Thursday, July 10, 2014

Neuromyths

Summary of the lesson:
In 1998, the state of Florida passed a bill for day-care centers to play classical music to children.  The same year, the Georgia Governor asked for $105,000 for the production and distribution of classical music to newborns. He did so because he had read that listening Mozart’s music can boost IQ scores. Too good to be true. The good news had been amplified by several newspapers, but they had their origin in scientific research developed in a psychology department. In 1993 Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky had measured the effects of listening at Mozart’s music on adults’ spatial capacities, compared them to listening at relaxing music and silence, and found an increase of 8-9 points on an IQ scale. Unfortunately, other laboratories have not been able to replicate the results, since, and the Mozart effect cannot be considered as evidence. Despite the absence of evidence, in 2004 80% of 496 people interviewed in California and Arizona were familiar with the Mozart effect; and products based on the Mozart effect© (a Don Campbell’s trade mark) are sold in millions of copies (Bangerter and Heath, 2004). It is worth adding that the paper originally published by Rauscher and colleagues does not even mention potential effects on children or long-term modifications (Chabris, 1999; Steele, et al., 1999).

Which is the diffusion of misconceptions -  like the Mozart effect  - that negatively affect the scientific approach to education? Since these misconceptions are related to knowledge about the mind and brain, in the domain of education they are known as “neuromyths”. How do neuromyths  originate, why do they persist in the face of opposing knowledge? Do they represent a risk  for science-informed education? Which actions can be put fort for countering their (potentially negative) effects? 

Neuromyths can be generated by a variety of processes. Some neuromyths are distortions of scientific facts, i.e. stem from undue simplifications of scientific results. For example, research on hemispheric specialization and dominance has given rise to the myth that people are rather right- or left-brained, and that the balance between the two is a desirable effect, somehow not to be taken for granted; special forms of training are then proposed in order to bring the brain to an equilibrium (Geake, 2008; Goswami, 2008). Neuromyths can also be the offspring of scientific hypotheses that have been held true for a while, and then abandoned because of the emergence of new evidence. It is the case for the myth of the first three years, stating that learning depends on synaptic growth and that no other period is as good as the first three years of life for learning, because this is the limited window of time during which synaptic growth occurs. The myth fails taking into account recent discoveries about neuro-plasticity and the evidence for long-life learning as well (Bruer, 1997, 1999). Thirdly, myths can grow from the misinterpretations of experimental results, as in the case of the Mozart effect. In other cases – e.g., the myth that only a fraction, namely 10%, of our brain is currently used - it is harder to trace the relationship of the myth with (distorted, outdated, or misinterpreted) scientific results. The myth of the 10% might stem from considerations about the untapped potential of the human psyche (including unproven parapsychological assertions) or take inspiration from neuroanatomical considerations about glia-neuron rate, white matter-grey matter, or else (Della Sala, 2007; Lilienfeld, et al., 2010). What is sure is that the myth of the 10% participates to the more general shift from the mentalist vocabulary to neuroscientific jargon. In fact, what is typical of neuromyths, as opposed to other misconceptions about the mind, is that they have a special relationship with the science of the brain. Thus, neuromyths would not exist unless neurosciences had breached the perimeter of the scientific community, and reached the laypeople by the means of popular media. Withal, neuromyths seem to find a favorable ground in neurophilia: the appetite for brain news, as it will be discussed below.
Another characteristic of neuromyths – one they share with other forms of scientific myths and urban legends – consists in the fact that they tend to survive the circulation of correct information, and to be inflated by sensationalist press releases. Consequential to the academic and public debunking of the Mozart effect, enthusiasm for the power of classical music upon adult intelligence has declined in the popular press, yet claims concerning its effectiveness on the baby mind have become more common (Chabris and Simons, 2009). The “meme” of the Mozart effect has spread to the point that the Japanese market now offers bananas grown with the help of Mozart music (the Mozart bananas) and sake brewed on the notes of classical music (Krieger, 2010). Neuromyths thus seem to enjoy the same resilience to change that affects naïve beliefs about the physical and biological world (Vosniadou, 2008), ideas and urban legends that “stick” independently from their truth (Brunvald, 1981; Heath and Heat, 2007), and, more generally, illusions. While illusions are robust characteristics of the human mind, however, neuromyths are submitted to cultural conditions – i.e., to the circulation of information and eventually of misinformation. The hypothesis can thus be put forward that the persistence of neuromyths has its roots in cognitive illusions and biases, but is sustained by specific cultural conditions, such as the circulation of pieces of information about the brain and the appetite for brain news. 

The "cognitive bases" of neuromyths makes it especially difficult to devise methods for countering them. One should concentrate on situations in which neuromyths represents a real threat to good education. This is the case, for instance, when misconceptions about the mind and brain are used to back educational strategies that are not proved to work (or proved not to work). What counts, really, is that neuromyths are kept under control when policy decisions are taken or applications devised. 
How? By having neuroscientists more involved in scientific mediation and more aware of the ethical issues related to the application and misapplication of their knowledge (Racine, et al., 2008); by privileging the dissemination of ideas that have survived the scrutiny of replication and the most rigorous standards of evidence over the broadcasting of fresh results and extraordinary claims. But above all, by establishing an effective collaboration – in the framework of a new translational research field - between education and mind and brain sciences, as an alternative to the import-export of ideas from one domain to the other.

For revising the lesson: 
  • Pasquinelli, E. (2012). Neuromyths. why do they exist and persist? Mind, Brain, and Education, 6, 2, 89-96. 
  • Pasquinelli, E. (Forthcoming). La rencontre entre sciences cognitives et éducation : opportunités et pentes glissantes. Le cas exemplaire des neuromythes. P.A. Doudin, E.Tardif: Neurosciences et cognition: perspectives pour les sciences de l'éducation. De Boek (A paraitre). 
Further readings: 
  • Readings: Neuromyths and other epistemological, ethical issues

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