Fifteen years ago I wrote a book which bombed. The book was called The Brains Behind It: New Knowledge About the Brain in Learning. It was about ‘neuro myths’ which were prevalent at the time and which have persisted since. My intent then was to promote evidence-informed strategies and direct people for some answers towards cognitive psychology. It was an attempt to ‘proportion belief to the evidence!’
I’m proud of that book; it’s the one which took the most effort but it also sold the least. I’ve got a few hundred in my shed if anyone is interested! Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the 2002 book where I talk about fads, fallacies, facts and findings.
It is incumbent on educators to show responsibility in understanding the links between science and learning, particularly to ask more precise questions of neuroscience. My guidance would be to follow the instincts of parents in the presence of a doctor. They describe their own child and the quirks of behaviour in elaborate and loving detail. They ask specific questions and give supportive detail. They care. Educators could benefit from a more
disciplined and scientific approach to the questions they ask of themselves and of others about their classrooms.
Fallacy one: you only use 10 per cent or less of your brain
A UK book for teachers published in 1999 states, ‘we use around 2 per cent of our brainpower – this
means we waste 98 per cent’. For years, the 10 per cent myth has circulated in the world of self-help
psychology. It is a beguiling thought that if there is so much spare capacity, what if we could exploit
only 1 per cent or 2 per cent more of it? The truth is that functions such as movement, perception,
memory, language and attention are all handled by different areas of the brain. These areas are widely
If you were to lose 98 per cent of your brain, how well would you perform? If 98 per cent is held in
reserve, what is it held in reserve for? Should there not be better recovery after trauma? There is no
area of the brain that can be damaged without some loss or impairment, however temporary, of function.
The brain is highly integrated. For example, imaging studies of sleep show activity in all areas. The
problem arose when the self-improvement industry misinterpreted early researchers who said they only
knew at most 10 per cent of how the brain functions.
Fallacy two: you have three brains in one
Pick a number! This refers to Dr Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory. The theory that our brain comprises
a primitive or reptilian centre, an emotional and attention centre and a higher order thinking centre was
first discussed in the 1940s and, nowadays, modern researchers would not know anything about it. It
has endured because it has a powerful, easily understood metaphorical value and it aligns with
Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs theory. Educators can see the sense in it straight away. The three brains
in one theory is not wrong, it is out of date. Science has left it behind.
Fallacy three: your brain is like a sponge
This assumes that you take everything in and it is stored somewhere. You have infinite capacity and
you can draw on that capacity sometime in the future. It is true that your brain probably looks and feels
like a sponge, but it never acts like one. Amongst neuroscientists there is a concept known as neural
pruning. As you grow you reorganise your brain to cope with the demands you place on it. Millions of
neural connections that are not put to use get pruned away. If you were to attend to every bit of data
that hits your senses, you would not be able to cope with life. To have all your life’s accumulated data
available is a dysfunction. Selection is part of what the brain does to keep you healthy. Sponges do not
Fallacy four: stress stops you learning
Partly true! However, it depends on the nature and the duration of the stress, the individual concerned
and what is being learned. Short-term, moderate stress is good for learning. Different individuals adapt
to anxiety in very different ways. Some ‘learning’ in stress is so ‘successful’ that it is impossible to shift
thereafter. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an example of this. The old thinking used to be that in
stress ‘downshifting’ occurred and higher order thinking was then impossible. Different and more
sophisticated models now prevail.
Fallacy five: use it or lose it
True – but needs clarification. Active engagement in a task reorganises the brain whereas passive
stimulation does not do anything like the same degree. Learning can and does occur out of conscious
awareness but it is not as enduring as that which occurs through active engagement. A further
improvement on our understanding of the ‘use it or lose it’ idea is that the brain is programmed to be
experience dependent and experience expectant. In other words, at some stages in our development,
some types of experience are more important than others. An adult learning a new language uses
different brain structures than a child. The former is dependent and the latter expectant.
Fallacy six: your left brain is logical and your right is creative
A seductive idea that has slipped firmly into popular culture. There is no gene, no synaptic connection,
no chemical, no area or region, no hemisphere in the human brain, that is exclusively responsible for
any specific behaviour. Different neural networks within the brain collude with different chemicals to
produce responses. Damage the networks or alter the chemicals and you change the responses.
Localised damage to one site on either side of the brain can result in loss of function, permanently or
temporarily. This does not mean that that site alone was responsible for the function.
Fallacy seven: you have an emotional brain
There is a view that we have four basic emotions. They are anger, sadness, fear, joy. Other emotions
are formed from a mix of these. Scientists believe it improbable that one brain structure could run
competing emotions. Just as separate but interconnected structures contribute to everyday functions,
so it is now thought that different but connected structures contribute to the subtleties of emotional
response. Many neuroscientists are sceptical about claims for what is termed ‘emotional intelligence’
and its links with brain structures.
Fallacy eight: there is a special needs brain
There is not a Muslim brain, a white brain, an Inuit brain, a Chelsea Football Club supporter’s brain, a
shopkeeper’s brain or a special needs brain. An individual, particularly a child, should not be labelled
by any category of function or dysfunction. It is a wonderful spin-off from brain research that we now
know a lot more about very specific cases of dysfunction from which we can begin to generalise. The
work at Oxford University on dyslexia and at University College London on autism are good examples.
This can help teaching, but it remains a terrifying thought that we should begin to teach a brain rather than
the child who owns it.
Fallacy nine: Mozart makes you more intelligent
No he does not! The Mozart effect is a classic case of the media’s love of a sexy story and the promise
of instant reward meeting with one research project – which had a limited cohort and a very tightly
defined task – and prematurely articulating. Not once, but again and again worldwide. Hidden deep
behind this there is genuine, quality research. What is of equal interest is how quickly the research can
be selected, distorted, and re-packaged when there is sufficient public demand. Playing your
slumbering infant Mozart piano sonatas is unlikely to do much more than disturb his, and later your,
Fallacy ten: enriched learning environments give your child a better start in life
There is no substantial scientific evidence in support of this. The evidence from laboratory research on
rats proves that the absence of a normal environment inhibits learning. It does not prove that extra
stimulation enhances brain growth, learning and intelligence. Cancel your subscription to Infant Genius
Monthly, throw away your flash cards and play together the three of you: the baby, you and the
Fallacy eleven: children can only concentrate for two minutes more than their chronological age
A maxim that has become accepted as a truth. There is no science behind this. If there were, it would
not make such an easy generalisation. Buy your ‘hyperactive’ teenager a Playstation 2 and put it to the
test. Human attention varies in its nature. Concentration times are dependent on the individual, the task
and the context, not on chronological age.
Fallacy twelve: the brain cells you get at birth are those you have for life
No longer held to be true. Stem cell research and research into neuroplasticity in adults suggest that
we can and do grow new brain cells in certain areas of the brain. The hippocampus, an area associated
with learning and memory, is one such area.
Fallacy thirteen: there are critical periods within which specific developments must occur
This was long held to be true, but has recently been questioned. The correct terminology is now
sensitive periods. It is believed that rather than stop abruptly, developmental periods fade away.
Fallacy fourteen: genes are destiny
Educators often hear the lament, ‘he gets it from his father’. This is usually an apology for a perceived
problem or lack of ability. What the boy sees his father do, how the father talks to and around him, and
how the father relates to life’s challenges contributes as much to the boy’s subsequent behaviour and
abilities as his genetic legacy. Genes instruct and guide the body as it develops. Environment, acts with
genetic inheritance to create a unique brain. Identical twins with the same genes do not have identical
brains. The brain alters with use. Adult neuroplasticity is real and remains so right into old age.
Fallacy fifteen: your memory is perfect
To quote from a popular text ‘there is now increasing evidence that our memories may not only be far
better than we ever thought but may in fact be perfect’. Sadly, this is wholly untrue. If you had a perfect
memory, your life would be hell. Memory is less about recall than it is about reconstitution. Memories
do not reside hidden away in specific sites within the brain. Memory relies on a coming together of a
number of variables. Change any of those variables and you change the memory. Memory is by its very
nature imperfect! False memory syndrome is real.
Fallacy sixteen: male and female brains are so different we ought to teach boys and girls in
Justification for teaching boys and girls in different ways does not come from brain research. Men and
women are different, behave differently and have some difference in the organisation and structure of
their brains. This does not provide a good rationale for education policy. The differences between male
and female brains that are reported by many popular texts are exaggerated.
In the remaining sections of the book I tried to separate fallacy from fact, locate ‘facts’ in order to get beyond ‘fads’ and arrive at some findings. In doing so I recognised that I placed my head well and truly above the parapet and was in danger of creating my own set of fallacies and fads. Fifteeen years later the discussion goes on…