identify as the classic brain myths, including:
- Learning styles myth (endorsed by 93 per cent of the public, 76 per cent of teachers, and 78 per cent of those with neuroscience education)
- A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards (endorsed by 76 per cent of the public, 59 per cent of teachers, and 50 per cent of those with neuroscience education)
- Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability (endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 55 per cent of teachers, and 43 per cent of the neuroscience group) [more on music-related neuromyths]
- Children are less attentive after consuming sugar (endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 50 per cent of teachers and 39 per cent of the neuroscience group)
- The left-brain right-brain myth (endorsed by 64 per cent of the public, 49 per cent of teachers and 32 per cent of the neuroscience group)
- The 10 per cent myth (endorsed by 36 per cent of the public, 33 per cent of teachers, and 14 per cent of those with neuroscience education – my unfriendly correspondent is not alone).
Overall, the participants with extensive exposure to neuroscience (most of whom said they had at a minimum a science or health-related university degree) endorsed just under half of the neuromyths (specifically 46 per cent, compared with 68 per cent average endorsement among the public and 56 per cent among teachers). Another clear pattern in the findings was that participants who believed one of the above myths were more likely than average to also endorse one or more of the others.
These findings are worrying because brain myths are harmful: they undermine valid neuroscience findings and they encourage bogus practices in health, education and business.
So what’s going on? Why is training in neuroscience not enough to prevent many people from endorsing some of the most hackneyed brain myths? Macdonald and her colleagues note that many of the most widely endorsed myths pertain to education and the supposed application of neuroscience to improving learning. They speculate that perhaps it’s possible to study the brain-basis of dyslexia or memory, for instance, while remaining unaware of related psychological research, such as on the behavioural manifestations of dyslexia or the findings that have challenged the concept of learning styles. In other words, perhaps the issue is partly one of different levels of explanation: just because you are schooled in neuroscience doesn’t mean you are aware of psychological findings that are pertinent to education-based neuromyths.
“[These findings] suggest that if educators were to take a class in neuroscience that did not specifically address neuromyths, it would be unlikely to help with dispelling the misconceptions that are most closely related to learning and education,” they said.
They added that programmes intended to combat belief in neuromyths might benefit from highlighting how many myths mistakenly imply that a single factor is responsible for, or indicative of, a given outcome (e.g. sugar causing bad behavior or letter reversals being a sign of dyslexia) when in fact many factors are usually involved in learning and cognition. Also, myth-busting programmes could emphasise how many of us seem to have a bias to find explanations more credible when they contain neuroscience references, no matter how gratuitous.
It’s worth noting a few problems with the new survey (acknowledged by the researchers themselves), such as the fact the general public who took part were highly educated compared with the wider US population as a whole – of course this may suggest the observed levels of myth endorsement are an underestimate. Also, the neuroscience group in the survey self-reported their own experience of neuroscience so it’s not clear exactly what kind of courses they’d completed. And some might say that there’s an inherent problem with asking people to give a simple “true/false” response to statements about the brain – it leaves little room for nuance and some statements may be open to multiple interpretations.