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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Dec 5, 2012 - 9:26:00 AM

True or false: we use only 10% of our brains?
By Steve Ferber
Dec 5, 2012 - 9:25:13 AM

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The answer is false, just one of the many neuromyths (i.e., misconceptions about the brain and learning) that we carry around as lay people. But a recent study (of teachers in the UK and the Netherlands) found that teachers also believe in many neuromyths, leading to concern that some of the brain-based educational programs being adopted worldwide are not necessarily serving students well.  
Of further concern, the study found that “possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.” Indeed, teachers who scored highest on general knowledge about the brain and learning believed in more neuromyths than their colleagues. Said the researchers:
“Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths. This demonstrates the need for enhanced interdisciplinary communication to reduce such misunderstandings in the future and establish a successful collaboration between neuroscience and education.”
In the study, teachers in the UK and the Netherlands were given 32 statements about the brain and learning and were asked to rate them as correct or incorrect. Fifteen of the statements were neuromyths, and the study found that teachers believed 49% of these.
To test your knowledge, we’ve selected a dozen of those statements (touching on exercise, sugar intake, sleep cycles and learning style). Which ones do you think are correct? (answers appear below*).
1. Language acquisition – Children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned. If they do not do so neither language will be fully acquired.
2. Physiology – Boys have bigger brains than girls.
3. Rehearsal – Extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the shape and structure of some parts of the brain.
4. Left vs. right – The left and right hemisphere of the brain always work together.
5. Hemispheric dominance – Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners.
6. New cells – Learning is not due to the addition of new cells to the brain.
7. Learning style – Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic).
8. Breakfast – Academic achievement can be affected by skipping breakfast.
9. Sugar – Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks.
10. Sleep – Circadian rhythms (“body-clock”) shift during adolescence, causing pupils to be tired during the first lessons of the school day.
11.    Learning style – Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic).
12. Exercise – Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function.
The researchers explain: “ . . . [E]xamples of neuromyths include such ideas as ‘we only use 10% of our brain’, ‘there are multiple intelligences’, ‘there are left- and right brain learners’, “there are critical periods for learning’ and ‘certain types of food can influence brain functioning’ (e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation, and Development, 2002; Geake, 2008; Purdy, 2008; Howard-Jones, 2010). Some of these misunderstandings have served as a basis for popular educational programs, like Brain Gym or the VAK approach (classifying students according to a VAK learning style). These programs claim to be ‘brain-based’ but lack scientific validation (Krätzig and Arbuthnott, 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Stephenson, 2009; Lindell and Kidd, 2011). A fast commercialization has led to a spread of these programs into classrooms around the world.”
The study was conducted by Sanne Dekker and Jelle Jolles (VUUniversity Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands)  and Paul Howard-Jones (University of Bristol, Bristol, UK).
*statements 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 11 are correct

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