Journey to Excellence

Mind myths - Sergio Della Salla

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Listen to Sergio Della Sala explain what happens in the brain when learning takes place, and hear his analysis of what we mean by memory and knowledge.


Claims that we use 10% of the brain, or the right hemisphere, drink buckets of water or kick your feet to stimulate the corpus callosum, or use coloured lenses to treat dyslexia … most of this research was not peer reviewed … individuals made fortunes by selling popularised books or recipes, textbooks. So just by taking a model over simplified may produce disasters in education.

The brain is made up by two halves.  As we have two lungs, we have two bits of the brains: a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere - a left brain and a right brain. However, while the lungs do the same thing, the left and the right hemispheres do not do exactly the same thing - but the left and the right hemisphere are also connected through a bundle of traffic fibres which is called corpus callosum. This is a fact and the fact that the two hemispheres do different things is another fact which won Roger Sperry a Nobel prize in 1981 which is not very long ago. However what happened with this laterality issue and this dichotomy went beyond the control of neuroscience. And we see this flurry of books about stimulating the right hemisphere. Perceived as the 'goody, eastern Buddhist, friendly' hemisphere against the left hemisphere the 'military, western, rational, nasty, fussy, pedantic' hemisphere.

So, we see [in the] business field, education this flurry of publications about using the right hemisphere to do things - better drawing learning with the right hemisphere, stimulate the right hemisphere. Even so the exercises where they were teaching people to stimulate these hemispheres by breathing with one nostril only - incredible flim flam! So it is true that we have two hemispheres and it's true that they don’t do the same thing. But it’s not true that they are completely dichotomised - and it’s not true that we can stimulate the right hemisphere to become better at drawing or at doing things or be more compassionate or amicable if we use the right hemisphere. This is another good example of how decades of neuroscience have been translated into a simplistic recipe sold by people who made a fortune with these recipes which are, to my astonishment, used very widely.

Of course the brain needs some oxygen - it needs oxygen because otherwise it dies. Cells die without oxygen. It does need sugar because otherwise it dies and we need water because otherwise our cells will shrink. Drinking water is good in terms of biology and in terms of ideology - better drinking water than drinking coke in all instances. This does not mean necessarily that the more I have the better I am: when I have enough, it's enough. Teachers should not use neuroscience as a theoretical basis to justify what they do.

Does playing Mozart music make us more intelligent? In the early '90s three scientists published a paper in Nature which is a very posh science journal, claiming that playing Mozart sonata improved a tiny bit, the performance on a particular task. There are loads of problems with that particular paper which has never been replicated. Whoever tried it again did not find the same effect. Moreover they never claimed there was any effect over and above these 10 minutes on this particular task - zero.

They only observed an interesting phenomenon which has been debunked later on. This not withstanding, less scrupulous scientists created snappy labels: the ‘Mozart Effect’.

And the message passed that if we listen to Mozart music, then we become more intelligent! If we make our kids to listen to Mozart music then they become more intelligent! If you listen to Mozart music while you are pregnant your foetus develops greater intelligence! Now there is no data reporting that this is even far away true. Should we then not care about listening to Mozart? Oh yes we should. Listening to classical music is great and we should expose kids to music because it is a pleasure, because it is a fantastic asset in life to understand music, not because listening to music makes us more intelligent. And why Mozart and not Beethoven?

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In association with Education Scotland