Written by Saskia Kwan, M.Ed. Knowledge Translation Program Lead at Ontario Brain Institute
Public interest in brain research has increased over the past decade. We are slowly gaining a better understanding of how the brain works, and its implications in everyday life. Importantly, what we learn about the brain has implications in education, as the brain is crucial for learning and teaching. Unfortunately, brain research can often be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or exaggerated. We call these misconceptions neuromyths.
Similar to urban myths, neuromyths sound believable and logical, but their origin can rarely be pinpointed, and they lack any credibility. Despite growing scientific evidence refuting them, neuromyths have persisted and made their way into our homes, classrooms, and everyday life.
Here are some popular neuromyths, and why we should refute them.
1. Myth: Students have preferred “learning styles” (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and learn best when taught through that style.
In reality: There is no evidence that teaching to a student’s specific “learning style” leads to improved learning. While students do differ from each other in their learning, decades of research have failed to provide any proof that matching a specific mode of teaching to a specific student leads to better learning and school achievement. Rather, we should match the style of teaching to the content and offer multiple different ways for a student to engage with the content. Imagine trying to learn algebra exclusively through an audiobook, because you were labeled an “auditory” learner!
2. Myth: People are “left-brained” or “right-brained”, either using the left rational and analytical half of the brain more often or using the right creative half of the brain more often.
In reality: Research shows no evidence to support the idea that we favour one side of our brain over the other. Although there are some differences between the two sides, we are constantly using both sides of our brain. In fact, the two sides of the brain are heavily connected and continuously exchanging information back and forth. There are some functions that rely more heavily on one side of the brain over the other, for example areas crucial for language are usually (but not always) on the left side of the brain. However, these side “preferences” have largely been exaggerated for other functions. We know very little about complex functions such as creativity and rationality, and even less about what areas of the brain are crucial for these functions.
3. Myth: You only use 10% of your brain.
In reality: You use your whole brain. Through brain imaging techniques that have allowed us to visualize brain function, researchers are able to see that the various areas of your brain are constantly engaged and active. Researchers have a long way to go to understand how the whole brain works, but there’s no research to suggest that the average person uses less than their whole brain in any given day, and absolutely no research to suggest we are only using one-tenth of it! It is also worth noting that using our whole brain doesn’t mean we can’t learn something new. Your brain has the incredible ability to learn, adapt, and change throughout your lifespan by altering connections and pathways between brain cells, a concept called neuroplasticity.
If you believed these neuromyths, you are not at fault. Neuromyths have become so prevalent they appear in books, movies, and even teacher preparation courses. But we must fight against them, because decisions based on myths can hinder a child’s learning and development. Although well intentioned, these neuromyths end up limiting our young learners from all they can do.