Neuromyths are misconceptions surrounding the functioning of the human brain. Due to simplifications made by the media, political and commercial motives, and researchers’ rush to publish flashy results, people accept an erroneous, incomplete, or preliminary notion as an innovative revelation. Though most of these myths are eventually disproven, they have usually taken hold in people’s minds before that happens. We will be sharing 10 of the most famous neuromyths and their falsely-claimed neuroscientific foundation.
Throughout the following weeks, we will be writing articles on the 10 most famous Neuromyths shared with us by Philippe Lacroix.
Neuromyth N°1: « We only use about 10% of our brain »
This myth refers to the erroneous notion that we merely use a fraction of our brain, thus under-exploiting its potential. Its ancient origin could go as far back as the first studies on the brain in the 1930s. The measuring equipment, which was not sensitive enough back then, revealed certain « silent » cerebral areas, giving the impression that our brain was only partially being used. Another thesis says that the description of the brain as the sum of highly specialised areas led people to believe that only one of those areas could function at once. Allegedly, Einstein would have claimed that he only used 10% of his brain. Modern cerebral imagery could also contribute to this myth, by suggesting that only regions showing colours are working, while in reality, these simply display a higher activity compared to the rest of the brain.
Actually, neuro-imagery shows that, at any time, we use a large number of interconnected areas from both hemispheres of the brain. We use our entire brain, even during the most fundamental inactivities, and even while we’re asleep. Its potential develops thanks to brain plasticity, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age — for better or worse.
Neuromyth N°2: « People are right or left brained »
We are often told creative people have a « right brain », while rational people are more « left brain » oriented. The idea that we would use one hemisphere of the brain more than the other is based on… nothing. The online test involving the rotating female dancer to identify this imaginary profile actually shows a completely unrelated property of the human brain. This is called the bistable perception of an ambiguous stimulus. The visual scene of the dancer can give rise to two interpretations (turning one way or the other). The brain first chooses one perception, before switching to the other one after some time.
This erroneous belief is based on the fact that there is a relative hemispheric specialisation, that is to say that both halves of the brain don’t do the exact same thing. That asymmetry has nothing to do with personality. The left hemisphere, for example, is home to the main functions of speech (in right-handed people). The right hemisphere is better equipped for depth vision. However, most tasks we perform require collaboration from both hemispheres. They are linked by a massive path of communication called the “corpus callosum”. Whether we aim to think or create, both halves of our brain work together all the time.
This myth allowed a generation of specialised HR and personal development consultants to surf on an incredible wave of publications and seminars from the 1990s till 2000.
Neuromyth N°3: « Learning is all a matter of early childhood »
According to this faulty idea, it is critical to learn specific things before a certain age, because you will have great difficulty doing so later on, or you won’t be able to do it at all. « Everything happens between the ages of 3 and 6 », is what this myth would have you believe.
Neuronal plasticity, or the brain’s ability to reshape itself, is most intense at the start of life, which is why children learn at such great speed. The optimal periods for learning are then called « sensitive » or « critical ». Learning is definitely possible afterwards, it will simply take longer and be more difficult. Man is neurologically programmed to learn his entire life, and this is true even at the oldest of ages.
This article was based on the book “Neuro Learning: Les neurosciences au service de la formation”, a great book that “constitutes a pedagogical exploit in the measure wherein it transforms an eminently disruptive process into a group of new possibilities for apprenticeship”.
Medjad, N., Gil, P., & Lacroix, P. (2017). Neuro Learning: Les neurosciences au service de la formation. Paris: Eyrolles.