Brain science is mysterious and sexy and people are more inclined to believe claims that contain superfluous neuroscience references or neuro-imagery – an effect referred to as “the seductive allure of neuroscience” or “SANE” (that’s the short story, however the literature on the effect is messy, to say the least, with a mix of successful and failed replications).
One context where we might expect the seductive allure of neuroscience to be particularly problematic is in the emerging field of educational neuroscience, which seeks to use findings about the brain to improve educational practice. While the field holds promise, experts have warned about the dangers of neuro-jargon lending a confusing veneer of credibility to educational practices that lack an evidence base (one prominent example would be Brain Gym which has been widely criticised by neuroscientists and psychologists).
Until recently, however, no one had looked to see whether the seductive allure of neuroscience applies specifically in an educational context. A research group at the University of Minnesota has now attempted to plug this gap. They recently reported in the British Journal of Educational Psychology their “major finding” that the public find popular articles about the psychology of learning more credible when they contain extraneous neuroscience.
Soo-hyun Im and his colleagues presented 245 members of the US public with short articles (approximately 250 words) about the educational implications of psychology studies. For example, one article, based on a real psychological finding, explained that people are more likely to remember trivia answers that they feel more curious about.
Each article was either devoid of neuroscience or accompanied by varying amounts of what the researchers called “extraneous” neuroscience: a brain-based claim in the text; the same textual neuroscience claim plus a basic chart; or the textual claim plus a colourful brain-scan type image (the neuroscience references were based on real pieces of research).
For example, the article about curiosity either made no mention of the brain, or it stated that participants’ higher curiosity ratings were correlated with activity in brain areas involved in motivation, or it included this neuroscience reference plus a line chart, or the neuroscience reference plus a brain scan showing the location of the curiosity-related activity.
The participants’ task was to rate how credible they found each article, in terms of its quality, comprehensibleness, reasonableness, validity and how much they agreed with it.
The participants found the articles more credible when they contained the most extreme form of extraneous neuroscience – a textual neuroscience reference plus a brain scan image. This seductive allure of neuroscience effect (SANE) was greater among participants with more familiarity with educational topics and among participants with more prior knowledge of neuroscience (although their knowledge was modest).
“The current study extended the SANE effect to the important case of articles about educational topics” the researchers concluded. “Perhaps the most important direction for future research is to investigate whether the SANE effect for educational topics holds for educational professionals such as teachers, administrators, and policy makers”.
There’s no question this new research addresses an important issue. There is a lot of hype about educational neuroscience and it is important that policy-makers and teachers do not get misled by the allure of neuroscience.
Unfortunately the study features several methodological shortcomings that make it difficult to interpret the findings as showing a true SANE effect. As the researchers partly acknowledged, the addition of extraneous neuroscience information was confounded with article length and image richness. Perhaps participants simply rated longer, more graphic articles as more credible.
Similarly, we do not really know based on these findings that there is anything especially alluring about neuroscience in an educational context – for instance, the addition of extraneous information from genetics or another field may have had the same or even a greater effect.
Lastly, even though I am sceptical about neuroscience hype I think there’s an argument that the supposedly extraneous neuroscience added to the articles was rather relevant. The brain-based information was derived from real studies and provided converging, objective evidence relevant to the psychological findings being discussed, arguably lending greater credibility to the claims. A more convincing demonstration of the SANE effect would have tested whether participants were swayed by truly superfluous and non-sensical neuroscience claims.