The Advent Calendar of Neuromyths and more

With work and the coaching-based literature review I have felt somewhat lacking in neuroscience, so to hold off the withdrawal symptoms I went to the British Neuroscience Association’s Christmas symposium on Neuromyths – and it was great. (Talking of withdrawal symptoms, I found this neat video showing how caffeine affects the brain.) The BNA presentations were short and engaging: Lots of laughs and serious messages. So, to be festive, I thought I’d do 24 ‘neuromyths and more’ from my notes:

Cordelia Fine:

  1. Male and female brain articles tend to focus on, and exaggerate, the small small differences between male and female brains. There was a realisation that researchers typically use the phrase ‘significant difference’ when referring to a difference between two very specific things which are often a very very small part of something larger. Therefore, the context is important and repeatedly gets forgotten. It’s a bit like thinking human beings have been around on earth for a very long time without putting that into the context of how long the earth has been around.
  2. Research shows that differences relating to male and female brains get published but the large amount of research showing how similar they are is published far less, as it doesn’t attract readers.
  3. Every so often differences reported in male /female brains can be quite variable depending on the situation. A lot of research does not check out the variations in different conditions to see how stable they really are or indeed, how often the difference occurs.

Emma Yhnell:

  1. Ask ‘so what?’ as many brain training games have no application beyond improving your ability at that game.
  2. It appears the jury is still out on brain training as the results are mixed and advertising can be misleading.
  3. Commonly brain training studies have small sample sizes and can be quite variable which is why we regularly see articles saying that it does and then that it doesn’t’ work.

Duncan Astle:

  1. It seems as if schools often use programmes which have little scientific basis and there are still a number of widely held neuromyths in education. For example, the Top 5 presented, were:
    1. We use only use 10% of our brains
    2. Short bursts of exercise connect the right & left brains
    3. Pressing parts of the body activates the brain
    4. Learning styles – that a preferred learning style (visual, auditory etc) improves learning even though research shows that it’s not true. People believe they learn better but when tested it makes no difference.
    5. Difference hemispheres have different learning preferences.
  2. Research into children with learning difficulties is hard as they have a lot of similarities and cross-over symptoms. Therefore, it is challenging to get a ‘clean group’.

Anne Cooke:

  1. Aristotle thought the brain was a cooling system and that there was no brain at the back of our heads.
  2. Neuroscience is ever-evolving therefore some discoveries become alternative hypotheses, some persist despite being incorrect and some become damaging neuromyths.

Christian Jarrett:

  1. Neuromyths are often appealing, open to interpretation and have a grain of truth. Go and look at what the grain of truth really was.
  2. The truth is often more complex than the over simplified facts reported.
  3. Everyone seems to be racing to apply neuroscience to everyday life when in many respects a lot of research is not ready for that.

Chris McManus:

  1. The left/ right brain is a neuromyth which has been exaggerated and added to across the years but it is an appealing and powerful metaphor often fuelled by its presentation of the two hemispheres. When you are shown models showing the left and right hemispheres ask yourself whether some of those aspects are actually scientifically measurable 😊
  2. Sometimes pictures are flipped to show people as left or right handed to back up the myth. A lot of creative people such as musicians and painters are said to be left-handed when in fact they are not: Beethoven and Bob Dylan appear to be two examples.
  3. Humans are quite different in having lateralised brains, as not many (if any) other animals do. It appears that the right hand became dominant when language happened. Most language centres, but not all, are in the left hemisphere. It seems that left-handedness appeared later.

Neuroskeptic:  

  1. An interesting presentation on the fact that most of today’s personality profiles come from the Four Humours as the characteristics often match the four personality quadrants. Today the four main neurotransmitters have become the modern-day Humours.

Helene Joffe:

  1. In a research study of 3630 articles it found that 44% were about brain optimisation and 40% were about pathology/ male-female/ criminal brains.
  2. University press departments were also cited as sometimes being part of the problem by including words/ phrases that weren’t in the research paper. So, there is a need for the Researchers to control their own press departments.
  3. As articles move away from the original source, they become more value-based.

My comment – it seems that there is a section of neuroscientists researching how neuromyths are created and propagate in the general population.

David Nutt:

  1. Gave a passionate presentation on anti-depressants which seem to suffer more than most from myths.
  2. A film called Magic Medicine has been made of his psychedelic drug trial which covers the journey three people embarked on to help alleviate their non-responsive depression.
  3. He felt that serotonin gives you resilience against daily life and its ups and downs.
  4. Research suggests, for people with depression, that their self-referential default mode network is in overdrive and focuses on negative aspects of the person. Which I think interprets to, they spend a lot of time ruminating on negative aspects of themselves.

The BNA have created an open-access publication called Neuroscience: Past – Present – Future which is full of different articles. And I found a wonderful booklet that shows you some really close-up views of neurons, etc which I thought you’d like.

Have a wonderful Christmas and my best wishes for 2019 being a prosperous year for you.