Many people believe myths about how the brain works

Even many professional educators and people with neuroscience training hold popular misconceptions.

In a recent study, researchers found that the general public believed 68 percent of brain research misconceptions, many of which relate to education and learning. Training in education or neuroscience reduced misconceptions, but did not eliminate them. We spoke with University of Houston graduate student Kelly Macdonald, who worked on the study, and Lauren McGrath, an assistant professor at the University of Denver who led it. They explain which myths are most pervasive, and why so many people believe them.

ResearchGate: What is a neuromyth?

Macdonald and McGrath: A neuromyth is a misconception about brain research and how it applies to learning and education. Neuromyths typically result from overgeneralizations or misunderstandings of scientific findings. This can make them difficult to dispel, because there is nuance that needs to be explained.  As a shorthand, we collectively refer to the myths in our paper as “neuromyths” but some of them are less related to the brain and more related to learning and education, so they might just be considered myths.

RG: Can you give some examples of particularly prevalent neuromyths?

Macdonald and McGrath: Myths about dyslexia, learning styles, and being a left-brain or right-brain learner were particularly widespread. A common myth about dyslexia is that it is caused by seeing letters or words backwards. Such visual theories of dyslexia were rejected decades ago as it became clear that impairments in specific language skills, particularly phonological awareness, formed the underpinnings of dyslexia. Yet, the myth can be difficult to dispel, because it is true that some children with dyslexia do show letter reversals when they write. However, the research shows that letter reversals are not a cause of dyslexia, but rather a consequence of the disorder. So, dispelling this myth is more complicated than saying flatly that it’s wrong. The full explanation requires an understanding of the complexities of the disorder.

The learning styles myth was also very pervasive in our sample. This myth contends that students will demonstrate higher levels of achievement if they are taught in their preferred learning style, as in the popular theory distinguishing among visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles. The idea that learning styles theories are a myth is very controversial, because it is so pervasive and it seems to make intuitive sense. One thing that we want to make clear is that by saying learning styles are a myth, we are not advocating for all students to be treated the same. We know that students differ from each other in their interests, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses—all of which affect learning. Our point is that the research does not find that learning styles theory can account for these differences. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t rule out the possibility of a new theory that would fare better in the future.

"The mistake lies in stretching these findings too far."


A third common myth is also related to learning differences: the idea that some of us are “left-brained” and some are “right-brained,” and that this helps explain differences in learning. This myth over-extends findings from the neuropsychological and neuroimaging literatures showing that certain cognitive skills activate one hemisphere more than another. The mistake lies in stretching these findings too far. Although there can be hemispheric differences during performance on specific tasks, the brain is a highly interconnected, dynamic system and so brain activations while performing cognitive tasks almost always span both hemispheres. So, the terms “right-brained” and “left-brained” are terms that are too extreme for the realities of human brain function.

RG: So who believes these myths?

Macdonald and McGrath: We found that exposure to education or neuroscience can help reduce belief in neuromyths to some extent, but that these groups still endorsed many of the myths at high rates. Overall, the general public believed 68 percent of the most pervasive neuromyths, the educator sample endorsed 56 percent of them, and those with high neuroscience exposure endorsed 46 percent of the neuromyths.

RG: Did these results surprise you?

Macdonald and McGrath: Our results for the educator group were pretty consistent with previous studies of educator belief in neuromyths in other countries, so we weren’t particularly surprised by those findings. However, we were surprised by the relatively high rates of endorsement in the high neuroscience exposure group, since we hypothesized that their training would equip them to reject these inaccurate statements related to the brain and learning.

RG: Why do you think even people with training in neuroscience and education believe these myths?

Macdonald and McGrath: We speculate that it depends on the type of training. We could see in our data that people with neuroscience training were more successful at rejecting myths related to the brain, like the idea that people only use 10 percent of their brain. But this group performed less well on myths that were related to learning and education. This finding suggests that their training in neuroscience didn’t necessarily translate to topics that are relevant to psychology and education.
For educators, we know that there is a lot of interest in neuroscience findings and their application to education, but introductory courses in neuroscience are not a typical part of the curriculum for teacher preparation. The fact that the profession is interested in neuroscience but there is little training in this highly complex and dynamic field may leave educators vulnerable to neuromyths.


"There is a clearly a proliferation of 'brain-based' claims in education, and it is important that educators have foundational skills to evaluate them."


RG: What are the negative consequences of neuromyths?

Macdonald and McGrath: Belief in neuromyths among educators is concerning as many of the neuromyths are directly related to student learning and development, and misconceptions among educators could be harmful for student outcomes. For example, if an educator believes the myth that dyslexia is caused by a visual problem that manifests in letter reversals, students who have dyslexia but do not demonstrate letter reversals might not be identified or provided appropriate services. Another harmful consequence of neuromyths is that some educational tools are based on these misconceptions and have limited empirical support. School districts that are unfamiliar with neuromyths may devote limited time and resources to such programs, which could have otherwise been used for evidence-based interventions.

RG: How can these beliefs be countered?

Macdonald and McGrath: We are still brainstorming about what should be next in countering these myths, particularly how to develop training materials and dissemination avenues. Thankfully there are other groups in the US and globally that are also working on this important problem, so there is some good momentum towards addressing it.

In addition, we think it could be useful for schools of education to provide some very basic neuroscience instruction at the undergraduate and graduate levels so that educators would have a basis for evaluating pedagogical approaches that purport to be based in neuroscience.  There is a clearly a proliferation of such “brain-based” claims in education, and it is important that educators have foundational skills to evaluate them. One way to provide this introductory content could be by discussing common neuromyths in existing educational psychology courses.

RG: What do you hope the public will take away from your study?

Macdonald and McGrath: We think there are three really important results to take away from our study. First, educators in the US believe many myths related to the brain and learning and some of these myths have implications for their classroom practice. Second, among the non-educators in the sample, the prevalence of neuromyths was strikingly high in the those who reported taking many university courses in neuroscience. Most of these individuals reported receiving their terminal degree in the sciences or social sciences, so it is surprising that they believed so many of the myths. However, the myths they believed were the ones that are related to learning and behavior, not the ones related to the brain. So, we can see evidence of their training in neuroscience, but this training doesn’t necessarily cross disciplinary boundaries to topics that are mainly the purview of psychology or education. Lastly, we were surprised to see that the “classic” neuromyths tend to cluster together, meaning that if you believe one myth, you are more likely to believe others as well.

Featured image courtesy of djneight.