Busting neuromyths

Anita Norlund has made her voice heard with her research-based criticism of neuromyths, in other words false assumptions of how stimulating the brain could affect learning. Neuromyths are assumptions such as pupils having different learning styles, that sugar intake cause attention problems in children, and that exercising the brain is good (to help pupils cross the midline between the left and right hemispheres of the brain). By studying these myths and disseminating knowledge through scientific articles, Anita Norlund wants to prevent them from further spreading – in educational settings as well as in the rest of society.

Anita Norlund

Lives in: Ulricehamn.
Occupation: Docent in pedagogical work and senior lecturer at the Department of Educational Research and Development at the University of Borås.
Involved in: Research on neuromyths in educational contexts as well as several joint research projects, for example with municipalities that want to change how they work with newly arrived pupils .
Background: Has worked at the University of Borås since 2007. Prior to that, she taught Swedish and English in high school.
Red thread through her career: Having the courage to challenge assumptions that need to be questioned in order to improve the conditions, for teachers as well as for pupils.

“I have always been interested in the discussions and assumptions that lack scientific support and how they grow strong among people. I would really like to emphasise that I do not blame the teachers. I am interested in finding out how these myths arise in the first place and how they affect teachers’ and pupils’ chances. If the teaching is based on myths, this could result in serious consequences”, Anita says.

Research magazine 1866 meets Anita Norlund in her office at the University of Borås. She is sitting at her desk, with rows of books and reports contrasting her colourful personality. She believes that she is ‘quite nerdy’ and she likes the academic environment that gives her space to question simplified truths.

Prior to her PhD, she worked as a high school teacher in Swedish and English. Then, she was subjected to continuing education programmes based on myths and was forced to take pupils’ different learning styles into account. Even then, she felt that something was not right but at the same time felt lonely about that feeling.

“Many years later, when I first met researchers who had investigated neuromyths, I immediately recognised thoughts that I had had, as well as the scepticism I had felt as a teacher.”

The researchers who made the pieces fall into place belonged to a French research team specialised in myths about the brain. The team had recently published a major research review about neuromyths. The review was about false assumptions, such as pupils having different learning styles and that people only use ten percent of their brains.

“I was so fascinated. And some time later, I applied for a scholarship so I could visit them and follow their work.”

Anita Norlund and her colleague Marianne Strömberg were awarded the scholarship, and spent two weeks at the university in Lyon and one week in Clermont-Ferrand where they got a hefty dose of new knowledge in neuromyths.

“In France, just as in Sweden, brain research seems to have influenced educational decisions at the policy level. We agreed with the researchers we met that it is crucial with knowledge that critically question this.”

Back home, Anita Norlund continued to study different myths and has now written several scientific articles on the subject. At the time of writing, one article is published, another is being reviewed, and a third was recently submitted. 

“If I get any of the later articles published, this subject will hopefully become more discussed by researchers, teacher educators, teachers, and others. And this will hopefully help challenging the myths”, Anita Norlund says and adds that other research in the field has not become particularly noticed yet.

These myths are expressed as scientific facts but actually lack scientific support.

“I was at a conference a while ago and presented our (Anita’s and Marianne’s; editor’s note) findings to a number of research colleagues. Some people nodded while others were incredibly provoked by our criticising things they considered as facts. Neuromyths have a strong grip on many people, and it is easy becoming absorbed by the different theories.”

In her research, Anita Norlund has identified three tracks that are expressions for neuromyths and other parts of that which is called ‘brain-based education’: learning styles, working memory, and methods for creating energy balance for pupils with diagnoses in the autism spectrum. The results show that several Swedish schools allow brain-based activities to be prominent in their action plans when working with pupils with neuropsychiatric disabilities. This means that time is taken from other work clearly stated in the curriculum. Another consequence stemming from her research is that teaching tends to become more and more individualised (in other words, based on neuromyths), which can make it difficult for pupils to move on and deepen their knowledge together with their class and teacher. There is also a risk that problems with loud environments are ignored by the simplified explanation that some pupil’s brains are more sensitive to sounds than others.

Anita Norlund’s research on neuromyths

Anita Norlund spreads knowledge about so-called neuromyths by writing scientific articles. She studies how neuromyths affect educational contexts and which consequences it could result in, both for teachers and for pupils. The purpose of her research is to alert other researchers as well as active teachers, school health teams, and principals about the problem and prevent further myth building.

According to Anita Norlund, neuromyths are false assumptions, for example that stimulating the brain can affect learning, that pupils have different learning styles, and that education needs to be adapted accordingly. Today, brain-based training is popular in society. Media often gives a lot of space to neuromyths, and several competence development companies with commercial interests keep driving their popularity.

“In our research, we have both zoomed in to school environments and zoomed out to see how these myths take up space in the educational community.”

For example, the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company (UR) often present programmes based on these myths, which in turn create the basis for many articles in teacher journals. These myths take up a lot of space in the press and the media, and even school agencies present materials with myths as a starting point. It is very complex.

Why do you think few people are as critical as you?

“This is a sensitive subject to talk about, because many people have invested a lot of faith, and also a lot of money, in these ideas. And there is a strong fascination about the brain, which makes it easy to reach out with alternative theories. Those who work with spreading neuromyths are very convincing. There is also a great need for handling the complex activities that come with teaching. As in the case of different learning styles, if you categorise the pupils it can give you a sense of control.”

How are these myths expressed in everyday life?

“The neuromyths are seen in many different aspects of society and in different forms of continuing education programmes. The proponents often get a lot of space in interviews and media, and ‘brain training’ is quite often included in competence development contents. These myths are expressed as scientific facts but actually lack scientific support. And philosophers speak critically about how we are currently experiencing the ‘century of the brain’.”

What drives you in your research?

“My research is about avoiding devastating consequences for the pupils who experience that different tasks do not give them anything, and for the teachers who are handed strange assignments based on these myths. For me, it is important to reduce the consequences – both for the pupils and for the teachers.”

Anita Norlund is committed and interesting to listen to, and when she has started she can go on about her interests for a long time. But sometimes she needs to get away and lock herself in a room with her computer and just write.

“Soon, I am going to a writing week at a farm in Västmanland. Every room has its own tiled stove, and I will just sit there and write. We are a couple of people who do this once a year. Then I go to my own writing weekends abroad where I sit in the hotel and write and write, have breakfast, and then write some more”, she says.

Neuromyths is not the only thing Anita Norlund is researching. She started her doctoral studies with a dissertation in the field of education sociology together with Swedish didactics. She is still into that field in her research. During the autumn of 2015, she was a visiting professor in Italy where she studied virtual reality, among other things.

Outside the university walls, she relaxes by being an amateur entomologist.

“I am looking for moths to determine their species. This summer, we are a few people who accepted a challenge to find a new species and post it to Facebook every day. We have been doing that every summer for years now. It is good fun, but not easy. Generally, I like being outside. Then I read a lot and when I need a break, I do big puzzles. I realise I sound like a nerd and I actually think I am one. And I have always been a sceptic. It feels good turning that characteristic into something positive through my research.”

Read more

About Anita Norlund

About research within Pedagogical work

Text Gabriella Fäldt
Photo Suss Wilén
Illustration Mostphotos