April 9, 2019

Challenging Neuromyths

By Devon MacEachron

I recently was interviewed by Emily Kircher-Morris, founder and host of the Mind Matters Podcast. We talked about neuromyths in education and psychology – those things people tend to believe that aren’t actually supported by the facts. We covered left brain/right brain, learning styles, Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities, and multiple intelligences. The Mind Matters Podcast focuses on gifted/talented and 2e (twice-exceptional) children and adults, so is right up my alley.

I don't seem to be able to provide a direct link to our chat called Separating Truths from Mental Myths, but it can be found as episode 27 on the Mind Matters podcast page linked above.

The point I’d like to discuss today is why these myths are so pervasive. And what we can do about it.

Some myths are perpetuated by political or economic interests. Examples of this are therapeutic centers claiming they can cure autism or ADHD with sensory integration therapy (see my blogs on sensory integration and Brain Balance Centers) and essential oil companies claiming their tinctures can cure ADHD (see my blog on essential oils ) The companies “spinning” these myths stand to gain financially by misrepresenting the facts. Buyer beware! This is not far from the proverbial snake oil salesman of yore.

Other myths are not as nefarious. Rather, they have been created and spread by individuals who care about people. They are well-intentioned. I would place learning styles, Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities (as it pertains to giftedness), and multiple intelligences in this category.

In my view, both type of neuromyths persist for the same three reasons, despite considerable evidence against them:

1) They sound scientific so must be – especially if they’re “wrapped” in neuroscience. Pictures of brains can look pretty convincing;

2) We often believe an anecdotal story someone shared with us in which the myth seemed true, rather than digging deeply into whether it is actually supported by the data; and

3) We want to believe in them. They make us feel better about ourselves or our child. The myth fits nicely into our belief system.

But wanting something to be true does not make it so. Anecdotes are just one individual case – not a rigorous scientific study. Just because something sounds scientific doesn’t mean it is.

I’d like to urge us to use our rational brains to make sense of such things – especially when it comes to our children.

Daniel Kahneman is the Nobel-prize winning psychologist who wrote the book Thinking Fast and Slow about decision making and “human unreason.” He points out that many (if not most) of the decisions we make when relying on our fast, “System One” decision-making processes, are based on our intuition, which we have learned to “trust.” Intuition is in turn based on emotion. “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” Emotion is fed by stories.

So, if we hear a compelling story about a child who benefited from a therapy this resonates with us emotionally and so we believe it. We may have already believed that dyslexia is about seeing things backwards, so the anecdote fit with our preexisting beliefs. We tell ourselves stories to explain to ourselves why we believe in things. “The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.” It’s a fast (and kind of lazy) way to make decisions without expending too much mental energy. “System One” thinking often happens automatically in the unconscious mind.

And it’s often wrong. Our intuitions aren’t terribly accurate. Kahneman writes: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Relying on emotion and intuition often leads to poor decisions.

And who is more emotional than the parents of a child who is struggling? I fell into this trap multiple times when our children were young. I believed something someone told me and acted on it without questioning.

But there is hope. Kahneman describes two ways of thinking: “System One” and “System Two.” "System 2" is slow, deliberate, effortful, and logical. System Two thinking challenges us to question ourselves and others.

When it comes to important decisions affecting our children let’s employ our System Two process - use our questioning rational thought processes to examine the facts. Go beyond the story. Beyond our emotions.

Our children deserve our best strategic thinking.

Note: Emily Kircher-Morris of Mind Matters is a licensed family therapist with a private practice known as the Unlimited Potential Counseling and Education Center in the St. Louis, MO area. She and her colleagues provide individual counselling, group counseling, mindfulness training, assessments, and tutoring services. Emily is a specialist in and is very knowledgeable about the counseling needs of gifted and high ability individuals. Plus she's a super-rational thinker who uses her System Two brain to question!

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