Brain-Based Bullocks

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

It’s beginning to be a normal everyday thing to run into (sometimes wild!) claims about the brain. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, videos, podcasts, and so forth discuss things like brain-based learning, brain-based instruction, brain-based teaching, brain-based … well, you get the picture. Brain-based everything.

And it’s not just in the media. There are also plenty of institutions and organisations – both public and private – that offer training programmes, computer programs, or apps with some kind of brain-training or ‘brain exercises’. The promises that come with those offerings are quite strong and often sound really impressive. These brain exercises will supposedly lead to better learning and a ‘healthier’ brain (in various shapes of forms).

brain

Hold on, something isn’t right …

First of all, to put it mildly, using ‘brain-based’ as a term in these contexts is a worthless pleonasm. Have you ever heard someone talk about ‘leg-based walking’, ‘mouth-based eating’ or ‘ear-based listening’? We simply walk with our legs, eat with our mouths, hear with our ears, and learn with our brains.

Learning is – per definition – brain-based!

Simply put, when we learn (or actually when we are just standing around doing absolutely nothing), external stimuli come at us through our senses in one way or the other. Our ears hear things, our noses smell things, our eyes see things, our mouths taste things, and our skin feels things. When we pay attention to these stimuli ‘attacking’ our senses (either consciously, sub consciously or unconsciously), then the stimulus is perceived by our sensory memory after which it enters our working memory.

When we ‘do’ something with this stimulus (elaborate on it, repeat it, reflect on it, etc), it enters our long-term memory. In there, the new bit of information will either be added to an already existing schema, the schema will adapted based on the new bit of info, or if there are enough new ‘buts’ (that is, things that don’t fit) we’ll create a new schema.

All these schemas are our memories and these memories are all part of our brain. Learning is often defined as “a change in our long-term memory… If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned”. (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006, p. 75-77). What it comes down to is, again, that all learning is brain-based!

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Second, there’s a huge gap between what we know based on neurosciences and how we can apply this knowledge when it comes to learning and instruction.

We could write multiple blogs about this topic but we wouldn’t be able to do it any better than Dan Willingham has done, starting with his article ‘Three problems in the marriage of neuroscience and education’ and his 2012 blog ‘Neuroscience Applied to Education: Mostly Unimpressive’.

Finally, ‘brain-based training’ doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that. Pedro De Bruyckere, Casper Hulshof en Paul have discussed this extensively in their book Urban Myths About Learning and Education. They conclude that brain-training only makes you better at what you have actually practiced (practice makes perfect; duh!). However, whatever you practice with whatever ‘brain-based training’ that you’ve followed doesn’t generalize in any way to things like intelligence or memory. Up to this point, there’s no evidence that brain-training works that way. It simply doesn’t improve general cognitive skills, such as fluid intelligence. So, please don’t believe that ‘brain exercises’ will make you smarter.

Thank goodness there are also crystal clear voices who emphasise the facts, such as (again) Dan Willingham, but also Lydia Krabbendam, and Daniel Ansari. Dan Willingham wrote a blog titled Bad news for brain training in which he explains why ‘brain-training’ as such doesn’t work and why research that shows that it does is actually based on the placebo-effect. In short, the only people who made any progress were those who thought that they were participating in a study to show that the ‘brain-training’ would improve overall memory functions.

Because they expected their memory would improve, their memory improved. In contrast, the people in the control group who thought that they just participated in the study to get some extra credits, nothing happened! Note that the brain-training for both was exactly the same. ONLY the expectations were different. The figure below shows the different invitations for both groups.

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And here the results of the experiment where you can see that both groups began at the same level for the two measures (Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RAPM)  and the Bochumer Matrizentest (BOMAT)), but that the group that thought that they were in a study to show how brain-training works increased on both measures even though there was no difference in the ‘training’.

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Lydia Krabbendam, professor in Psychology and Education at the Vrije University, Amsterdam, emphasized in her EARLI keynote that there are three pitfalls to avoid when we talk about neurosciences in the context of education and learning, according to Hruby (2012).

Pitfall 1: Using category mistakes and neuro-realism, such as ‘the learning brain’, ‘the vital brain’, etcetera.

Pitfall 2: Not respecting other disciplines. Expertise on teaching and instruction comes from others and not from neuroscience.

Pitfall 3: Take ethical concerns seriously. Be aware of potential misuse and misconceptions such as (1) parents and/or teachers who may become more permissive or feel helpless because the brain… or (2) adolescents who may act in line with the notion of an immature brain.

As an example, Paul is a member of the Advisory Board of CRADLE (Centre for Research and Development in Learning; Nanyang Technical University, Singapore). In one of the meetings, CRADLE presented a slide on their key research. One of the key pillars was, according to the slide, ‘Brain Literacy & Brain-based learning. Daniel Ansari, Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neurosciences at Western Ontario University, spoke up immediately, saying that they had to remove that phrase if they wanted anyone to take them seriously. In his words, neuroscientists know that terms like ‘brain literacy’ and ‘brain-based learning’ are pure nonsense. The problem, of course, is that learning professionals, instructors, teachers, politicians, policy makers, parents, and so forth, believe this nonsense and sometimes even welcome it![1][2]

Please, listen to real experts, such as real neuroscientists (e.g., Daniel Ansari) and reject all ‘brain-based’ bullocks. Avoid the trend that neuroscientists call ‘neurofication’, ‘neurohype’, ‘neuromania’, and ‘neuromyths’ (Gunter, 2014). Whenever you hear ‘brain-based’, dismiss the trendy nonsense. How will you know?

Just use your brain.

 

References

Gunter, T. D. (2014). Can we trust consumers with their brains? Popular cognitive neuroscience, brain images, self-help and the consumer. Indiana Health Law Review. 11, 483–552. Beschikbaar via https://mckinneylaw.iu.edu/ihlr/pdf/vol11p483.pdf

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86. Beschikbaar via http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

Willingham, D. (2009). Three problems in the marriage of neuroscience and education. Cortex, 45, 544-545.

Willingham, D. (2012, Nov 26). Neuroscience applied to education: Mostly unimpressive. Beschikbaar via http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/neuroscience-applied-to-education-mostly-unimpressive

[1] In 2018 $1,9 billion was spent on brain apps! (https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2019/05/24/trend-consumers-spend-significantly-more-on-digital-brain-health-and-neurotechnology-apps/)

[2] Recently, one of Mirjam’s colleagues, Dr Bruce Pereira, wrote a good article on how neuroscience is misused and abused in corporate settings. Definitely worth a read!

14 thoughts on “Brain-Based Bullocks

  1. Roger Brownlie says:

    Would you include neuro-feedback training in this hit list? It is based on science, carried out by neuroscientists, and is measurable (to an extent). Thanks

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  2. Roger Brownlie says:

    Hello Mirjam 🙂 Yes I have some interest in it but I’m no expert… It essentially stimulates specific parts of the brain that appear to be underperforming and relate to a condition that a person want’s to improve. Quite popular with athletes who want to improve, say, focus, or spatial awareness, co-ordination. Also for kids with ADD. Here’s a pretty good explanation:
    https://brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-is-neurofeedback

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  3. Lauren Waldman says:

    STANDING OVATION for this wonderful piece! Here’s why I love it:

    1) I feel the exact same freaking way and it’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks like this. Brain-based everything is marketing at it’s finest. I’m sure we could rant on this for days…

    2) It made me painfully aware that I have fallen victim to Pitfall 1 before, “the learning brain” but I would love to know how to articulate it. Professor Ansari?

    3) The beauty of science being science is that it’s constantly changing and keeps me,(not sure if anyone else feels like this) humbled. I design using a mixture of knowledge in cognitive, educational, and medical neuroscience, along with cognitive psychology (side note, Dr.Robert Bjork’s work is remarkable) AND instructional design. It’s a puzzle that keeps moving as we learn more about the brain itself, and continue to experiment with learning theories. It can be challenging to trust what you know when you know it because it could change so quickly

    So thank you for this. I look forward to sharing and learning with you further.

    YARR!!!!

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    • Kent Clizbe says:

      Lauren,

      “It’s a puzzle that keeps moving as we learn more about the brain itself…”

      Could you please share what it is that we’ve learned about the brain itself that is useful in helping people perform effectively and better?

      Thanks.

      Like

  4. Kent Clizbe says:

    Thanks for this excellent primer on deconstructing a hoax.

    I attended a conference put on by a prominent “neuroscience” learning company. My (sales professionals doing rotations in L&D, not learning professionals) colleagues had bought into the bollocks 100%, and funded our L&D group’s (15 of us) attendance.

    Keeping an open mind, I attended the full schedule of sessions, and chose the most “learning related” break-out sessions to attend. Every single “insight” or “approach” the “neuro” acolytes had came straight from cognitive science, education, instructional design, adult learning, and/or other existing and well-known approaches and solutions. Of course, each session was peppered with pretty, brightly colored slides of brains “lighting up” here or there–which added absolutely nothing to the information, but must have served to impress the gullible.

    Finally, after two full days of the hand-waving, I waited after a session to chat with the head “brain” guru of the company. I asked him if he was familiar with existing “non-brain” insights, solutions, approaches, and technology for adult learning. He was like a deer in the headlights, froze, mumbled something about that being interesting, and engaged someone else.

    Neuro-science, as far as I know, has nothing useful to add to the toolkit of a practicing adult learning professional.

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  5. stellac says:

    hi Mirjam and all the other people who’ve commented.
    Interesting article, great comments and i’m trying to compose a longer response. I totally agree we need to call out neurohype and inaccurate information but we need to be careful not to put people off trying to understand more about neuroscience. The more knowledge L&D have the better they can counteract the troublesome ideas. If the word ‘brain’ gets them interested that seems a valuable start.
    i think marketing will always pick up on what’s the latest buzzwords but that doesn’t mean that anything labelled ‘brain’, ‘neuroscience’ etc is unhelpful. I also believe we need marketing to make sure we all have a business in the end, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on them either. But we definitely don’t want false promises.
    You’re right, as far as i know, that ‘brain training’ doesn’t work ie those games that say they’ll make you into a genius and that general brain trainiing won’t make you more intelligent. But there does seem to be evidence to suggest that e.g. using your memory helps to keep it stronger.
    You’re also right that much of the current evidence for good learning design/ delivery comes from cognitive psychology but there is evidence from neuroscience that is currently and will be valuable for learning. Eg neuroscience evidence about how we lay down memories whilst we sleep provides concrete evidence for the value of sleep to learning – our mums were right after all. That knowledge might help us design learning interventions at better times of day for example. There’s also been lots of evidence from cognitive psychology that’s been overturned over the years. That’s the nature of science – to hypothesise, experiment, test and challenge.
    A couple of other quick points to pick up on ‘Practice makes perfect’ is only true when it’s the right practice. ‘Practice makes permanent’ – or almost permanent – might be more accurate. One of the reasons so many of us have poor driving habits.
    I suspect, not an expert on this, that the placebo effect has a real basis in neuroscience and it’s something that can be really usefully researched. If just believing something makes you improve then we can harness that. Ben Goldacre who wrote Bad Science has some fascinating stuff to say about the placebo effect.

    Not everything that says ‘brain’ or ‘neuroscience’ is a hoax and some examples where it may have been don’t constitute scientific evidence. I wrote an article a few years ago – 6 questions to ask when you hear ‘neuroscience says…’ https://stellarlearning.co.uk/6-questions-to-ask-when-you-hear-neuroscience-says/ – hope that helps.
    Keep up the good debunking work but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Like

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