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Neuroscience naysayers: why we need to be cautious about being cautious

Drinking water improves cognition and reduces stress!

Right­-brain dominant people are more creative!

Women are more intuitive than men!

We must get it right by 3 years old!

For as many unfounded and pseudo-scientific claims there exist, there may well be as many terms to describe them…. Neuro trash, neuro xxxxxxks, Neuro hype, neuro babble, neuro myths or as I call them in my latest book, neuro nonsense. These are all used interchangeably to convey the same meaning – a piece of information that has been confounded, over-simplified, mis-represented and over-generalised and worse still – represented as the truth.

It is these myths and (perhaps more importantly) their over-generalised critiques that provide the basis of this article – one which I did not think would still need to be written - that as a workforce, we had ‘wised up’ to these over-representations of the truth and that, of great significance, the over-reactions to these myths had abated. However, given the innumerable debates, misunderstandings and inaccurate and misinforming training advertised, I deemed it necessary. It is my contention that the over-generalised and inaccurate critiques of the myths are a pivotal reason why effective and consistent knowledge transfer in early years (EY) discourse and practice is yet to take place.

Neuroscience – where are we now?

Like most disciplines neuroscience has taken decades to be readily accepted as a science which can reliably influence education – particularly early childhood education (Conkbayir, 2017; Rose and Gilbert, 2015; Bruer, 2011). Issues of research ethics concerning the use of brain imaging techniques with very young children and the over-extrapolation of findings loosely based on neuroscience have not only contributed to this gap but also resulted in apprehension in grappling with knowledge which is neuroscience-based (Ansari et al., 2011; Devonshire and Dommett, 2010; Goswami, 2006; Jolles et al., 2005). While attempts have been made to utilise evidence derived from neuroscience in education, these have generally been erroneous (Lindell, A. K. and Kidd, 2013; Dekker et al., 2012; Geake, 2008; Hyatt, 2007; Hirsh-Pasek and Bruer, 2007; Goswami, 2006; Valtin, 2002; Beyerstein, 1999; Crockard, 1996; Dennison, 1994).

That said, neuroscience is enabling us to begin to see what early childhood theorists, developmentalists and researchers have been investigating for decades.  We are now able to identify the effects that early experiences have on the developing architecture of the brain – positively and negatively (Scientific Council on the Developing Child, (SCDC) 2010; Shore, 1997). Factors such as nutrition, health, sleep, opportunities to play, affectionate and responsive relationships and conversely, the presence of continued stress, domestic violence, special educational needs and disability (SEND) and chronic maltreatment are now being interpreted from brain imaging studies (including MRI and fMRI scans). The human connectome project (a magnificent effort to map the neural pathways between our 86 million neurons, that underlie human brain structure and function) is providing vistas into the living brain that we thought never possible, transforming what we know about the mind and brain. We no longer need to resort to animal studies or post-mortem examinations of human brains in the quest for new knowledge about the brain as we can now generate and capture it in real-time.

A coloured 3-D MRI scan of the brain's white matter pathways traces connections between cells.

When used sensibly such evidence reinforces, enhances but also changes what we consider good practice when it comes to adopting approaches to educating and caring for children. At this point, it is therefore advisable to note that the images produced from brain imaging studies clearly cannot speak for themselves and thus rely on experts to interpret their ‘meaning’ and implications for supporting children and their families (Rose and Abi-Rached, 2013; Eliot, 1999).

This is crucial in preventing the misinterpretation of images derived from brain imaging studies which often result in assumptions being made. Neurologist and former classroom teacher Judy Willis informs us that, ‘nothing from the laboratory can be proven to work in the classroom - it can only correlate’. (Judy Willis, February, 2015, Personal written communication). One such example is Perry’s (2007) image of two brain scans which is constantly mis-used in a range of publications, policies and training.

The negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three-year-old with an average head size. The image on the right is from a three-year-old child suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of cortex.

Perry has used Twitter to ask people to refrain from including it in their training – as have I, upon seeing it invariably misrepresented by trainers when discussing the impact of neglect. In one interview, he explains that this research: "was based on the most severe and extreme cases of neglect, such as children kept in locked basements without human contact. I do believe that overstating and misunderstanding the neurobiology can lead to confusion, anger, distortion and potentially to bad policy. (Perry, 2010)."

It is easy to understand why non-experts or the layperson could be seduced by this image, due to the visual impact of the substantial difference in size between the two brains. Such misinterpretation and over-extrapolation of images from brain studies like Perry’s is characteristic of neuroscience being used inaccurately. This image illustrates the importance of giving practitioners access to evidence that is reliable, replicable and appropriate to their field. So, what other myths continue to pose a challenge in effectively and meaningfully applying neuroscience-informed knowledge to EY discourse and practice?

My Top Ten – myths that muddle!

Here are some common myths that continue to pervade early childhood education and care and, in a snapshot, why these are just nonsense:

  1. Critical periods exist in brain development
  2. Left-brained versus right-brained thinkers
  3. Female brain versus male brain
  4. We only use 10 per cent of our brain
  5. Fish oils improve learning
  6. Enriched environments enhance the brain’s capacity for learning
  7. Neuroplasticity drives learning
  8. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) Learning styles
  9. Learning two languages gives an advantage at school
  10. Listening to classical music increases children's reasoning ability.

The Myth

The Truth

Critical periods exist in brain development

Evidence shows that the human brain maintains plasticity throughout life, with the pre-frontal lobes not fully developing until the mid-20s

Left-brained versus right-brained thinkers

Although specific hemispheres of the brain are responsible for specific functions, both hemispheres of the brain are necessary in processing all of these functions - the left and right hemispheres of the brain work together

Female brain versus male brain

This may actually be a result of differences in strategy and societal and cultural expectations placed on girls and boys, as opposed to sex differences

We only use 10 per cent of our brain

Even when we sleep, the brain is active - we use 100% of our brain all the time (but not all our neurons fire at the same time)

Fish oils improve learning

While essential fatty acids (EFAs) are vital in maintaining brain health, particularly during foetal growth and first two years of life,

supplementing in the absence of need (such as behavioural difficulties or depression), little evidence exists in support of this claim

Enriched environments enhance the brain’s capacity for learning

This arose from influential work on early learning in rats - further research is necessary to be able to transfer these insights from animal research to human learning

Neuroplasticity drives learning

Learning arises from changes in the connections between brain cells, not as a result of new neural connections forming

Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) Learning styles

While it is true that we all differ in the way we prefer to receive information, there is no reliable evidence that matching learning preference to delivery makes a difference to learning ability

Learning two languages gives an advantage at school

Research does show that bilingual children do outperform their monolingual counterparts in some tasks (but only in those who learn two languages before the age of three) but potential implications for the classroom are not yet fully understood and some studies evidence disadvantages to being bilingual such as slower vocabulary development

Listening to classical music increases children's reasoning ability

This stems from a 1993 study conducted with 36 university students (not babies!). Those who listened to the Mozart piece scored slightly higher in a spatial IQ test than those who did not. The effect lasted for only 15 minutes. And a myth was born!

How are these myths created?

Why are people so easily beguiled by these myths? ‘Catchy’ headlines, brightly coloured images of a brain apparently responding to a stimulus, products that claim to cure - as long as money can be made, neuro myths will remain and no doubt continue to thrive and evolve in line with technological advances, with many well-intending individuals taking unfounded or contorted claims into the realm of their parenting or profession.

 

Challenging misrepresentations of evidence is dependent on level of knowledge and insight, including a resultant ability to critique what is read, seen or heard. Now, such a faux pas may well come from a genuine place, one which stems from the individual to want to share what they understand to be real and useful. I can work with this. After all, we all start somewhere. What I refuse to tolerate is a type of response which attempts to harness neuroscience-informed knowledge (and those stubborn myths) …

 

Over-generalising the over-generalisations

Such misrepresentations and overgeneralisations have also created certain academics to react (as opposed to respond) with likewise overgeneralised and dismissive comments which do not actually serve to enlighten or educate the workforce, but instead deter them from finding out more, while leading them to believe that theirs is the voice of reason and that neuroscience is best left ‘untouched’. Examples include likening ‘brain-based’ education to ‘kidney-based education’ and a reference to the inclusion of the neurosciences in EY education as encouraging a view of children as neuronal machines to be controlled by adults (Penn, 6th November 2018).

Such statements do not equip the workforce with balanced information pertaining to the abundant neuromyths, nor do they feel respectful or inclusive of them – they are instead, exemplary of the ‘them and us’ divide which they are actively perpetuating (and thus, the knowledge gap between neuroscience and EY workforce training). It is worthwhile noting however, that with many of these and similar statements, once the work behind it is read in its entirety, one is able to understand more deeply, the origins of their beliefs – though they still may not agree with their position. The problem herein is that the originals texts are dense, academic and non-practical in their nature, so the average EY practitioner is unlikely to have the confidence to read such a text unless they happen to have a deep interest in the subject of the neurosciences. Echoes of these warnings are provided by Moss (2014: 22) who contends:"Let’s bring neuroscience into the story. But let’s not go overboard."

Again, such assertions, instead of being objective, seem to steer the reader into a realm of doubt, over-caution and confusion. Moss goes on to imply that looking to the neurosciences for explanations is akin to viewing it as the answer to everything in the world and indeed universe (2014: 22), that effectively, peering into the intracranial darkness is the best way of advancing our knowledge of mankind (Tallis, 2013: 31). In her article, the deterministic myth of the ‘early years’, author Helene Guldberg makes a range of grand, poorly executed counter-claims to the oft-used myths that quite frankly are no longer ‘news’ to the EY workforce. For example, she draws on what is referred to as infant determinism, in dismissing knowledge from the neurosciences in illuminating understanding on the importance of early attachments, asserting:

Maybe some parents do not engage with their children as much as the government wants. But so what? The idea that the way parents smile at, talk to and generally interact with their baby reflects how much they love their baby, and that these interactions will have a lasting impact on their child, is based on prejudice not ‘science’.

It isn’t based on prejudice but on facts, nor is it due to a recommendation of governments. We want to support parents to be resilient, to be able to overcome personal trauma and hardship so that they can be emotionally available for their infants – to be able to enjoy a loving and affectionate lasting bond – because that’s what humans are designed for: connection.

Where next?

It’s quite simple really – if our workforce was afforded the respect it rightfully deserves, in the form of robust and contemporary qualifications and training, we would not continue to be patronised and told what knowledge we should and should not be attempting to grapple with. We would instead be equipped to reach conclusions for ourselves, using our best judgement and professional experience alongside the balanced, objective and reliable information presented as a mandatory and consistent part of our training. As it stands, practitioners with a personal/professional interest in the neurosciences have to seek out training opportunities which tends to be self-funded and insufficient in providing a comprehensive and deep account of the application of neuroscience in understanding early brain development and the host of influencing factors on this precarious process.

Mine’s conference, Applying Neuroscience to Early Intervention takes place on 28 March 2020. Follow Mine on Twitter @MineEYMind for further information.

Mine’s award-winning neuroscience-informed online CPD programmes are available at: www.mineconkbayir.co.uk

 

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