Category Archives: Links

Why learning styles don’t exist, by Daniel Willingham

Many educators have encountered the concept of ‘Learning styles‘; the idea that some people learn more easily through one sensory modality (e.g. visual, auditory) while others more easily pick up information through another. This is a surprisingly pervasive idea in education circles, and one for which there is very little evidence.

Daniel Willingham (also on twitter: @DTWillingham) is a psychology professor who’s written several excellent pieces debunking this particular myth. An article in Change magazine can be found here and his excellent Learning Styles FAQ is available on his own website here.

He also made a really marvellous video that sets out his arguments very clearly. Essentially Prof Willingham has said everything that needs to be said on the topic, so I’ll shut up about it and let you watch the video. Enjoy:

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A presentation on neurobollocks by Chris Atherton

Just a quickie to point you towards an ace set of slides by Chris Atherton (twitter: @finiteattention) available on SlideShare.net, detailing a presentation at the Cambridge Usability group meeting. Some really excellent points and examples in there.

See the slides on SlideShare.net  by clicking here.

Folk neuroscience, and some other neurobollocks

Woody Guthrie. Because 'folk'. And frankly, just 'because'.

Woody Guthrie. Because ‘folk’. And frankly, just ‘because’.

In a frankly spooky bit of synchronicity, just as the blog was being set up for the first time last weekend, the marvellous and really quite annoyingly youthful and prolific Vaughn Bell had a great piece in the Observer on ‘folk’ neuroscience. His thesis is that the language and general approach of neuroscience has now permeated the public’s way of thinking to such a degree that it’s becoming relatively commonplace to explain things in terms of ‘chemical imbalances in the brain’ or ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroscientists realise that these kinds of phrases really don’t mean anything much at all, but this kind of neurobollocks seems to have a fairly significant effect on the general public.

The previous posts on this blog have noted that some modern neurobollocks is actually just plain old bollocks, re-packaged. For instance Brain Balance Centers seem to be chiropractic, with a modern ‘brain training’ spin, and QDreams ‘Quantum Brain Training’ is just old neurolinguistic-programming tosh from the 70s given a shiny new (‘Quantum!’) makeover. The reason this kind of cynical re-packaging works, is because of the genuine widely-reported neuroscience research that the public has been exposed to in recent years; because of this media-saturation, some of the key concepts and terminology have become familiar. This familiarity falls short of genuine understanding of course, but we can’t blame the general public for that; these issues are complex, and highly-educated people who have been conducting brain research for years struggle to understand some of them.

The problem is that this familiarity with neuro-terminology is then exploited by the unscrupulous neurobollocks-merchants, who use the same language in order to make us buy useless products, do pointless exercises, and believe our kids are dysfunctional. Fortunately, help is at hand though; Christian Jarrett (also quite infuriatingly youthful and prolific; I mean seriously, don’t these people sleep?) has written an article in Psychology Today titled “Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense”. Read. Digest. Tell your friends.

In other news, a fMRI-researcher at the Washington University has apparently been playing fast and loose with his data in a major way. Psychology is going through a bit of a difficult time at the moment with fraud cases, and it’s all very unfortunate and sordid. There’s a very interesting interview with his PhD supervisor here, and also some thoughtful commentary from another ex-colleague here.

First post – some neurobollocks links

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Wanted to have the word ‘vagina’ in my first post. Sue me.

As a brief little taster, before I really get stuck into tearing apart some neuro-charlatans, I thought I’d kick off with posting some relevant links to fairly general articles and resources that others have written.

First up is a short report in Wired magazine on a talk by Molly Crockett, delivered at the TedSalon event in London. The actual talk is also available on the TED website here. She mentions a few classic neurobollocks studies, and other ‘serious’ studies that have been hopelessly distorted by the popular press.

Next up is a widely-quoted piece by Steven Poole in the New Statesman, titled ‘Your brain on pseudo-science: The rise of popular neurobollocks. This article mostly focusses on the kind of popular-science books written by Malcolm Gladwell and the (now-disgraced) Jonah Lehrer. This article did raise the ire of The Neurocritic who raises a number of good points in response, among them, that Raymond Tallis has been talking about popular ‘neurotrash’ for a while now – this article is a good piece on Tallis and covers a number of his main points.

Thirdly, there’s a fantastic lecture online by the never-less-than-utterly-invaluable Dorothy Bishop in which she discusses a number of well-known examples of neurobollocks and proposes some general reasons why studies might show positive effects where actually none exist. If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend you spend it listening to this lecture. If you don’t have a spare hour, then make one. If you’re really pushed for time/lazy/have the attention span of a schizoid squirrel then Neurobonkers did a brief write-up of the talk here. 

Lastly, the wikipedia page on pseudo-science. Yes, I know… wikipedia sucks as a serious source… Anyway, that page doesn’t actually mention much neuroscience, but has a lot of good discussion of general principles and is well worth a read.