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Nature Reviews Neuroscience | AOP, published online 15 October 2014; doi:10.

1038/nrn3817

PERSPECTIVES
a misunderstanding, a misreading or a mis-
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
quoting of facts scientifically established (by
brain research) to make a case for use of brain
Neuroscience and education: research in education and other contexts”
(REF. 13).

myths and messages Surveys of teachers in countries with very


different cultures have revealed similarly high
levels of belief in several neuromyths (TABLE 1).
Paul A. Howard-Jones This prevalence may reflect the fact that neuro­
science is rarely included in the training of
Abstract | For several decades, myths about the brain — neuromyths — have teachers, who are therefore ill-prepared to be
persisted in schools and colleges, often being used to justify ineffective approaches critical of ideas and educational programmes
to teaching. Many of these myths are biased distortions of scientific fact. Cultural that claim a neuroscientific basis.
conditions, such as differences in terminology and language, have contributed to
a ‘gap’ between neuroscience and education that has shielded these distortions Seeds of confusion — how myths begin.
Although some writers have used words such
from scrutiny. In recent years, scientific communications across this gap have
as fraud and scam to describe their distrust of
increased, although the messages are often distorted by the same conditions and unscrutinised brain-based interventions14,15,
biases as those responsible for neuromyths. In the future, the establishment of a examples of cases in which entrepreneurs
new field of inquiry that is dedicated to bridging neuroscience and education may have knowingly set out to mislead educators
help to inform and to improve these communications. are difficult to find. It is more likely that such
interventions originate from uninformed
Imagine having a brain that is only 10% neuroscience and education, and into interpretations of genuine scientific facts and
active, that shrinks when you drink less how these challenges might be addressed. are promoted by victims of their own wish-
than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day and that Understanding the cultural distance to be ful thinking who hold a “sincere but deluded
increases its interhemispheric connectivity travelled between neuroscience and education fixation on some eccentric theory that the
when you rub two invisible buttons on your — and the biases that distort communications holder is absolutely sure will revolutionize
chest. For neuroscientists, such a brain is dif- along the way — may support a dispassionate science and society” (REF. 16).
ficult — if not impossible — to contemplate, assessment of the progress in developing a There is often some remaining trace of
but such notions are commonly held by bridge across these diverse disciplines and of scientific origins in even the most bizarre
teachers across the world1–7. These unscien- what is needed to complete it. The purpose of of neuromyths — a seed from which the
tific ideas are often associated with ineffec- this Perspective article is to review what we myth sprung forth and which may still be
tive or unevaluated approaches to teaching know about neuromyths and the forces that contributing to its potency. For example,
in the classroom, thereby affecting children’s have helped them to grow; to understand the although a daily intake of 6 to 8 glasses of
learning in subject areas beyond science. role of these forces in contemporary commu- water is a contentious recommendation with
Misunderstanding about brain function and nications on topics at the interface of neuro­ its own mythical origin17 — and there is
development also relates to teachers’ opin- science and education; and to consider how no evidence for underperformance among
ions on issues such as learning disorders and communications between neuroscience and school children who fail to meet it — stud-
so, in turn, may influence the outcomes of education might be improved in the future. ies18,19 have shown that dehydration can
students with these disorders. influence cognitive function. This finding
Some have suggested that the long- Neuromyths in education may help to explain why more than a quar-
standing prevalence of neuromyths in the The first use of the term neuromyth has ter of UK teachers who were sampled in a
classroom indicates the need for caution been attributed to the neurosurgeon study believed that failing to meet this quota
when including neuroscience in educational Alan Crockard9, who coined it in the 1980s would cause their brain to shrink (TABLE 1).
thinking 8,9. Others have suggested that these when he referred to unscientific ideas about Perhaps the most popular and influential
misunderstandings show that the distance the brain in medical culture12. In 2002, the myth is that a student learns mosteffectively
between these two fields is too great for them Brain and Learning project of the UK’s when they are taught in their preferred learn-
to inform each other 10 or even that there is an Organization of Economic Co‑operation and ing style. This idea has acquired various jus-
‘in principle’ incompatibility between them11. Development (OECD)13 drew attention to the tifications that claim to have a neuroscientific
However, the study of neuromyths and many misconceptions about the mind and basis. The implicit assumption seems to be
how they develop may provide a valuable brain that arise outside of the medical and sci- that, because different regions of the cortex
source of insight into the challenges of entific communities. They redefined the term have crucial roles in visual, auditory and
interdisciplinary communication between neuromyth as a “misconception generated by sensory processing, learners should receive

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Table 1 | Prevalence of neuromyths amongst practising teachers in five different international contexts
Myth* Percentage of teachers who “agree” (rather than “disagree” or “don’t know”)
United Kingdom The Netherlands Turkey Greece China
(n = 137) (n = 105) (n = 278) (n = 174) (n = 238)
We mostly only use 10% of our brain 48 46 50 43 59
Individuals learn better when they receive 93 96 97 96 97
information in their preferred learning style (for
example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)
Short bouts of co‑ordination exercises can improve 88 82 72 60 84
integration of left and right hemispheric brain
function
Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain 91 86 79 74 71
or right brain) can help to explain individual
differences amongst learners
Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and 57 55 44 46 62
snacks
Drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can 29 16 25 11 5
cause the brain to shrink
Learning problems associated with developmental 16 19 22 33 50
differences in brain function cannot be remediated
by education
*The table shows some of the most popular myths reported in four different studies from the United Kingdom1, The Netherlands1, Turkey4, Greece2 and China7. In all
studies, teachers were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with statements reflecting several popular myths, shown as “agree”, “don’t know” or “disagree”.
The table shows the percentages of teachers within each sample who responded with “agree”.

information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic dominant. Although the details of such cat- them to characterize learners in terms of a
forms according to which part of their brain egorization varies with different educational small number of relatively independent ‘intel-
works better 20. The brain’s interconnectivity programmes, ‘intuitive learners’ are often ligences’ — for example, linguistic, musical
makes such an assumption unsound, and considered as more ‘right-brained’ and ‘step- and interpersonal31. Multiple Intelligences
reviews of educational literature and con- wise sequential learners’ as more ‘left-brained’ theory claims to be drawn from a range of
trolled laboratory studies fail to support this (REFS 27–30). Some educational texts encour- disciplines, including neuroscience, which
approach to teaching21–23. However, it is true age teachers to determine whether a child — it has been claimed — is “amazingly sup-
that there may be preferences and, perhaps is left-brained or right-brained before they portive of the general thrust of Multiple
more importantly, that presenting informa- attempt to teach them30. The scientific fact Intelligences theory” (REF. 32). However, the
tion in multiple sensory modes can support that seeded this myth is not difficult to find: general processing complexity of the brain
learning 24. some types of cognitive process are lateralized makes it unlikely that anything resembling
with regard to the additional neural activity Multiple Intelligences theory can ever be
Cultural conditions — a space for myths to associated with them. Neuroimaging studies, used to describe it, and it seems neither
thrive. Cultural conditions, such as differ- when appropriately interpreted, have shown accurate nor useful to reduce the vast range
ences in the terminology and language used the distributed nature of neural activity dur- of complex individual differences at neural
by neuroscientists and educators, can be ing everyday tasks. However, an uninformed and cognitive levels to any limited number of
implicated in the processes that transform interpretation of images showing ‘hot spots’, capabilities33. However, the neuromythologi-
scientific knowledge into self-propagating as reproduced in popular and accessible cal part of Multiple Intelligences theory (that
and misleading ideas25. The international articles, can promote the idea that there are is, its relation to neuroscience) is difficult to
popularity of many neuromyths suggests a isolated functional units. To non-specialists, test, not least because the task for Multiple
global dimension to these factors. apparently well-defined and static islands Intelligences theorists of defining the types
One condition that is likely to favour on one side of a brain are more suggestive of and number of intelligences remains a work
the propagation of a myth is when counter- a new phrenology than of a statistical map in progress.
evidence — as well as the neuroscientific indicating where activity has exceeded an A language barrier also separates non-
findings on which the myth was (wrongly) arbitrary threshold. Considering functionality specialists from neuroscience evidence.
based — is difficult to access, which effec- in terms of independent left and right hemi- Apart from the technical jargon, there are
tively protects the myth from scrutiny. When spheres is the simplest form of such phrenol- many familiar words that have new mean-
such counter-evidence and findings are ogy and categorizing learners as left-brained ings attached to them (including ‘learning’).
complex and/or can only be found in neuro- or right-brained just takes this misguided idea When we asked trainee teachers whether
science journals, it is easy for non-specialists one stage further. a student could learn something without
to miss, misinterpret or ignore them and the The threat of scrutiny is lowest for ideas attending to it, a surprising 43% thought
myth can therefore spread unchecked; for that are untestable. Multiple Intelligences this was possible3. It is possible that teach-
example, according to ‘left-brain right-brain’ theory has proved popular with teachers as ers interpret the word ‘attention’ (as in
theory 26, learners’ dispositions arise from a welcome argument against intelligence ‘paying attention’) as indicating a particular
the extent to which their left or right brain is quotient (IQ)‑based education. It encourages set of overt behaviours (for example, not

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talking, looking at the teacher, and so on) desirability 41. The allure of explanations There are, of course, some who do not
rather than as the allocation of cognitive involving the brain has probably helped to share this enthusiasm. Following a confer-
processing resources. promote programmes such as Brain Gym. ence in Santiago, Chile, on Early Education
As part of this programme, learners are told and Human Brain Development in 2007,
Biases — how myths are shaped. Although “brain buttons (soft tissue under the clavicle 136 scientists signed a declaration that
protection from scrutiny provides a fertile to the left and right of the sternum) are mas- stated “neuroscientific research, at this
ground for the seeds of neuromyths to ger- saged deeply with one hand while holding the stage in its development, does not offer
minate and thrive, their shape and form may navel with the other hand” (REF. 42). This is scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or
be influenced by cultural, emotional and supposed to improve many things, including parenting.” (REF. 48). Although few would
even developmental biases; for example, the your “flow of electromagnetic energy”, your disagree with this statement, its scepti-
mind–brain relationship cannot be simplified ability to send messages from your right brain cal tone is clear. The editorial article that
to an easily digested fact. Oversimplification hemisphere to the left side of the body, your reported the declaration stated that brain
of this relationship provides a perfect oppor- tendency to reverse letters and your ability to research was “not ready to relate neuronal
tunity for introducing biases from which keep your place while reading. Leaving aside processes to classroom outcomes” and
misunderstandings then develop. Although any flaws in its theoretical basis, there is a lack referred to the possibility of generating
at infancy we tend not to regard mind and of published research in high-quality journals popular misunderstandings about the brain
brain as being distinctly different34, devel- to make claims about the practical effective- as a “serious downside” to this venture49.
opmental research suggests that children ness of Brain Gym to raise achievement. Of Despite such warnings, there are now
acquire a bias towards ideas about mind and the studies published elsewhere, the lack of many individuals who are pursuing inter-
brain35. Our beliefs about the mind–brain information about the exercises undertaken disciplinary empirical research that relates
relationship may shape our notions of free and/or the insufficient or inappropriate analy- our understanding of the neural processes
will and, in turn, influence decisions regard- sis of the results is considered to undermine of learning to classroom outcomes such
ing issues of personal well-being and whether their credibility 43. as learning to read and learning to use
to help others36,37. From a perspective that To summarize, the neuromyths that have formal mathematics. It may be significant
tends towards dualism (compared with a flourished in areas of public and educa- that the individuals leading these efforts
materialist perspective), brain development tional understanding of the brain are com- include several signatories of the Santiago
is less open to influence through the mind fortably protected from the evidence and declaration.
and is, in other words, more biologically pro- concepts that are required to efface them. As formal communications across the
grammed and provides a stronger constraint This protection is provided by the scientific divide between neuroscience and educa-
on learning. The potential effect of such a concepts being fundamentally complex, by tion have become more frequent, it seems
belief in the classroom can be seen in studies the fact that evidence is hidden in techni- prudent to ask how more recent findings in
of Chinese teachers and UK trainee teach- cal journals that have their own technical neuroscience are being interpreted by people
ers; those who favoured a stronger genetic language and/or by the fact that there can- in the field of education. Below, I discuss four
influence on educational outcome also held not be any direct evidence (for example, areas in which neuroscience has influenced
stronger ideas of biologically defined limits because the myth is untestable). Protected — or is close to influencing — educational
on what their pupils could achieve, which from scrutiny, a range of emotional, devel- attitudes and approaches, in order to explore
suggests that the teachers felt less able to opmental and cultural biases have influ- whether the old biases and cultural condi-
help them3,7. Factors that bias educators’ enced the types of unscientific ideas that tions responsible for neuromyths can still be
ideas about the mind–brain relationship can have emerged. detected. Has the opening of this communi-
also include strong cultural forces — such cation started to dissipate the old neuromyths
as religious belief — that greatly vary across Communication begins: out with the old? and the forces that created them?
national boundaries. In the UK, where half In the past 10–15 years, there have been
of the population report no affiliation with several critical analyses of the ways in which Early development and the enduring
any religion38, only 15% of trainee teachers neuroscience may, and may not, be able to ‘myth of three’. Neuroscience findings are
believed that the mind results from the spirit helpfully inform educational theory, policy increasing our understanding of how fac-
or the soul acting on the brain. By contrast, in and practice44,45. Tentative political interest tors such as sleep50, stress51 and nutrition52
Greece — which stands out among European has been evident from initiatives such as influence infant development. Neural
states in terms of how religious its people the OECD’s supranational project Learning markers have also been identified that
are39 — 72% of trainee teachers believed in Sciences and Brain Research46 and in a recent might be used to detect preschool children
this idea2. review by the UK’s Royal Society 47. Many who are at risk of developing learning dis-
Wishful and anxious thinking have also journal articles, reports and books have orders53. As communication has improved
been proposed as important emotional biases reviewed insights from neuroscience that between neuroscientists, educators and
that contribute to the distortion of sound have potential relevance to education and policy makers, efforts have been made to
evidence25. Low-cost and easily implemented their authors have often used these opportu- ‘set the record straight’ about issues such
classroom approaches can certainly cultivate nities to dismiss popular misunderstandings as the ‘myth of three’ (REF. 54) — that is,
wishfulness amongst educators, especially along the way. These reviews have helped to the myth that time from 0 to 3 years is
if they are fun and therefore likely to be well promote the idea that knowledge from neuro­ a critical period during which the great
received by students. The association with science might have value for education, and majority of brain development occurs and
neuroscience can be expected to further an increasing number of reputable neuro­ after which the trajectory of human devel-
boost the apparent credibility of the explana- scientists have published work for educational opment is chiefly fixed55. The factual seeds
tion used to promote them40, as well as their audiences. of this idea include recognition that there

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are critical and sensitive periods in the Although attempts to dissipate the myth it is important to note that it is not a graph of
development of particular brain systems. of three have gained pace, the related neuro- empirical data. In international discussions
The myth has helped to promote the genu- science has also grown in size and complex- about whether students should be expected
ine importance of preschool experiences ity. Accordingly, many individuals working to invest financially in their own higher edu-
as fundamental for later learning, but it is in education, including policy makers, are cation, this model has been used to support
an oversimplification that has also led to still susceptible to accepting simple models statements such as “expanding higher educa-
misunderstandings. These include a sense of brain development without questioning tion based on contributions from those who
that adults are in a race against time to their relation to current understanding. The benefit from it rather than based on general
provide stimulation to their infants before bias towards simplicity, combined with the tax revenues is the most direct way to ensure
their synapses are lost 56. This anxiety has persisting cultural gap between neuroscience equity in education outcomes” (REF. 13). In
been exploited by a host of manufactur- and education, has helped the myth of three other words, the neuroscientific basis of the
ers offering toys to stimulate the brain57. to emerge in new forms. One notable exam- model has been overinterpreted in order to
Neurodevelopmental studies have so far ple is the misinterpretation of early work provide an allegedly scientific argument for
provided little support for the idea that only by the economist James Heckman62 (BOX 1), withdrawing the public funding of university
early childhood can be considered as a spe- who drew on concepts of critical (or sensi- education. In the UK, the graph has appeared
cial time for learning 58, and neither research tive) periods in brain development to derive in educational policy documents63 as a plot of
in neuroscience59 nor in education60 provide his simple ‘more begets more’ principle62. empirical data (BOX 1).
simple messages about the ages at which The graph most often associated with this However, this simple model considerably
investment in education gives maximum principle is a plot of a mathematical function detracts from our modern understanding of
return. Rather, findings suggest that the that assumes that the brain is a continu- the brain58. Human development and learn-
success of educational interventions aim- ously developing, unitary entity (BOX 1). This ing arise from a range of interrelated neural
ing to improve the learning and well-being graphical expression of the principle suggests circuits subserving a range of cognitive and
of children requires attention to be paid to that the return (in terms of additional mental other skills, which develop at different rates
the specific needs and characteristics of the capacity) for public investment in an indi- until early adulthood, sometimes in a dis-
children and the type of intervention, as vidual’s education is markedly diminished if continuous manner. In addition, the concept
well as the timing61. the investment occurs after infancy. However, of the sensitive period in brain development
was based on findings that an impoverished
rearing environment resulted in impaired
Box 1 | Heckman economics as a proxy for neuroscience in educational policy
development44, but that does not necessarily
The ‘myth of three’ (that is, the belief that the trajectory of neurodevelopment is essentially fixed after mean that enriching the environment of nor-
3 years of age) can still be found in different forms in educational discussions. For example, an early mally developing children (for example, so-
economic model of educational investment by Heckman62 is sometimes confused by educators as called ‘hot-housing’) will result in a similarly
representing neuroscientific evidence for the myth of three. This model was created by drawing on marked improvement in their brain develop-
concepts such as critical (or sensitive) periods in brain development to justify a simple ‘more begets
ment. Therefore, the relevance of the sensitive
more’ principle of accumulating mental ability62. The model combined this principle with assumptions
that the brain is a continuously developing and unitary entity. This allowed prediction of the return (in
period concept may depend on how a child
terms of additional mental capacity over a lifetime) from investing an additional (marginal) dollar in has already developed. A later and more
education at different ages. The outcome of this prediction is the sweeping downward curve shown sophisticated model of educational invest-
here97 (where r is the costs of the funds) that implies the economic return from investing a dollar in the ment represents mental ability as comprising
education of a child under 3 years old is many times greater than if that dollar was invested in a two types: cognitive and non-cognitive64. This
teenager’s education. Some policy makers seem to interpret this graph as a plot of evidence which model, when adjusted to fit the outcomes of
“shows that investment early in life produces better returns” (REF. 63). However, the graph does not a sample of 2207 children, again emphasized
show a plot of actual evidence; rather, it shows predicted returns from investment in education62. the importance of early investment, but par-
Moreover, the prediction is based on a model whose assumptions are some way short of the current ticularly so for disadvantaged children. It also
understanding of
made more nuanced predictions about the
human brain Rates of return to human capital investment initially setting
development and investment to be equal across all ages targeting of investment. However, the earlier
mental ability64. simple model (BOX 1) remains most popular in
Rate of return to investment in human capital

Reprinted from discussions of policy, in which it is sometimes


Handbook of the Preschool referenced as summarizing findings in neuro-
Economics of programmes cognitive development without a considera-
Education, Vol. 1, tion of its limiting assumptions (for example,
Cunha, F., REF. 65). The use of such theoretical models as
Heckman, J., Schooling
proxies for actual neuroscientific data in edu-
Lochner, L. and Opportunity cost of funds cational policy seems likely if the intersection
Masterov, D. r
between neuroscience and education remains
Interpreting the
Evidence on Life Job training fairly uncharted and unpopulated by those
Cycle Skill with expertise in both areas.
Formation,
697–812, © Difference and biological determinism.
(2006), with Preschool School Post-school The use and meaning of labels such as
permission from 0 ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Elsevier. Age (ADHD)’ and ‘dyslexic’ has educational
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implications for resource allocation, teach- tinted overlays to overcome the associated a
ers’ attitudes and students’ achievements. ‘structural brain deficit’ (REF. 73), but the
Neurobiological findings should and do authors of a double-blind study investigat-
feature in expert discussions about learning ing this approach reported no evidence of
disorders, including their definition, causes positive benefit 74. They indicated the ‘magic
and treatment. In less scientific debates on bullet’ simplicity of the idea of using col-
these subjects, a dualistic non-plastic mind– oured filters to explain the popularity of
brain model — in which the brain cannot this intervention, combined with a mass
be influenced by the mind — has fuelled of anecdotal evidence that may also be
arguments both in support of and against linked to the placebo effect. Nevertheless, a
the existence of particular learning disor- majority of preschool teachers in a survey 0 50 100
ders. To individuals inclined towards such in Southwest USA still considered dyslexia
a model, differences in functional imaging as a visual perception deficit rather than a b Reduced activation after training
data between groups of learners with and problem with phonological processing and
without a disorder may seem to be biologi- thought that the idea that dyslexic children
cally determined and immutable symptoms could be helped by using coloured lenses
and therefore make the disorder ‘more or coloured overlays was “probably or defi-
real’. For example, ripostes to recent argu- nitely true” (REF. 69).
ments about whether ADHD exists66 have c Greater reduction in children with DD than
in control children
emphasized statements such as “ADHD is Engagement and dopamine mythology.
a real medical disorder, with real brain dif- Insight into the relationship between reward
ferences” (REF. 67). Conversely, for people and declarative memory formation75 has
who believe that all ‘proper’ disorders are prompted educational research that uses
biologically determined and immutable, novel reward schedules to improve learning 76.
the finding that symptoms of children Initial studies show that offering uncertain
Figure 1 | Imaging studies
Nature of interventions
Reviews | Neuroscience
diagnosed with a disorder can be reduced rewards, which are thought to increase mid-
are of particular interest to education.  a | An
through teaching means that these children brain dopamine uptake77, can increase the imaging study of developmental dyscalculia
never had a ‘real’ disorder to begin with. For rate at which curriculum material is learnt78. (DD) involved a computer-based ‘mental number
example, in the 2005 British Broadcasting In our own attempts to translate these find- line’ training, in which children learned to
Corporation (BBC) television documentary ings into classroom learning games, we have respond to number-related questions by moving
The Dyslexia Myth (Mills Productions), the encountered new potential for neuromyths. a joystick in order to land a spaceship on a num‑
effectiveness of mainstream remediation This has partly been a matter of language. ber line98. b,c | After training, children with and
classes for dyslexic readers was presented For example, educators’ understanding of without DD improved their arithmetic ability
as evidence that dyslexia does not exist 68. the term ‘motivation’ extends well beyond and showed reduced activation in a range of
Educators’ ideas are influenced by these its common usage in neuroscience (that is, mainly frontal regions when performing a num‑
ber line task (part b shows data for both groups
media representations69, and until ideas motivation as a short-term visceral desire
combined). Both behavioural and neural changes
from neurobiology are more meaningfully to approach)79; it also includes motivation were greater for the DD group (part c shows
integrated into educational training and towards longer-term goals such as a university brain areas in which the post-training reduction
institutions this influence is likely to con- career. In addition, many teachers already in activity was greater for the DD group than for
tinue. This has implications for the children possess preconceptions about dopamine the0 control group). Studies such as this, which
50
they teach, not least because the achieve- that influence their understanding of our focus both on problematic learner differences
ment of students diagnosed with a learning messages and, thereby, their practice with and their remediation, are helpful and relevant
disorder partly depends on their teachers’ regard to their students. Some associate it to education. Firstly, they provide insight into the
implicit attitude to the disorder 70. Recent with pleasure, with one teacher claiming that biology of individual differences which, when
studies provide evidence against ideas of “a good working environment will release integrated with educational expertise, may form
the basis of more effective approaches to teach
biologically determined and fixed qualita- dopamine, and then they feel good and it is
children with learning disorders in the future.
tive differences between individuals with remembered as something positive” (REF. 80). More immediately and more generally, they
and without diagnosis of a developmental However, we are often asked whether our show the plasticity of the brain and indicate that
disorder (FIG. 1). These studies could be help- learning games will cause students to become brain function can be improved by a student
ful in dissuading teachers of these ideas but, pathological gamblers or drug addicts. practising well-designed tasks. Such studies
without improved communications between Primitive neurobiological explanations highlight not only how learning disorders may be
neuroscience and education, one cannot involving dopamine have now established associated with distinct neurological differences
assume this dissuasion will happen quickly. themselves as part of the folk perceptions but also how such differences may be responsive
For example, although early research fuelled of addiction81. Dopamine mediates many to appropriate teaching. This can help to foster
a visual theory of causation for dyslexia, important cognitive processes and is not the types of positive teacher attitudes towards
learning disorders that are associated with bet‑
this was no longer accepted as the general restricted to explanations of drugs and risk-
ter outcomes for the students who are diag‑
consensus by 1994 (REF. 71). Rather, the long- taking, but anxieties around such activities nosed with them 70 . Figure reprinted from
standing and most widely accepted explana- have strengthened in the public imagination Neuroimage, 57, Kucian, K. et al., Mental number
tion involves a weakness in phonological its association with all types of out‑of‑control line training in children with developmental
coding 72. An intervention attempting to behaviour and danger. The frequency of dyscalculia. 782–795, © (2011), with permission
target the visual system involves the use of dopamine’s appearance in press stories has from Elsevier.

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resulted in it being dubbed “the media’s neu- to understand the behaviour of their stu- Conclusions and the future
rotransmitter of choice” (REF. 82). Dopamine dents. For example, in a Canadian teachers’ Neuromyths are misconceptions about the
is linked in the media to problems as diverse journal, psychologist Aaron White advises brain that flourish when cultural conditions
as gun culture83, the overconsumption of “because the frontal lobes are involved in protect them from scrutiny. Their form is
cupcakes84 and obsessing about e‑mails85. controlling impulses and making good deci- influenced by a range of biases in how we
This has helped to intertwine dopamine and sions, adolescents often fail to fully consider think about the brain. Some long-standing
all types of addictive behaviour in the public the consequences of their actions until it’s too neuromyths are present in products for edu-
consciousness and to contribute to the world late. They are all gas and no brakes!” (REF. 93). cators and this has helped them to spread in
of pseudoneuroscience, in which different Similar representations of the dual-systems classrooms across the world. Genuine com-
meanings can be attached to the same terms framework can be found in the popu- munication between neuroscience and edu-
and terms borrowed from neuroscience can lar press94. However, the metaphor can sug- cation has developed considerably in recent
be merged with others to create new phrases. gest that an individual is completely detached years, but many of the biases and conditions
I discovered this when a BBC journalist asked from their own free will and that they are responsible for neuromyths still remain
me to use the term ‘dopamine hit’ when ‘immune’ to the normative social influences and can be observed hampering efforts to
describing students experiencing a learning around them (that is, their teachers and par- introduce ideas about the brain into educa-
game because, she explained, people knew ents). This creates moral and practical dilem- tional thinking. We see new neuromyths on
what that term meant. This is a phrase that has mas regarding how teachers should and can the horizon and old neuromyths arising in
also arisen in our conversations with teachers. respond effectively, for example, to teenagers new forms, we see ‘boiled-down’ messages
When used as a noun, ‘hit’ is commonly used behaving disruptively in class. Arguments from neuroscience revealing themselves as
as the slang term for a unit of an illegal drug86. over whether such poor behaviour can be inadequate, and we see confusions about the
It seems that messages for educators — how- blamed on the brain partly mirror those mind–brain relationship and neural plasticity
ever scientifically sound the underlying con- raised in relation to teenage crime. In educa- in discussions about educational investment
cepts are — will come into contact with other tion, as in the law courts, our moral intui- and learning disorders.
ideas that are less scientific, which may influ- tions about legal responsibility are entwined More interdisciplinary collaboration
ence the message that is received. Working with culturally inherited ideas of free will and between neuroscience and education may
with educators has allowed us to identify such a dualist mind–brain relationship, both of help to identify and to address misunder-
misconceptions early in the process of trans- which are likely to be influenced by sophisti- standings as they arise, and may help to
lation and to work collaboratively in develop- cated thinking about the mind and its neural develop concepts and messages that are both
ing resources that anticipate and explicitly basis95. In other words, through interaction scientifically valid and educationally inform-
address such confusions. with existing biases, our intuitions about ative. A new field focused on such collabora-
moral responsibility are likely to be influ- tion is now emerging, although it is too new
Adolescence and brake failure. Under­ enced by the field of neuroscience, despite the for its many proponents to have settled on a
standing brain function has already con- field itself making few claims for authority in name for it — ‘Brain, Mind and Education’,
tributed to interventions for teenagers; for this area. On a practical level, teachers also ‘Neuroeducation’ and ‘Educational
example, major changes in sleep regulation want to know how best to interact with the Neuroscience’ being current contenders. A
processes in the brain have helped to explain developing neural circuitry of teenagers and field dedicated to the interaction between
why teenagers can be ill-prepared for learn- how to encourage their students to improve neuroscience and education will not only
ing early in the morning 87,88. An improved their behavioural self-control. For teachers, inform educational approaches but also
understanding of the biology of teenage sleep the ‘gas and no brakes’ message appears to may encourage scientific insight regarding
issues has helped to justify interventions to imply that “upskilling the driver does not the relationship of neural processes to the
shift the school day and to improve attend- present as a possible solution, since poor/ complex behaviours that are observed in the
ance, as well as reducing sleepiness89 and rais- weak brakes (the immature PFC [prefrontal classroom. Research centres combining neu-
ing self-reported motivation90. Neuroscience cortex]) — or no brakes at all — cannot be roscience and education are forming around
has also provided insights into the continu- fixed” (REF. 94). It seems that many teachers the world, often offering postgraduate
ing maturation of brain regions involved in are exposed to a version of the dual-systems courses. Although individual approaches in
social cognition and self-awareness that may framework that may already be influencing these centres vary, there is a common appre-
inform future school-based interventions for their practice but not necessarily in ways ciation of the size of the challenge that lies
teenagers, for example, for tackling anti-social that most appropriately relate the neurosci- ahead, of the marked differences in concepts
behaviour 91. ence to educational understanding. It has and language between neuroscience and
Increased risk-taking during adolescence been suggested that neuroscientists have a education, and of the need for neuro­scientists
has been explained in terms of a dual-systems responsibility to reduce neurodevelopmental and educators to work together when
framework of neurodevelopment that relates complexity into accessible, data-informed attempting to bridge these two disciplines. In
increased reward-seeking to an early adoles- messages for non-scientists96 and this may the future, such collaboration will be greatly
cent peak in dopaminergic activity; the pre- work well in some ‘real-world’ domains. needed if we wish education to be enriched
frontal cortex and its connections to regions However, in education, effective communi- rather than misled by neuroscience.
involved in control and coordination of affect cation may require neuroscientists to work Paul A. Howard-Jones is at the Graduate School of
and cognition are slower to mature92. These in collaboration with those who are more Education, University of Bristol,
changes have been described as being respon- familiar with the cultural conditions and 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK.
sible for an individual temporarily having ‘all concepts of education — that is, the educa- e‑mail: paul.howard-jones@bris.ac.uk

gas and no brakes’ during adolescence. This tors themselves — to ensure that the content Published online 15 October 2014
metaphor is frequently used to help educators of the communication is fit for purpose. doi:10.1038/nrn3817

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