Brain Myths

Stories we tell about the brain and mind.

Why It's Important to Tackle Brain Myths Head On

Correct information isn't enough—misconceptions need to be refuted explicitly.

It’s tempting to hope that simply presenting students with accurate psychological knowledge will give them the stick they need to beat off their erroneously held beliefs about the mind and brain, one by one—take that neuromythology!

In fact, belief in psychology and neuroscience myths—such as the classic “we only use 10 percent of our brains”—are widespread, not only among the general public, but among psychology students too. In one typical survey, by Kenneth Higbee and Samuel Clay published in 1998, for example, a third of university psychology students said they believed in the 10 percent myth.

This suggests that presenting people with accurate information is not enough – there’s a need to tackle myths explicitly—an idea put to the test in a paper published in Teaching of Psychology in 2009.

Patricia Kowalski and Annette Taylor of the University of San Diego invited 65 introductory psychology undergrads to rate their agreement with 45 popular psychology and neuroscience misconceptions (e.g. “someone with schizophrenia has a split personality”), embedded among 55 less problematic facts about psychology (e.g., “psychology is defined as the science of behaviour and mental processes”).

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During the ensuing semester, some of the 45 misconceptions were dealt with in lectures and/or reading material using a so-called “refutational approach”—that is, the myth or misconception was spelt out explicitly and then the true state of affairs was explained. By contrast, other misconceptions were dealt with in what you might call the standard way—that is, there was no explicit discussion of the myth or misconception, but the true facts about the issue were conveyed in a lecture and/or through course reading. The key question was whether the refutational approach would be more effective.

At the end of the semester, the students again rated their agreement or not with the facts and myths. Overall, there was a 34.3 per cent improvement in the proportion of myths rejected by the students. But the refutational approach led to even greater learning, with a positive change of 53.7 per cent. Comparing the effects of refutational lectures and refutational reading material—the lecture approach was far more powerful, but that’s possibly because the researchers had no way of knowing if the students had done the prescribed reading.

The lesson from the research is clear, as Kowalski and Taylor concluded: “… if students are going to abandon misconceptions, it appears instructors must specifically tell them that preconceived notions are incorrect and then immediately provide clear evidence demonstrating the correctness of the new information.” 

Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.

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