Beware ‘brain-based learning’

Enthusiasm for ‘neuroeducation’ risks blinding people to its potentially limited efficacy, argues Steven Rose

December 12, 2013

Source: Yenpitsu Nemoto

Although it is important to challenge the claims of ‘snake oil sellers’, the claims of mainstream neuroeducation, too, have been oversold

Neuroscientists – and neuroscience – are on a roll. Earlier this year, the European Union announced its Human Brain Project with an estimated budget of €1.2 billion (£1 billion). The project is one of the two winners of the “grand challenge” competition awarded under the EU’s flagship Future and Emerging Technologies programme. The goal, according to the project’s website, is “to build a completely new information computing technology infrastructure for neuroscience and for brain-related research in medicine and computing, catalysing a global collaborative effort to understand the human brain and its diseases and ultimately to emulate its computational capabilities”.

Soon afterwards, US President Barack Obama announced a parallel mega-brain project, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, budgeted at $3 billion (£1.9 billion) over 10 years and aimed at generating a dynamic map of the connectivity of the 100 billion neurons in the human cortex – or initially more modestly, of a few tens of thousands in the mouse brain. This project – a collaboration of several US federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the military agency Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) – has also attracted soaring rhetoric. It will be “transformative”, it will solve “the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears” and it will be a wealth generator. It will focus on the new technologies – optogenetics, nanoparticles, miniaturised neuroprobes, DNA computing – required to begin to trace and record the connections.

No matter that many neuroscientists are sceptical about both goals and methods; few are going to look askance at gift horses. The default position will be to take the money and run. For it is true that this is an amazing time for brain research, with extraordinary new techniques capable of probing the living brain at all levels, from the movement of ions across synaptic membranes to the engagement of giant ensembles of neurons in accomplishing tasks such as plotting the route from home to work or recalling the face of someone you love. But with these successes has come a certain arrogance. “You are your brain,” claims one Nobelist; another states: “You are nothing but a bunch of neurons.” Mind, consciousness and “free will” collapse; they are merely the epiphenomena of brain processes, a “user illusion”. And so the onward march of neuroscience offers to illuminate and transform other previously independent social and cultural studies.

We are entering the hybrid world of neurodisciplines: neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuroaesthetics, neuroethics. Some of these are perhaps best seen as mere intellectual bubbles, memorably captured in Raymond Tallis’ phrase “neuromania”. But some – above all neurolaw (this field, growing in the US, explores the argument of diminished responsibility for a crime because “my brain made me do it”) and neuroeducation, the topic of this critique – need to be taken more seriously, because their claims have practical consequences.

It is easy to see why the prospect of neuroeducation, or brain-based learning, might excite schoolteachers anxious to do the best for their students and to find ways of anchoring their teaching and learning strategies into the best that science can offer. The seductive appeal of those ubiquitous false colour images of the brain, showing the regions that “light up” when solving a maths problem or learning a new language, cannot be denied. They seem to offer a certainty that mere psychological or educational insights cannot. So it is unsurprising that neuroeducation is becoming a growth industry (a Google search records 50,900 hits for “neuroeducation” and 250,000 for “brain-based learning”). Parents and teachers alike are targeted. Television advertisements hymn the merits of “brain gyms” and offer exercises to activate “brain buttons” to enhance blood flow to the brain. At least in the UK, unlike in the US, the adverts don’t yet include the direct current electrodes (transcranial direct current stimulators, TCDS) that, placed across the skull, are supposed to improve learning and memory. Nonetheless you can buy them on the internet, along with off-label “cognitive enhancers” such as Ritalin, originally prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but now widely used by students revising for exams.

Yenpitsu Nemoto feature illustration (12 December 2013)

Brain imaging has apparently shown that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lights up when adolescent girls experience social exclusion, but does this provide guidance as to how the youngsters might be helped?

As for schoolteachers, Usha Goswami, director of the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience and Education, has in Nature Reviews Neuroscience described how teachers receive more than 70 mailshots a year urging them to sign up to courses on brain-based learning. Some don’t even bother with a course. A headmaster told me how he had reorganised his class timetable to teach in quick bursts as a result of reading an article in Scientific American. It reported that if fruit flies and mice are trained intensively in repeated 10-minute spells separated by rest periods, they show better memory than if they are given the same amount of training spaced more evenly.

Different teaching strategies are proposed for “left-brain” and “right-brain” learners, those whose learning is more language-based versus those who are more visual. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been asked if it is true that “we use only 10 per cent of our brain”.

Neuroscientists are rightly critical of many of these claims; a Royal Society report in 2011 (Brain Waves Module 2, Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning) described them as “neuromyths”. Left brain/right brain is best regarded as a metaphor, not a statement about brain localisation, while no one seems to know where the 10 per cent figure originated. Exercise and sleep may both aid learning and memory, but the effects of TCDS are evanescent.

Such authoritative pronouncements can be seen as an attempt by the authorised voices of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to police the boundaries and achieve some control over the excesses of fringe practitioners. But although it is important to challenge the claims of “snake oil sellers”, it is my argument that the claims of mainstream neuroeducation, too, have been oversold.

Consider the recommendations with which the Royal Society’s report on the implications of neuroscience for education and lifelong learning conclude: a strong plea for neuroscience to inform teaching strategies. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the steering group for the overall Royal Society Brain Waves project, although not involved in this educational module.) Neuroscience, it proposes, should be used as a tool in educational policy, informing teacher training and adaptive learning technology. And the foreword to a new book, Educational Neuroscience, edited by Denis Mareschal, Brian Butterworth and Andy Tolmie, imagines a future in which parents take their 10-month-old daughter for an educational check-up by measuring her brain’s electrical activity, and determine whether she will be able to learn Chinese by imaging her response to Mandarin phonemes, with a robot teacher to coach her. Functional magnetic resonance imaging could be used to help to “close the achievement gap between Asian and Western children” and to decide whether a child has ADHD, while studying the “brain mechanisms of experts” may determine if a given teaching method is establishing “genuine expertise”.

Yenpitsu Nemoto feature illustration (12 December 2013)

Are such proposals, well meaning though they are, realistic or even desirable? This is not to deny that those studying cognitive psychology and child development have useful things to say about optimal learning strategies and the normal sequence in which children develop competences in contemporary Western culture. Just as was Alfred Binet’s intention in developing IQ tests a century ago, such research can help to identify children with specific learning difficulties, from dyslexia to dyscalculia, and to devise strategies to help them improve. But unless she is teaching biology, is it important for a teacher to know her hippocampus from her amygdala, both brain structures involved in certain forms of learning? Brain imaging has apparently shown that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lights up when adolescent girls experience social exclusion, but does this provide guidance as to how the youngsters might be helped? Unless of course, as in the futurologist’s dream, it is to be by direct intervention into the brain?

Children from poorer families (or as the literature more demurely puts it, of low socioeconomic status) may generally have a more restricted vocabulary than their wealthier peers – although this has been vigorously contested – but subjecting them to imaging or measuring their electrical event-related potentials (ERPs) to demonstrate that this difference may be reflected in brain processes might seem to add insult to injury. And when cognitive neuroscientists claim that poverty impedes cognitive function (the title of a recent paper in Science) or that one way to lift people out of poverty is to use cognitive behavioural therapy to improve their “mental capital” (“conceived metaphorically”, according to psychologist Cary Cooper, “as the bank account of the mind, which is debited or credited throughout the life course, from childhood to old age”), it shows a certain disconnect with the economic forces currently driving people into poverty.

There’s another problem here, a manifestation of the common tendency among neuroscientists to commit what philosophers call the mereological fallacy, which broadly means ascribing the properties of the whole – in neuroscience terms, the living, conscious human being – to a part of that whole, ie, the brain. Thus, an accessible and widely read introduction to the brain and its study by two leading researchers, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith, is called The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education (2005), and its chapter heads include “the mathematical brain” and “the literate brain”. Common usage, but as I am sure both authors would agree, it isn’t brains that learn, are mathematical or literate; it is their owners who use their brains to learn, do maths or whatever. (I know I am putting my own head on the block here – many years ago, in the early 1970s, I wrote a book called, in my youthful certainty, The Conscious Brain. But I have reformed.) This is, I think, more than a semantic quibble, because such titles reflect the way that we neuroscientists tend to think and encourage others to think likewise.

Furthermore, the emphases that are developed from this way of thinking, in, for instance, the Brain Waves report on “adaptive learning technology” or the foreword of Educational Neuroscience to a “robot tutor”, risk confounding teaching with learning. By instrumentalising teaching instruments, by focusing on the brain and not the child or student, these advocates seem oblivious to the fact that both teaching and learning are not timeless and isolated activities but in their very essence socioculturally embedded. To me as a neuroscientist, committed as I am to the research endeavour of trying to understand how the brain works and what relationship such working may have to mind and consciousness, studying what happens in the brain when someone solves quadratic equations or learns a poem is endlessly fascinating. I worry, however, that some of the enthusiasts for educational neuroscience may have it the wrong way round. For neuroscientists, the phenomenology of, for instance, dyscalculia or dyslexia, prompts questions about the brain processes that may be involved, and in this sense the Royal Society report is right to encourage knowledge exchange between practitioners and scientists. But I would suggest that this is less about what educationalists can learn from us, and more about how their experience of teaching can help to frame the questions that neuroscientists ask about the brain.

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Reader's comments (2)

Strange website. There seems to be no way to view comments made. Perhaps they go to be vetted by a Committee ?
Critical thinking is a good ability. However, scientists (and journalists), need to know some facts before writing and be accurate. There are some good ideas in this piece, but also some mistakes that could be avoided, especially with a more thorough preparation. For example, TCDC, should be TDCS, and there are several studies showing that the effects of TDCS are not evanescent but can last for several months (one of them been covered by THE). Just to be clear, I am not recommending anyone to try TDCS in a non-research context.

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