What's fact and what's fiction about the way our brains work?

Does your child hate creative writing? Maybe it’s because he’s a left-brain thinker. Can you make your kid gifted? You can, with the right software. Want your children to do better in school? Get them to use more of their brain.

If you believe any of the above then you’re a brain myth victim.

John Geake, a professor of education and brain researcher at the University of Oxford, says these myths infect education worldwide and, in order to fix the system, we have to fix the way we think about the brain.

“The frustrating thing about these silly myths is that you don’t hear anybody in the neuroscience community even mention them or think about them,” Geake says. “They are not science. Just because people use the word ‘brain’ doesn’t automatically give it any status or cache.”

So which myths irk Geake and other researchers the most? Here are the top offenders:

1. We use only 10% of our brains.

This myth has been used to explain everything from psychic powers to the assurance that kids can do better if they think harder. It has become a way for most of us to feel better about ourselves because there’s always room for improvement. It has also lead to the sale of video games promising to tap into the unused brain.

“The idea is obviously absurd,” says Geake. . “If you were only using ten percent of your brain you should hope that your relatives will turn the machine off because that’s clinically brain dead.”

The truth is, kids use their whole brain to learn. “If we want to improve then we’ll probably have to base that on the way brains actually do work and then think of ways of presenting education so that it’s more engaging,” says Geake.

2. Any child can be gifted if they try hard enough.

This idea feeds the parental hysteria that pumps billions into the educational toy industry. It also causes 33% of Canadian parents to hire a tutor even though most of them have children with an A average.

The truth is, although there is always room for improvement, as far as learning goes, the brains of gifted kids are wired differently.

“When we look at the brains of gifted kids, or adults, one thing we see is a greater degree of interconnectivity between different areas of the brain,” says Geake. “We also see more activity in certain frontal areas of the brain that seem to be responsible for coordinating that information flow between the other areas.”

But there is room for optimism. Just because your child isn’t gifted doesn’t mean they can’t reach their full potential. The key is looking at your child’s strengths rather than weaknesses.

3. My daughter hates math because she’s a right-brain thinker.

This notion has caused some educators to begin teaching to different ‘brains.’ The truth is, we use both hemispheres. They are connected by a band of fibres and each hemisphere needs to know what the other is doing in order to function.

One side of the brain may be more responsible for things like language but it still needs the input from the other side.

4. I flunked out of school so my child will too.

This is the old debate of nature versus nurture. Is a child doomed to mediocrity if his genes dictate it? When it comes to intelligence, a lot is determined by genes but environment plays a huge role.

“It’s an interactive effect between genetic potential the actual inputs and stimulations that a young child receives including, of course, in school and obviously around the home,” says Geake.

The fact that you did not succeed in school probably has little to do with genes. Maybe your parents did not emphasize school as a priority. Maybe you didn’t get the help you needed or the best environment in which to learn. When it comes to school success, environment and genetic potential are so interlinked that it makes it impossible to choose nature or nurture as the defining factor.

5. IQ tests are the best way to determine intelligence.

Despite our access to brain imaging technology, understanding how the brain is intelligent is still a challenge. Since intelligence is difficult to define, it’s really hard to measure.

IQ tests have been used for over a century as a way to measure a child’s potential. The problem is they don’t measure things that can’t be defined clearly, like creativity. Therefore educators realize that there’s a lot more to intelligence than what is reflected in an IQ score.

6. My daughter is an auditory learner.

Teaching to learning styles is a sensitive area of discussion because most Canadian educators use these models.. The dominant learning styles are: visual (seeing), auditory (listening) and kinesthetic (touch and movement).

There is no doubt that children absorb information differently. Learning styles are based on our senses (hearing, seeing, feeling) and we all use our senses to interpret what is going on around us. Even still, Geake says our senses have nothing to do with learning.

“That’s just the vehicle of getting into the brain,” Geake says. “It’s not really where learning takes place. Learning takes place at a more abstract level when we’re laying down memories and processing things in this learning memory executive function kind of way. So it’s just a misunderstanding of how learning takes place.”

For an alternative view on learning styles, click here.


Education researchers are slowly starting to realize that the best way to understand how kids learn is to understand how their brains work. Debunking prevalent brain myths is one of the first steps toward creating a better learning system for our kids.