What is a neuromythe?

This is a mistaken belief about how the brain works.

If I tell you that we only use 10% of our brain, does it speak to you? Maybe it makes you smile too. This is one of the most common neuromyths. Few in the learning sectors still believe this idea, but it lives on in popular culture. Perhaps we can partly blame science fiction literature and movies, such as Luc Besson's film Lucy.

Image from the movie Lucy

If this myth is easily swept aside, others are persistent among those involved in learning and pedagogy. Over the past fifteen years, studies have multiplied on the subject and have shown that several of these neuromyths are widespread in education, particularly in the teaching population. These include:

- Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones & Jolies, Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers, 2012

- Howard-Jones, Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages, 2014

- Tardif, Doudin & Meylan, Neuromyths Among Teachers and Student Teachers, 2015

- Bourassa, Menot-Martin, Philion, Neuroscience and education, to learn and accompany, 2017

The presence of these beliefs in pedagogy is problematic. Not only do they lead to a misunderstanding of the learning process on the part of the teacher, but they can also influence his or her practices for teaching. Fortunately, we can count on the cognitive sciences to introduce a certain rigor into the representations that we have of our brain and how it functions when it learns.

The neuromyth is not always entirely false, it is its significant discrepancy with what the scientific community proposes, in an almost consensual way, that makes it an erroneous belief. There are dozens of them, all of them obstacles to questioning pedagogical practices. Sometimes obvious, others are more subtle and persistent.

Learning styles

The myth: each of us would have a preferred learning style that would allow us to better understand, but also to better memorize knowledge: visual, auditory or kinesthetic.

The reality is quite different. No study has been able to prove the superiority of teaching according to individual profiles. While we may have preferences for a particular learning style, teaching to those preferences does not lead to better learning.

For example, some studies report that groups that followed methods adapted to their learning preferences did not learn better than groups that followed methods not adapted to their preferences. (See Massa, Meyer, Testing the ATI hypothesis, 2006)

There is almost no research showing any positive effect from the application of this theory. In fact, these studies attempt to demonstrate that the divisive approaches recommended by the theory of learning styles should be replaced by teaching methods that make use of visual, auditory and tactile dimensions, simultaneously or not. Thus, multimodal presentation, or mutisensory integration, is favored to enhance the ability to perceive and process information. (See Wallace, Meredith, Stein, Multisensory integration in the superior colliculus of the alert cat. Journal of neurophysiology, 1998)

Hemispheric dominance

The myth: there would be a difference between those of us who would use more their left brain and those who would use more their right brain. No, we don't have two brains in our skulls, we are talking about two hemispheres. A "left-brain" learner would be more logical and analytical and would shine more in logical-mathematical tasks, while the "right-brain" learner would be more creative and intuitive and would shine more in visual-spatial tasks.

Still very widespread, this idea has been circulating since the end of the 19th century, fuelled as much by scientists as by writers. Nice theory, but it is false! We do need both of our cerebral hemispheres to perform all the tasks performed by the brain. However, as I pointed out earlier, not everything about neuromyths is fundamentally wrong.

We have to go back to the 19th century to understand where this theory comes from. Until then, it was considered that the brain was a symmetrical organ, a whole repeating itself from left to right (hippocampus, hypothalamus, striatum...). However, in 1861, the work of Paul Broca highlighted for the first time the left lateralization of a major function: the production of language. Other works quickly followed: those of John Hughlings Jackson (1872) demonstrating the right lateralization of visuo-spatial attention, those of Wernicke (1876) defining language comprehension as being lateralized in the left temporal lobe.

Theasymmetry of the brain is thus proven, as is the unequal involvement of the two hemispheres in different functions. This is the starting point of the myth opposing an intellectual "left brain", mastering language and social conventions, and an instinctive "right brain", which allows to find the way home and to recognize one's own.

The theme was also popularized by the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The hero of the novel has two personalities:

- Dr. Jekyll, logical, moral and self-controlled, represents the left brain;

- Mr. Hyde, primitive and bestial, represents the right brain.

Cover of the first edition of Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This theory will be taken up many times by other scientists, even during the 20th century. Since then, science has progressed considerably and techniques such as MRI now make it possible to precisely identify the regions involved in a function.

A 2013 study attempted to determine the reality or otherwise of hemispheric dominance. More than 1,000 subjects underwent functional MRI, analyzing the activity of neurons on each side of the brain. The result is clear: neither hemisphere has more activity overall than the other. The specific activity of a brain region seems to be essentially linked to the task performed and not to a hemispheric preference of the individual.

Finally, the right and left brains are components of a larger cognitive system. The brain is indeed asymmetrical in the realization of certain functions, but it is not lateralized!

Multiple intelligences

The myth: there are eight different intelligences, independent and unequally distributed in each individual, explaining why some are gifted for music, others for mathematics. These types of intelligence would serve as a basis for improving educational practices.

In 1983, the American psychologist Howard Gardner published his book Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences in which he defined these intelligences (first 7, then 10): linguistic, spatial, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic and musical, naturalist, existential and spiritual.

Cover of the book Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences

For Gardner, it is indeed a question of intelligences that are independent of each other and unequally distributed according to the individuals. As soon as it was published, the theory met with great success, particularly with many teachers who used it to adapt their teaching, but also with strong criticism from the scientific community, particularly concerning the vagueness of the criteria for defining these intelligences.

Note that in 2012, two-thirds of teachers in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands considered Gardner's theory to be sound.

Once again, advances in brain imaging, coupled with refinements in psychometric testing, have brought this concept back into focus. MRI-based studies (Colom R, Jung RE, Haier RJ. Distributed brain sites for the g-factor of intelligence. Neuroimage. 2006.) have shown that there is no skill-specific network. The consensus has returned to the concept of a general intelligence. The concept of multiple intelligence is confused with that of talent, and the skills related to these different "intelligences" are not independent of each other as the theory of multiple intelligences claims.

Gardner's theory is not a proven one, but it has stimulated thinking in the field of education about the value of a greater variety of abilities in students.