We have learned much about how the brain works in the past three decades. Some of what we have learned has led to better teaching and more effective learning. In some cases, what we have learned reinforces what we believed to be true without an understanding of how the brain works, but in other cases, what we have learned dispels, refutes, or does not apply to classroom practices and learning.
Among the insights we have gained about the brain and learning are several things we used to believe to be true that have been disproved or have not been verified by research. However, some of the beliefs and assumptions are so deeply ingrained in perception and practice that they are resistant to counterevidence. In some cases, despite consistent, significant, and growing information that counters what has been believed, people (including many educators) continue to hold on to myths. Here are six of the most common and difficult-to-dispel myths about the brain and learning.
Myth #1: People use only about 10 percent of their brains.
Fact: Most people actually use 100 percent of their brains. Different areas of the brain perform different functions, but all parts of the brain are available to and accessed by most healthy people.
Myth #2: Students learn better when they experience instruction that matches their preferred learning style.
Fact: There is no consistent research showing that students have a single preferred learning style, especially across learning contexts and tasks. Researchers have compared this myth to the former belief that the world is flat. It seems as though it should be true, but it is not. Still, exposing students to learning via a variety of approaches offers more opportunities for students to make connections and grasp concepts.
Myth #3: Learning increases the number of brain cells people have.
Fact: Learning increases the connections among already existing brain cells. Consequently, capacity and efficiency are improved.
Myth #4: Some people rely on their “left brain” for learning while others are more dependent on their “right brain,” thus explaining differences in how people learn.
Fact: Both sides of the brain work together during learning. No conclusive research shows that learning is driven in important ways by virtue of one side of the brain being dominant.
Myth #5: Intelligence, or brain capacity, is established at birth and cannot be modified via experience or environment.
Fact: There are genetic factors involved in mental abilities, but brain capacity is heavily influenced by experiences and the present quality of life and learning environment.
Myth #6: Listening to classical music can increase reasoning ability.
Fact: This myth is commonly known as the Mozart Effect. There is little evidence that just listening to classical music has an impact on reasoning, regardless of age.
Many of these myths seem like they could or should be true. Consequently, they can be difficult to dispel. On the other hand, relying on myths to inform and guide teaching and learning practices does not seem like an effective strategy.
Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429
OECD/CERI. (2008, May 15-16). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Proceedings from OECD/CERI International Conference: Learning in the 21st Century: Research, Innovation and Policy. Retrieved from www.oecd.org/site/educeri21st/40554190.pdf
Pasquinelli, E. (2012). Neuromyths: Why do they exist and persist? Mind, Brain, and Education, 6(2), 89-96. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-228X.2012.01141.x
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.