August 4, 2015

Neuromyths: Brain Facts and Brain Fiction

TRUE and FALSE answers reflect our current understanding of the mind and brain, based on research in psychology and neuroscience. You may be surprised by the answers to some of these questions. In fact, the answers may conflict with information you have learned previously about the brain. This is a very common experience because neuroscience is advancing rapidly.

We also note that science is a continual process of evaluating evidence and revising theories. For this reason, we invite you to consult the resources below and form your own impressions of the research evidence.

1. We use our brains 24 hours a day.

> TRUE. Our brains are active all of the time, even when we are sleeping.


2. It is best for children to learn their native language before a second language is learned.

> FALSE. Children are able to learn multiple languages at the same time without any long-term negative effects on either language. There is even some evidence that learning more than one language in childhood has a positive impact on specific mental abilities.


3. Boys have bigger brains than girls on average.

> TRUE. Brain size is related to physical size, so bigger people tend to have bigger brains. Boys tend to be bigger than girls, so boy’s brains also tend to be larger. This average difference in size, however, does not mean that boys are smarter than girls. Brain size is more strongly related to size than intelligence.

4. If students do not drink sufficient amounts of water, their brains shrink.

> FALSE. It is important to stay hydrated, but brain size is not related to a living person’s level of hydration.


5. When a brain region is damaged, other parts of the brain can take up its function.

> TRUE. The brain has a remarkable ability to adapt to certain forms of brain damage. One of the ways the brain recovers from injury is by taking advantage of areas of the brain that are undamaged.


6. We only use 10% of our brain.

> FALSE. A healthy person uses 100% of her / his brain.


7. The left and right hemispheres of the brain work together.

> TRUE. The two hemispheres are highly interconnected. Mental operations are coordinated across both hemispheres.


8. Some of us are ‘left-brained’ and some are ‘right-brained’ and this helps explain differences in how we learn.

> FALSE. The left and right hemispheres of the brain work together. There is not strong evidence that people’s learning differs in important ways based on one hemisphere being more dominant than the other.


9. The brains of boys and girls develop at different rates.

> TRUE. Girls typically develop faster than boys likely due in part to the influence of sex hormones and the timing of puberty.


10. Brain development has finished by the time children reach puberty.

> FALSE. Brain development continues well into adolescence and adulthood, especially development of the frontal lobes of the brain, which are important for decision-making.


11. There are specific periods in childhood after which certain things can no longer be learned.

> FALSE. There are sensitive periods when it is much easier for a child to learn certain types of information. These periods are not fixed, however, and learning of different types of information continues even outside of these sensitive periods.


12. Information is stored in the brain in networks of cells distributed throughout the brain.

> TRUE. Information is not stored in any individual cell, but rather in the pattern of connections across cells.


13. Learning is due to addition of new cells to the brain.

> FALSE. Learning arises from changes in the connections between brain cells.


14. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. auditory, visual, kinesthetic).

> FALSE. This is a controversial topic. At this point, the most rigorous scientific evidence does not support distinct learning styles over and above acknowledged differences in specific cognitive abilities (see Pashler et al., 2008 below). However, not all learning style theories have been rigorously tested, so this answer reflects the current state of the research only. The following link has some Frequently Asked Questions: It is important to note that learning styles are a theory of learning, not teaching. So, even though learning styles may not be a useful way to categorize children’s learning process, it is still the case that multisensory, differentiated instruction is often the most effective teaching practice.


15. Learning occurs through changes to connections between brain cells.

> TRUE. The strengthening or weakening of connections between brain cells is thought to underlie learning, memory, and the acquisition of skills.


16. Academic achievement can be negatively impacted by skipping breakfast.

> TRUE. Academic achievement tends to be higher in children who regularly eat breakfast.


17. A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards.

> FALSE. People with dyslexia have a specific difficulty with decoding written words. For most individuals with dyslexia, this decoding difficulty relates to the mapping of sounds to letters,

rather than the visual appearance of the words. Although some individuals with dyslexia may reverse letters when reading and spelling, it is not a very common occurrence and there are many individuals with dyslexia who do not make such reversals (see link below).


18. Normal development of the human brain involves the birth and death of brain cells.

> TRUE. Normal brain development doesn’t just involve growth, but also the selective loss of brain cells and connections that are not being used (also known as pruning).


19. Mental capacity is hereditary and cannot be changed by the environment or experience.

> FALSE. Mental abilities do have a genetic component, but they are also heavily influenced by environmental factors, and rely on adequate experience in order to develop.


20. Vigorous exercise can improve mental function.

> TRUE. Experiments show that aerobic exercise is beneficial for cognitive functions.


21. Children must be exposed to an enriched environment from birth to three years or they will lose learning capacities permanently.

> FALSE. Although early child development is important, the human brain shows potential for learning throughout the life span that is not limited to the period between birth to three years.


22. Children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks and/or snacks.

> FALSE. Excessive consumption of sugary drinks may not be healthful, but there is little evidence that it impacts a child’s concentration ability when rigorous (double-blind, placebo-

controlled) intervention studies are examined. Here, the research evidence conflicts with the impressions of parents and teachers and there are several theories for why this might be the case. (see resources below)


23. Circadian rhythms (‘body clock’) shift during adolescence, causing students to be tired during the first lessons of the school day.

> TRUE. Young children tend to naturally fall asleep early and wake up early. By adolescence, however, the body clock shifts towards later sleeping and rising times.


24. Exercises that rehearse coordination of perceptual-motor skills can improve literacy skills.

> FALSE. Although exercise is good for overall cognitive functioning, there is little evidence that specific perceptual-motor exercises will improve literacy specifically.


25. Extended rehearsal of some mental processes can change the structure and function of some parts of the brain.

> TRUE. The way practice makes perfect is by changing the way the brain processes certain types of information. This includes expansion of certain brain areas when they are used extensively. These changes are thought to contribute to increased ability or proficiency.


26. Children have learning styles that are dominated by particular senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, touch).

> FALSE. Although children may have preferences for receiving information using specific senses, there is not strong evidence that this preference is related to learning effectiveness.


27. Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be improved by education.

> FALSE. Appropriate educational interventions can improve learning even in individuals with developmental learning difficulties.


28. Production of new connections in the brain can continue into old age.

> TRUE. Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not stop developing in adulthood. New connections form across the lifespan, allowing us to continue to learn and change.


29. Short bouts of motor coordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemisphere brain function.

> FALSE. Although exercise is good for overall cognitive functioning, there is little evidence that it specifically improves information processing across the right and left hemispheres.


30. There are specific periods in childhood when it’s easier to learn certain things.

> TRUE. During childhood, there are periods where the brain is particularly sensitive to different types of information. It is much easier, for example, for a child to gain fluency in a new language than an adult.

31. When we sleep, the brain shuts down.

> FALSE. Patterns of brain activity shift when we go to sleep, but the brain is active 24 hours a day regardless of whether we are sleeping or awake.


32. Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability.

> FALSE. There is little consistent evidence that classical music has an impact on children’s reasoning ability at any age (the so-called Mozart effect).