The human brain is one of the most vastly complex and least understood systems in all of modern science. Is it any wonder then that so many myths of the brain survive to fill in the gaps in our actual knowledge? A recent article mentioned in The Guardian debunks some of these neuromyths, and importantly shows how many of them have become accepted truths amongst education professionals:
- We only use 10% of our brains.
- Left brainers are logical, Right brainers are creative.
- Students learn better when taught in their preferred VAK learning style (visual/auditory/kinaesthetic).
- BrainGym® exercises improve L/R hemisphere integration.
Some of these, such as the 10% myth, are silly and demonstrably false; we use all of our brain most of the time – evolution would never be so wasteful as to create a highly-specialised, energy-burning organ like the brain and allow 90% of it to be useless goo. Whilst this may be a relatively harmless misconception, useful perhaps to Hollywood scriptwriters and psychics, there are some rather more insidious pseudoscientific claims that have become part of the education establishment and may possibly even be harmful. Now pseudoscience is very clever – it looks just like real science, however it doesn’t need any pesky hard evidence to support it.
I wanted to look more at the truth behind some of these neuromyths:
Left / Right brainer and VAK Learning Styles (visual/auditory/kinaesthetic)
It is so very seductive to imagine that we can divide the entire human population into two types (Left Brain = logical learners; Right Brain = creatives) or maybe even three (V/A/K) but both of these approaches are at best, gross oversimplifications of the human brain. Whilst some processes are certainly dealt with in one or other hemisphere, the key to cognition lies in the astounding interconnectedness of the brain – left and right working together. The L/R brain hypothesis stems from extrapolating some studies in the 1970’s on epileptic patients who had their hemispheres surgically separated.
Exploring VAK learning styles theory reveals a more confusing minefield of misinformation. Whilst it has been shown that students will indicate a preference for how they receive information, many rigorous scientific tests have demonstrated that teaching them solely in their preferred style does not actually improve learning in any way. Learning is much more complicated than just a single sensory input (where are the Olfactory or Gustatory – smell or taste learners?) Also, how would you teach a mathematical formula to a pure kinaesthetic learner, or an auditory learner how to swim? Not that this advocates a ‘one-size-fits-all’ classroom approach, but that good teaching involves using a mixture of sensory inputs for all students. Teachers must be allowed to use their own instinctive skills, and drive learning through understanding and passion – not just ticking an oversimplified box.
If children seriously believe some of these myths about their own brains and intellectual ability it may even become a barrier to their own development and education. It’s not a large leap from “I’m a right-brained learner, so I won’t be good at maths” to “I’m a girl, I won’t be good at physics” or “I’m a visual learner, so I’m going to drop languages”.
One of the reasons these neuromyths are successful is that they sound so reasonable and we can see ourselves in them… just like horoscopes.
However, we constantly look to these ‘brain-based’ methods with hope, to help us make sense of the differences between students that we know exist.
So what are the lessons here?
- We always need to be careful about extrapolation (as with all scientific data).
- Be wary if a magical method offers to reduce the incredible complexity of the brain to a mere few ‘types’ or if that method runs for commercial gain.
- Neuroscientists cannot simply debunk these myths with exasperation, but they must also help us understand.
- Better communication is needed between neuroscientists and educators, policy makers, and parents.
As tutors, we have the luxury of one-on-one time with our students to help investigate their own complex and wonderful style of learning, as individual as a fingerprint. Surely this is better than throwing a simple label at them.
Dr Joe Wicks (Science and Maths tutor)