Neuromyths: are misconceptions about the brain dangerous?
by Chris Wenz
In 2002, the UK’s Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report titled “Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science.” The authors dedicated an entire chapter to carefully dissecting and dispelling neuromyths, which they defined as “misconception[s] generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”. Since the report was published, study after study has shown that several of the neuromyths dispelled by the OECD are still widely accepted by educators around the world.
Many of these studies have used a survey developed by Dekker and colleagues (2012) to assess the prevalence of neuromyths in education. The original survey asks participants to respond “correct," “incorrect,” or “I don’t know” to 32 statements about the brain and learning. Fifteen of the statements in the survey are “neuromyths,” including the statement: "Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Dekker et al (2012) reported that 93% of United Kingdom educators and 96% of Dutch educators responded “correct” to this myth. Recent studies of educators around the world show remarkably similar results: China (97%), Turkey (97%), Spain (91%), and Greece (96%). The learning styles myth is just one of several that many educators and the general public continue to believe. MacDonald and colleagues (2017) identified seven “classic” myths that have been widely accepted across studies of educators and in their sample of 598 US educators:
Note: numbers in bold indicate percentage of US educators who believed each neuromyth.
- Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. auditory, visual kinesthetic). (76%)
- Children have learning styles that are dominated by particular senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, touch). (71%)
- A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards. (59%)
- Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability. (55%)
- Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks. (50%)
- Some of us are “left-brained” and some are “right-brained” and this helps explain differences in how we learn. (49%)
- We only use 10% of our brain. (33%)
So, the evidence is quite clear: neuromyths are alive and well among educators. However, the relationships between neuromyths, instructional design and teacher efficacy are far less clear. In other words: are neuromyths actually harmful?
Much of the research assumes the answer is “yes” and posits a strong relationship between neuromyths and teacher efficacy. For example, MacDonald and colleagues write: “The global proliferation of neuromyths among educators is concerning as many of the neuromyths are directly related to student learning and development, and misconceptions among educators could be deleterious for student outcomes” (2017, p.3). This is a reasonable claim to make, and one that is entirely consistent with the logic underlying decades of research on teacher beliefs and their impact on student outcomes. Folling that logic, if we think about neuromyths as teacher beliefs about the brain, we come to a set of linked claims:
- Teacher beliefs inform their instructional decisions and practices
- Many teachers hold beliefs about the brain that are unsupported by scientific evidence (i.e. neuromyths)
- Neuromyths lead teachers to adopt ineffective teaching practices
- Those practices have a negative impact on student learning
- Teacher beliefs are malleable
- Intervening to change teacher beliefs can lead to positive changes in teaching practices
- Because those practices are based on scientific evidence about the brain, they will enhance student learning
There’s nothing implausible about these claims, but are not equally supported by evidence. This is in part due to the challenge of all research on teacher beliefs: understanding whether, how or to what extent beliefs impact student learning is incredibly difficult. So, it is unsurprising that (despite the logic of the claims) there is not empirical evidence to support the prevailing assumption in the literature: neuromyths lead teachers to adopt ineffective teaching practices. In a 2018 study, Horvath and colleagues assessed the validity of this assumption: they measured the prevalence of neuromyths in a sample of “internationally recognized, award-winning teachers” from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. They then compared their results to previous studies of “non-award winning” educators. Horvath and colleagues explain their reasoning: “If neuromyth acceptance were correlated with teacher efficacy…then one would reasonably expect to see a lower prevalence of neuromyth acceptance amongst internationally recognized, award-winning teachers.”
The results: on 13 of 15 neuromyths, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Horvath and colleagues titled their paper: “On the Irrelevance of Neuromyths to Teacher Effectiveness...”. The use of irrelevance belies the care they take to contextualize their results; however, it does match the fervor with which they challenge the “prevailing assumption” in the field:
“It is one thing to demonstrate that acceptance of neuromyths is high amongst teachers…but it is a different notion to suggest that these myths in any way impact (negatively or positively) upon teaching and learning…It may, indeed, someday be demonstrated that a better understanding of how the brain works may help teachers become more effective; but this evidence remains chimerical and we must avoid substituting it with unfounded inference” (p. 4).
As they correctly note, their results' don't "prove" the (ir)relevance of neuromyths in education; nor do these authors downplay the risks of *mis*application of neuroscientific findings in education. However, in this study, and their other work, Horvath and colleagues raise questions and doubts about the process and value of efforts to directly translate neuroscientific findings into "brain-based" education. In particular, Horvath and Donoghue (2016) argue that the "prescriptive bridge" between neuroscientific findings and educational practice is an impossibility. In other words, educational practices cannot (and should not) be derived directly from neuroscientific findings. Instead, these findings only become meaningful in teaching and learning when they are translated through "adjacent" levels of scientific inquiry (in this case cognitive and behavioral psychology). Thus, Horvath and Donoghue argue:
"...it should be made clear to educators that they need not understand the structure and function of the brain in order effectively perform their jobs. Again, this is not to say knowledge of the brain is useless in the classroom setting (as it confers opportunities for conceptual, functional, and diagnostic translation) – this is merely to say that said knowledge is not required to successfully perform and evolve the duties of education" (2016, p. 9)
Whether we agree with this claim or not, the recent work of Horvath, Donoghue and others  raise several questions that seem well worth asking, especially given the glut of media and educational products that cite neuroscientific evidence:
- Does being a high-quality educator *require* knowledge of the brain?
- Do educational products labelled as brain-based effectively translate neuroscience evidence?
- Can knowledge of the brain help educators evaluate "brain-based" claims or improve their classroom practice?
Over the next few months, we'll be digging into these questions and more as a way to explore current research and future possibilities of educational neuroscience. We're interested in your thoughts, questions, and requests on this topic. Leave a comment below to join the conversation about neuromyths, brain-based learning and educational neuroscience.
 In the interest of space and readability, I ommitted references to specific papers for each country. those specific references are as follows. China: Pei et al, (2015). Turkey: Karakus et al, (2015). Spain: Ferrero et al (2016). Greece: Deligiannididi & Howard-Jones (2015).
 In particular, the journal *Mind, Brain and Education* recently published a short comment by Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligences fame) titled "'Neuromyths': A Critical Consideration". In the piece, Gardner critiques the use of the phrase neuromyth and re-focuses the discussion on an important question: "How might one better equip educators as well as laypersons to deal with the numerous claims [about the brain] that make their way into print and broadcast media, as well as social media, advertisements,
and streetwise chatter?" (2020, p. 3).