Belief in brain myths and child development myths continues even among those who’ve studied psychology

By Christian Jarrett

Despite countless myth-busting articles online, dedicated bloggers like Neuroskeptic, and the publication of a recent book described by Ben Goldacre as “a masterful catalogue of neurobollocks” (disclaimer: I wrote it), and another in the same series addressing child development myths, public surveys continue to show stubborn, widespread belief in many brain myths and psychology myths, even among people with neuroscience training. Now the latest survey of the public via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, published open-access in Psychology, suggests that little has changed. Belief in many brain and child developmental myths remains rife, even among those who’ve taken psychology courses.

The prolific psychology researcher and author Adrian Furnham sourced 56 brain myths from my 2014 book Great Myths of the Brain and 49 child development myths from the 2015 book Great Myths of Child Development by Stephen Hupp and Jeremy Jewell. Furnham presented the myths to 220 online participants (aged 19 to 66) and they rated them on a five-point scale from definitely false, probably false to probably true or definitely true, and also including “don’t know”.

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Belief in the most infamous brain myths, such as the idea we only use 10 per cent of our brains or that “some people are left-brained, others right-brained“, remains rife, according to this survey (over 40 per cent and 36 per cent of participants said probably or definitely true, respectively).

There were four brain myths that over 40 per cent of the participants thought were definitely true: that the brain is very well designed; that after head injury, people can forget who they are and not recognise others, but be normal in every other way; that we have five senses; and that our brain cells are joined together forming a huge net of nerves.

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Similarly, there were two child development myths that more than 30 per cent of participants thought were definitely true: that all boys have one Y chromosome and all girls do not; and that a woman who is already pregnant can’t get pregnant again. Other strongly endorsed child development myths included the idea that sugar makes kids hyperactive and that dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal (65 per cent and 66 per cent believed probably or definitely true, respectively).

There was no evidence that participants’ age, gender or educational background (including specific experience with psychology) made any difference to their endorsement in myths. However, those who rated their own common sense higher endorsed fewer myths, and there was a modest correlation between being more religious and/or more right-wing and endorsing fewer myths (Furnham has no explanation for these “surprising” correlations).

Furnham notes that participants were generally disinclined to answer “don’t know” – on average less than a fifth chose this option. “It could be that people were too embarrassed to admit they did not know when indeed the evidence shows quite clearly that they did not,” he said.

The study has a few issues, such as the lack of detailed information on the participants’ psychology background or their geographical location. There were no “brain facts” interspersed with the myths. Also, Furnham reproduced the wording of the myths verbatim from the books, even though many aren’t that easily understood without the accompany explanatory text from the books (some are also open to different interpretations without contextual explanation).

Nonetheless, Furnham says his findings reveal once more “the ‘shocking truth’ about the widespread acceptance of myths” and he warns that they are “potentially harmful and socially divisive“. He adds: “The question of how to combat these myths and ensure that people are better informed about various areas of psychology remains largely unanswered.”

Myths and Misconceptions in Developmental and Neuro-Psychology

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and author of Great Myths of the Brain

16 thoughts on “Belief in brain myths and child development myths continues even among those who’ve studied psychology”

  1. A few of those “myths” have an element of truth to them. The claim that “Brain Cells Join Together Forming a Huge Nerve Net” is only a myth if you understand “Huge Nerve Net” to mean one in which neurons are physically connected (i.e. fused together) into a single entity. However, the term “net” is not really incompatible with our modern understanding of synaptic transmission. Cells that are separate can nevertheless form a “neural net”.

    Also – as our fixation with the hippocampus fades – the mythical status of the claim “Memory Is Distributed Throughout the Entire Cortex” is starting to look less secure. Various forms of “memory” have been found in a variety of cortical regions – along with the ability to induce LTP.

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  2. I agree with what Dan says. These myths seemed deliberately designed to mislead people. So, it’s not an accurate measure of whether people believed them or not but rather whether you can get them to agree with a misleading statement.

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  3. Is it truly so terrible that 30% of all parents believe that all boys have one Y chromosome and all girls do not have any Y chromosomes? The occurrence of intersex conditions and chromosomal abnormalities is extremely rare, less than 1% of the population, or thereabouts?

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  4. Of course students will likely make some errors due to the amount we have to study in three years crosses over all disciplines. We read 100s of papers that focus on one small area of brain behaviour. So often we don’t focus on the brain as a whole. There is so much information we barely address myths. It seems hardly surprising we may sometimes make errors. If we say we do not know it’s likely we have not yet received information about a myth. I would say the only really clear on is we do it only use 10% of the Brain and that people do not have right and left preference. In reference to dyslexia is hardly something we really focus on in university. I bet many of you will not have a clue what dyspraxia is and often lump it with dyslexia. I have it and that is highly frustrating. Or that people with autism lack empathy. T
    But these are specialist areas even most of lecturers do not have even a small understanding (if any at all) of neuro developmental disorders. When you become a specialist in an area you will gain a much detailed understanding of an the discipline. It is therefore the nature of undergraduate programmes and the intense broad information we have to take in.

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  5. Psychological treatments can help us change our thinking patterns and improve our coping skills, so you’re better equipped to deal with life’s stresses and conflicts. Here’s Graphology the study that allows us to understand ourselves and also explore those who surround us. Through the study of letters called graph-logical analysis, it is possible to study patterns of writing that identify the psychological state of a person and to evaluate the characteristics of their personality. Most of the students in psychology also prefer to learn Graphology as it provides a key to understand people accurately from their hand writing . I found this site http://www.hai.in to be quite resourceful on handwriting analysis topics?

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