Americans on average believe two-thirds of a set of myths about the brain and learning. More worryingly, US teachers also hold to a majority of these long-disproved theories, sometimes harmlessly, but in other cases making it harder to identify and treat learning disabilities.
Kelly Macdonald worked as a school teacher before becoming a graduate student at the University of Houston. “I encountered neuromyths throughout teacher trainings and saw many teachers using related practices in their classrooms,” Macdonald said in a statement. She decided to investigate further and demonstrates in Frontiers of Psychology how common the problem is.
Macdonald presented a random group of 3,045 people, 598 educators, and 234 individuals who had studied neuroscience at university with a list of claims about the brain and asked if each was true. The myths included ideas such as a common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards, we only use 10 percent of our brain, and listening to classical music enhances children’s reasoning ability.
On average, the public believed 68 percent of Macdonald’s list, educators 56 percent, and those trained in neuroscience 46 percent. Senior author Dr Lauren McGrath of the University of Denver said: “We were surprised to see that these ‘classic’ neuromyths tend to cluster together, meaning that if you believe one myth, you are more likely to believe others.” Puzzlingly, educators who knew more about the brain were actually more likely to believe the neuromyths tested.
Some of these myths may seem harmless, but the authors point out that teachers with misconceptions about dyslexia symptoms are unlikely to spot cases, preventing children from getting the help they need.
The most widely believed myth in the study was the now-debunked theory that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style,” which had the support of 76 percent of teachers and 93 percent of the general public. The paper notes that a commonality in the most widely believed myths is “an underestimation of the complexity of human behavior.”
One encouraging sign was that younger participants in the survey, like those with more education and exposure to peer-reviewed science, were more likely to answer correctly.
Given the prevalence of fairly simple myths, it is not surprising that more complex ones – such as the idea of people being “right- or left-brained” (which involves a misunderstanding of genuine research) – were also widely believed.
Most of these myths don’t serve a particular agenda, they’re just stories that have been widely repeated without sufficient debunking. On the other hand, their success shows just how difficult it is to kill off even more damaging misconceptions, like differences in male and female brains that make women less suited to programming.