Neuroscience. A word that exudes intelligence and entices us by offering brain-based explanations. As neuroscientists make advances in our understanding of how the brain functions, all sorts of people are jumping in to use any new brain information – proven or unproven – to justify their ineffective approaches to their work.

Not every research finding automatically becomes truly ‘scientific’; for that label it has to earn the consensus among the majority of scientists in that particular field. The results of brain-imaging studies may appear real and reliable, but these studies are usually done on very small samples because the machines are complex and expensive.

Neuroscientists are aware of the limitations of their studies, but in the hands of popular media and snake-oil sellers the results become ‘scientific proofs’. This has contributed to a ‘gap’ between scientific communication and the application of scientific knowledge.

The adult brain has more than 86 billion neurons and, on average, each transmits electrical signals from one to another five to 50 times per second. These signals are carried by molecules across contact points, called the synapses, with other neurons. The molecules are called neurotransmitters – you probably have heard of some of them: dopamine, endorphin, histamine and serotonin.

Brain activity is basically just a bunch of neurons firing. When one neuron fires up, it excites its neighbours and they in turn fire up others, giving rise to patterns of activity that result in thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Neuroscientists use sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques to study brain activity. In an fMRI a person’s brain is scanned in a doughnut-shaped machine while he or she is doing different mental tasks, giving neuroscientists the opportunity to see real-time images.

Current brain scans show only areas of brain activity in response to certain stimuli. For example, a small region on the right side of the brain shows a striking increase in electrical activity (the brain scan literally lights up) when people experience a sudden eureka moment. This alone doesn’t offer any insight into creativity.

Brain scans are not brain scams, but …

Brain scans do not necessarily provide objective evidence. Brain regions do many things, not just one; and it’s impossible to say whether an increased or decreased activity in a particular region is ‘better’ or ‘abnormal’. Another misconception is that ‘lightning up’ of certain areas shows that these areas are active but isolated from each other, with the rest of the brain inactive at that time.

Martin Lindstrom, a US branding expert and author of Brainwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, relates an experiment in which he looked at participants’ brain activity as they viewed consumer images involving some major brands and religious images like rosary beads and a photo of the Pope. He found that the brain activity was uncannily similar when viewing both types of imagery.

This experiment debunks the myth perpetrated by marketing types who claim that brain scans provide knowledge about customer preferences and what makes promotional campaigns more effective. These self-styled neuromarketing gurus have ditched their surveys and focus groups in favour of expensive but impressive fMRI machines to examine the brain’s response to products and brands. They often speak in complex jargon, in many cases using terms and phrases they themselves have coined. You may find it difficult to win a debate with a neuromarketer who wants to sell you the idea that the Earth is flat.

The so-called ‘neuro’ experts are mushrooming; not only in neuroeducation and neuromarketing, but in every field that can be prefixed with ‘neuro’ – neuro-aesthetics, neuro-anthropology, neuro-economics, neuro-law, neuro-politics, neuro-theology, and so on.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

If neurons could talk, they wouldn’t tell that right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people or listening to classical music makes children smarter. But these neuromyths – myths about the brain – have been around for so long, they have taken hold in a range of aspects of everyday life, most disturbingly in learning and education.

The challenge for teachers and parents is to integrate the new knowledge of the mind into schooling. But the task is not simply reading about new research finding in the media and applying it into the classroom. Students are not guinea pigs. Parents and teachers must be careful about the claims made in the name of so-called brain-based learning as some of these claims may have unwanted consequences.

Sceptical thinking would help you to separate the wheat (neuroscience) from the chaff (neuromyths). Ockham’s razor is an important tool to have in your toolkit if you would like to think like a sceptic. It can help you choose between possibilities.

William of Ockham, a Franciscan monk who lived in the 13th century in England, developed a bright rule, now known as Ockham’s razor, which implies that the number of causes or explanations needed to account for the behaviour of a phenomenon should be kept to a minimum.  The rule has been interpreted now to mean that when you have two competing ideas that make exactly the same predictions, the one that makes fewest assumptions is better. In other words, the simplest solution is always the best.

The advice – keep it simple, stupid – is in a similar vein. But everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Trim the fat, but leave flesh on the bones of your idea.

William’s statements in his philosophical and theological writings aroused such opposition that he was refused his Master of Theology degree at Oxford and was ordered to appear before the papal court on charges of heresy. He fled to Germany and, according to a story, probably apocryphal, asked Emperor Louis IV for protection with the plea, ‘Protect me with your sword, O Emperor, and I shall protect you with my pen.’

Armed with Ockham’s razor – you probably don’t need his razor-sharp pen – you’re now ready for a sceptical look at claims relating to learning and education made in the name of neuroscience.

© Surendra Verma 2018

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