If you believe that students have different “learning styles” — which many people do — you have succumbed to a “neuromyth,” which is a commonly held view about the results of brain research that isn’t actually true.

It’s one of many popular neuromyths that have been debunked in recent years, but it turns out, there’s also a problem with some of that debunking. In some cases, debunkers are wrong in their analysis or misunderstand the thing they are debunking. That’s the topic of this post, written by Howard Gardner, the world-renowned psychologist whose work has revolutionized the fields of education and psychology.

One of the most misunderstood brain theories over the past several decades is Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which was advanced more than 35 years ago. The theory — explained in Gardner’s 1983 book “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences” — said human beings had more than a single kind of intelligence and listed seven that work together: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal. He later added an eighth, naturalist intelligence, and says there may be a few more.

The theory became highly popular with K-12 educators, many of whom thought “multiple intelligences” were synonymous with the concept of “learning styles.” Gardner never said that, though debunkers of his theory have claimed he did.

Gardner is now a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is an adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is the senior director of Harvard’s Project Zero, a research center that explores topics in education such as intelligence, creativity and ethics, and he directs the Good Project, initiatives that seek to prepare students to become good citizens and workers in society through education. The author of more than 30 books, he has been working on a large-scale national study about how different groups think about the goals of college and the value of studying liberal arts and sciences.

By Howard Gardner

We live in an age of debunking. It’s energizing to shoot down someone or something, and sometimes, that’s a good thing.

But when “debunking” gets out of hand, it needs to be called to account. And when you yourself are the target of a debunking, not surprisingly, you feel called upon to become the sheriff — the debunker of the debunkers, so to speak.

You may have heard the word “neuromyth” or the phrase “neural myth.” It’s used by researchers and, less frequently, by laypersons to describe a widely held belief that is not true. And indeed, there clearly are statements about the nervous system that deserve to be debunked.

Two examples:

  • The brain has two hemispheres — left and right — and some people are left-brained, while others are right-brained.
  • We only use 10 percent of our brain.

Each of these examples starts from a fact — we do have two cerebral hemispheres and they are not identical. But even as a metaphor, the leap to two kinds of persons is not warranted.

No doubt most of us could make better use of the brain. But how to determine what percentage is used, how to account for awake, sleep, dreaming and day dreaming is left completely unsolved — perhaps not even considered.

But a whole industry has grown in which various myths are delineated, exposed and presumably laid to rest. Yet, when one looks carefully at the assertions about the myths, many of the statements that are supposedly debunking something do not themselves withstand scrutiny.

Enter my own work. More than 35 years ago, I introduced the theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion of a single intelligence adequately probed by a single short answer test. In its place, I proposed that human beings have a number of relatively independent intellectual capacities. And in supporting this assertion, I drew on evidence from several scholarly disciplines, including the brain science of the day.

Never did I come close to asserting that these intelligences are inborn or genetic, or that they are completely independent of one another, or that people can be described as having one intelligence or another to the exclusion of the remaining ones. Nor did I make specific suggestions about education. I simply stated that individuals have different profiles of intelligences and that this claim should be taken into account when one is teaching, studying, assessing.

Yet, in an article published in 2019 in a well-regarded journal, I found multiple intelligences (MI) theory classified as a neural myth. And this article spurred me to look more carefully at how such myths are identified and dissected.

What I found was disturbing. The article distinguished between five statements that are presumably true, and five that are asserted to be neuromyths.

First of all, of the 10 statements, only six of them even mentioned the brain or the nervous system. And so 40 percent of them are not neural at all!

Second, those that were considered myths were expressed in hyperbolic form. “All,” “none” and “predominant”: Anyone with experience in taking (or making) tests would know that these statements are likely to be false.

Third, and in contrast to the previous point, those that were considered true were expressed in much less totalistic form — using hedges such as “likely” and “may.”

Fourth, and most telling, none of the statements actually requires mention of the brain. They are statements about learning, studying, remembering, each of which could have been — and perhaps was! — stated 100 or 1,000 years ago. The descriptor “neuro” is gratuitous.

My conclusion: The mission of neuromythology has gone too far. Obviously, all of us — researchers, teachers or members of the general public — should scrutinize statements carefully.

A few lessons:

  • We should be wary of absolutist statements.
  • Just as it is useful for educators to learn about psychology and sociology, we should attempt to learn what has been established about the brain and the nervous system. But we should never change our behaviors or teachings just because of new assertions about the brain. All education is concerned with values — and so we should always ask whether a recommended tactic is consistent with what we believe should be taught and learned and why we think so.
  • Finally, perhaps it’s time to bracket the debunking phrase “neuromyths.” Instead, when we encounter an assertion — be it based on psychology, pedagogy or neuroscience — we should attempt to find out in what ways it is meritorious, or suspect, or not worth taking seriously. And if the latter, we should attempt to discover better ways to achieve the educational goals that we cherish.