An almost manic enthrallment with neuroscience is sweeping the world and stimulating a booming market for educational technologies and programs to feed our obsession with making ourselves “smarter” and more productive. Neuroscience is shiny, new, and exciting, and some speculate that neuroscientific explanations are the key to solving the problems of education and learning. Despite the hype, we should approach neuroscientific quick-fixes with caution.
There’s no doubt that neuroscience is compelling. For one thing, neuroimaging is beautiful. Check out NOVA’s Mapping the Brain interactive to see what I mean. You can see how the brain is viewed using different neuroimaging techniques, and highlight specific parts of the brain implicated in processes such as memory, emotion, and the vital and involuntary mechanisms that keep us alive (e.g. breathing and heart rate). For a start, highlight “amygdala” to see where our fear response comes from, or select “hippocampus” to see the part of the brain most important to explicit memory formation. Info buttons can be found throughout the interactive for an overview of the most important imaging technologies in neuroscience today, along with the structures and functions they examine.
The beauty of neuroimaging, though, is part of what makes neuroscience explanations so believable. In fact, research (1) shows that the inclusion of brain imaging in explanations of psychological phenomena can make weak justifications seem more satisfying and valid for non-experts, even when the data are incorrect or irrelevant. In other words, when you talk about the brain, people believe you—even when they shouldn’t.
Why does that matter?
When a new finding in neuroscience takes hold in the media and the public imagination, it’s like a game of telephone: As information is whispered down the line from person to person, findings are generalized, taken out of context, and inappropriately simplified until the final message is far removed the author’s original intent. The outcome is a garbled mess of exaggerated research findings, sweeping generalizations, misapplications, and inappropriate policy recommendations.
For example, you may have heard that we only use 10% of our brains, or that people are either “left-brained” or “right-brained.” Both statements are inaccurate, misleading, and reflect that real-life game of telephone. Unfortunately, some school districts are justifying exorbitant expenditures based on just this kind of distorted information. They are attempting to improve student performance by investing in technologies and methods that lack sufficient empirical backing. Neuroscience research pulled out of context can lead us to make decisions based on “neuromyths” that, while well-intentioned, could be hurting our children and wasting valuable financial resources.
So if all these things we thought we knew are, in fact, incorrect, what can neuroscience tell us that applies to education?
The theme in neuroscience that I find the most hopeful and relevant is that of neuroplasticity—the brain’s amazing capability to rewire itself to learn, adapt to environment, and recover from injury throughout the lifespan. It’s not over after a critical period in infancy, and it’s not even over after puberty. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong phenomenon, occurring from our earliest development in utero until the day we die.
So, how can we make sense of all this neuroscience information?
Be careful. Be skeptical. Check your sources. Know the power of brain science, but also its limitations. Claims that seem “too good to be true” probably are, especially if reaping the benefits requires large financial investment. So, ask yourself: Are the people publishing the literature supporting commercial products or techniques the same ones benefiting from sales? If the literature on “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius” is published in a journal called “My Awesome, Expensive New Learning Technology That Will Make You A Genius Quarterly,” alarm bells should start ringing. Run the other way, fast.
Finally, understand that neuroscience in still its infancy. With the rapid advancement of scientific knowledge, the “neuro-truths” we take for granted today may very well be the debunked myths of tomorrow.
1.) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Weisberg DS, Keil FC, Goodstein J, Rawson E, Gray JR. J Cogn Neurosci. 2008 Mar; 20(3):470-7.