Using Just 10% of Your Brain? Think Again

Popular 'neuromyths' about how we learn are creating confusion in the classroom

Pop quiz: Which of these statements is false?

1. We use only 10% of our brain.

2. Environments rich in stimuli improve the brains of preschool children.

3. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, whether auditory, visual or kinesthetic.

If you picked the first one, congratulations. The idea that we use only 10% of our brain is patently false. Yet it so permeates popular culture that, among psychologists and neuroscientists, it is known as the "10% myth." Contrary to popular belief, the entire brain is put to use—unused neurons die and unused circuits atrophy. Reports of neuroimaging research might perpetuate the myth by showing only a small number of areas "lighting up" in a brain scan, but those are just areas that have more than a base line level of activity; the dark regions aren't dormant or unused.

Did you agree with the other two statements? If so, you fell into our trap. All three statements are false—or at least not substantiated by scientific evidence. Unfortunately, if you got any of them wrong, you're hardly alone.

These "neuromyths," along with others, were presented to 242 primary and secondary school teachers in the Netherlands and the U.K. as part of a study by Sanne Dekker and colleagues at VU University Amsterdam and Bristol University, and just published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. They found that 47% of the teachers believed the 10% myth. Even more, 76%, believed that enriching children's environments will strengthen their brains.

This belief might have emerged from evidence that rats raised in cages with amenities like exercise wheels, tunnels and other rats showed better cognitive abilities and improvements in brain structure compared with rats that grew up isolated in bare cages. But such experiments show only that a truly impoverished and unnatural environment leads to poorer developmental outcomes than a more natural environment with opportunities to play and interact. It follows that growing up locked in a closet or otherwise cut off from human contact will impair a child's brain development. It does not follow that "enriching" a child's environment beyond what is already typical—for example, by constant exposure to "Baby Einstein"-type videos—will boost cognitive development.

The myth about learning styles was the most popular: 94% of the teachers believed that students perform better when lessons are delivered in their preferred learning style. Indeed, students do have preferences about how they learn; the problem is that these preferences have little to do with how effectively they learn.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explained this conundrum in his 2009 book "Why Don't Students Like School?" In the best tests of the learning-styles theory, researchers first ascertain students' preferred styles and then randomly assign them to a form of instruction that either matches their preferences or doesn't. For example, in one study, students were randomly assigned to memorize a set of objects presented either verbally (as names) or visually (as pictures). Overall, visual presentation led to better memory, but there was no relationship between the learners' preferences and the instruction style. A study comparing "sensing" to "intuitive" learners among medical residents being taught new procedures reached a similar conclusion.

Of course, good teachers sense when students are struggling or progressing, and they adjust accordingly. Students with disabilities have individual needs that should be addressed. But a comprehensive review commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science concluded that there's essentially no evidence that customizing instruction formats to match students' preferred learning styles leads to better achievement. This is a knock not on teachers—we are teachers ourselves—but on human intuition, which finds the claim about learning styles so self-evident that it is hard to see how it could be wrong.

Our own surveys of the U.S. population have found even more widespread belief in myths about the brain. About two-thirds of the public agreed with the 10% myth. Many also believed that memory works like a video recording or that they can tell when someone is staring at the back of their head.

Ironically, in the Dekker group's study, the teachers who knew the most about neuroscience also believed in the most myths. Apparently, teachers who are (admirably) enthusiastic about expanding their knowledge of the mind and brain have trouble separating fact from fiction as they learn. Neuromyths have so much intuitive appeal, and they spread so rapidly in fields like business and self-help, that eradicating them from popular consciousness might be a Sisyphean task. But reducing their influence in the classroom would be a good start.

By Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons, Wall Street Journal
Reviewed / Posted by: Scott W. Yates, MD, MBA, MS, FACP

Mr. Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College. Mr. Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. They are the authors of "The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us."   This book is available in print or as an iBook.

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