Education and ‘Neuro-Garbage’.

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Neuroscience is becoming increasingly popular in many facets of society. Recently there has been much discussion in both neuroscientific and educational circles about how finds could be applied in education.  Neuroscience is popping up every where, on phones and computers are endless ‘brain training’ apps to up motivation, quickness of thinking and mathematical ability, and in the media reports of being able to ‘identify psychopaths’ from brain scans.  But how much of this is neuroscience gold, and how much neuroscience garbage?

Unfortunately, many of the most sensational stories are actually neuroscience garbage, lacking in method, analysis or replication1, and this isn’t just true of the media.  Pete Etchells2 points out in a recent blog post that this pseudoscience is encroaching into the educational system too. Brain Gym, as Etchells points out, is not a scientifically proven and evaluated technique based on neurological and rigorous testing.  However, in a recent survey by the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)3 of teachers who saw and responded to the survey, 39% (354 teachers) had used, but were not currently using, Brain Gym and 16% (149) were currently using it.  Now, I am not claiming that Brain Gym does nothing for the individual, but there is not current evidence that it does what it says on the tin.  To quote its own website and the Wellcome Trust report; “the primary evidence comes from the countless anecdotal stories reported to us since 1986”, Brain Gym has undergone no rigorous testing or approval scheme in order to enter into the schooling system.  Programs such as these are one issue; misinterpretations are another, for example the left/right brain distinction.

The left/right brain division is related to learning styles in that some people believe that ‘creative people’ use their right hemisphere more, and ‘analytical’ individuals use their left hemisphere more, and that such students should therefore be taught in ways that suit their hemisphere preference.  While hemisphere preference for individual tasks is actually a reality (this is known as lateralization), there appears to ne no significant link between personality and hemispheric usage. Again, this is a way in which faux neuroscience has influenced the educational system.

I believe that these examples show the need for a greater communication between educational and neuroscientific community, and a need to sort the grain from the chaff.  The Wellcome Trust’s report highlighted the fact that most of the teachers’ support and guidance came from within their own establishments and that they had taken ideas and advice from peers, not the scientific community.  Knowing several teachers myself I am aware of the incredibly hard work that they have to invest, and their shortage of time. Teachers need all the support they can get.  I therefore believe it is the scientific community’s job to go to them.  We are the ones with the ability to test, retest, evaluate and initiate.  I commend the Wellcome Trust and the EEF for the funding have made available for just such efforts.  I can only hope (/work reaaaally hard so…) that I can become part of a movement to provide reliable, tested and quality interventions, techniques, knowledge that will enhance the educational community everywhere.


Post Script

I will endeavor always to include a few references (never and exhaustive list) for those who wish to read more.  I will also try to make sure that most of these are accessible without the need for an academic login.

1 For a summary of the psychopath case see: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/25/could-a-brain-scan-diagnose-you-as-a-psychopath

2 Pete Etchells ‘Headquarters’ blog post: http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/may/16/atl-motion-neuroscience-teaching-education-brain-gym – I urge you to read to the bottom and find the insightful comment purported from the Head of Neuroscience and Education, Columbia.

3 The Wellcome Trust and the EEF http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/Education-resources/Education-and-learning/Our-work/Brains-and-thinking/WTS040353.htm

 

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4 thoughts on “Education and ‘Neuro-Garbage’.

  1. Loving the sound of your blog. I also studied neuroscience. But life has gone a million different ways since uni and just yesterday I realised how little I’m using my brain of late. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read an article a day, (but finding goodies that aren’t locked can be the hard part). So thanks for your references and Best of luck for your endeavours !

  2. An interesting post, great job. I came across a paper by Kelly et al (2014) The impact of cognitive training and mental stimulation on cognitive and everyday functioning of healthy older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ageing Research Reviews, 15, p 28-43. Overall they found that “brain training” was effective in improving memory and subjective measures of cognitive performance when compared to no intervention. Many of these findings however showed no real transfer effects to other tasks, so it’s quite tenuous as to how generalisable most of these findings are. Despite the current popularity of Lumosity, which touts it’s scientific grounding, independent studies have found no transfer effect to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.

    This begs the question as to whether there is scope to improve cognitive function through the use of “brain training”. It would be really interesting to see a longitudinal study with infants, investigating the long-term effects of continuous brain training through childhood. Given that this is such a fledgling area of cognitive psychology, I would like to think someone was already doing this!

    • Thanks Lowri, it is indeed an interesting issue with all the ‘brain training’ stuff, there is surprisingly little research in the area. I actually intend to cover some of this in my masters dissertation, though naturally a longitudinal study is somewhat out of both my time and funding limits! Interestingly there is fairly recent evidence that mindfulness meditation training seems to influence many areas and have a long lasting affect. However, the paper you mention (which I shall now have to go and read) is not the only one to have uncovered poor/ no generalisation effects. Ultimately, if this is the case, it could be said that we have just found scientific evidence for the proverb ‘practice makes perfect’!

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