Governments are pouring unprecedented sums of money into neuroscience. They want to know how the three pounds of meaty head sponge gives rise to human memory, personality and consciousness, and why it can go so tragically wrong. For now, so much remains mysterious. Unfortunately this ignorance is providing the perfect breeding ground for myth and misconception. For every genuine break through, there is parallel excretion of hype or utter neurobunk.
Disclaimer: I’ve written a new book about brain myths called Great Myths of the Brain. I used the latest research to tease fact from fiction in contemporary neuroscience. I’m delighted with the generous endorsements the book has received (see all the buzz on my website). But promoting the book these last couple of months, one question I was asked has particularly surprised me – do brain myths matter? Yes. Yes, they do. Brain myths are harming our children, our health, business and real neuroscience:
1). Many school teachers around the world believe neuromyths, such as the idea that children are left-brained or right-brained, or that we use just 10 per cent of our brains. This is worrying. For example, if a teacher decides a child is “left-brained” and therefore not inclined to creativity, they will likely divert that child away from beneficial creative activities.
2). On a similar note, educational campaigners have misappropriated neuroscience findings to support their cause. For example, Leonard Sax, a psychologist who ran the organization that used to be known as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, says that girls and boys should be taught differently and separately because of differences in their brains. I looked at one of the key studies that he cites in his book: It’s clear that Sax over-interpreted the tentative results to make groundless claims. In case you’re wondering, a 2014 meta-analysis found no evidence for single-sex education being beneficial for boys or girls.
3). The California-based neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran has fuelled incredible hype and myth around mirror neurons. He credits these cells with bringing the great leap forward in human culture, and he has argued that a broken mirror neuron system is the cause of autism. The latest research suggests otherwise: it’s time to bury this harmful brain myth.
4). Brain myths are being used to justify gender stereotypes. Women have to deal with enough gender stereotype BS as it is, without bad neuroscience adding to the misery. Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened last year when researchers got in a tangle over a wonky brain wiring study – they said it supported the idea that men are good at map-reading and women at multi-tasking. The study didn’t even look at these activities.
5). Neuro-bunk is being used to scare people about the effects of modern technologies. Spewing most of this barrage of “neuro-bollocks” is Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield. She suggests the internet is destroying our memories and identities, when the evidence suggests quite the opposite. Worst of all she has linked the rise of the internet with the increased rates of autism diagnosis, even though experts say the two are completely unrelated.
6). Brain training companies frequently make unfounded claims about the benefits of their products. One myth here is that playing their games can revolutionize your brain health, more than say socializing or reading. In October, dozens of neuroscientists wrote an open letter warning that the “exaggerated and misleading claims [of the brain training industry] exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.”
7). Brain myths around coma give families false hope. Experts have analyzed the portrayal of coma in Hollywood and the condition is presented in an unrealistically positive way – patients are depicted sun-tanned and healthy, and they often emerge from years of coma apparently unscathed. In fact, most coma patients do not recover fully or even at all. There are many other harmful brain myths pertaining to injury, dementia and epilepsy, among other conditions.
8). The “chemical imbalance” myth of mental illness isn’t just wrong, it also places too much focus on biological explanations for mental illness. This might sound harmless, but in fact research shows that biological explanations increase stigma and dent patients’ hope for recovery.
9). Confusion between genuine neuroscience and neuro-bunk is particularly problematic in the world of business. Neuro-linguistic programming remains popular even though a recent scholarly review concluded that the movement “represents pseudoscientific rubbish”. Meanwhile, the new fields of “Neuroleadership” and “Neuromanagement” are mostly psychology dressed up as brain science; actual brain-based insights are rare and, so far, usually based on poor research. The risk is that businesses adopt practices that are ineffective or even damaging.
10). Why do journalists keep sticking the word “Brain” in their headlines even when their piece isn’t about the brain? It seems it’s no longer enough to sell an article with titles like “The secret to why you procrastinate” or “Science explains why you find email addictive” – today it’s your brain that procrastinates and it’s your brain that’s addicted. Last year, an Atlantic article even promised the “neuroscience guide to negotiations with Iran” (in fact, it was all psychology and history). This misappropriation of the brain is fuelling cynicism and dulling our attention to real neuroscience research.
If you’d like to join the fight against neuro-nonsense, you can get my new book Great Myths of the Brain at a 20 per cent discount. Simply enter the code “PSY14” at the checkout at Wiley.com.