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Monday, January 11, 2016

Fables and Facts in Educational Neuroscience

In recent years, the growing public concern over deficiencies of schools has led a growing number of educations to embrace neuroscience. Neuroscience is a discipline that integrates anatomy, physiology, psychology, psychiatry, pathology as they relate to function of the nervous system, particularly the brain. In 1969, I was one of 500 charter members of the society that formalized the discipline, the Society for Neuroscience. But only in the last decade has there been much interest in the potential for neuroscience to influence educational policy and practice.
In educational circles, this interest has been expressed with such terms as "brain-based learning," "educational neuroscience," and "neuro-education." The latter term is used for my Linked-in group. Whatever it ends up being called, a new discipline is growing. So far, both good and bad effects are manifest.
Numerous critics have pointed out that neuroscience has not had much impact on education, and worse yet has spawned a series of harmful myths. The myths arise frequently from well-meaning people who have misunderstood and misapplied the findings of neuroscience. Sometimes, the myths come from zealous neuroscientists who make false claims and promises. More often, the myths come from educators who lack scientific training.
A recent review has identified some of the more flagrant myths. Some beliefs are downright foolish and have no research-based evidence. For example, there is the false (and untestable) claim that we only use 10% of our brain. I have no idea where this absurdity arose, but surely it was not from a professional neuroscientist. But one very prominent scientist, whom I do not wish to embarrass, made an outrageous claim that 95% of everything humans do is programmed and that basically we have no free will to improve ourselves or do anything else. I challenge this idea that free will is an illusion in my new book, now in the page-proof stage. The existence of free will is essential for an ability to take personal responsibility and be held accountable for one's beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Belief that free will is an illusion is demotivating, leading children to think they are irredeemable victims of their biology and environment. Neuroscience research clearly establishes that the brain is readily changed by one's choices of experience, thought, and behavior. Freedom to make beneficial choices is empowering.
Another myth, not likely attributable to a scientist, is the claim that the brain shrinks if a child drinks less than six glasses of water each day and that this will cause children to underperform in school.
Such myths have led some critics to charge that neuroscience hype is destructive of sound educational practice. In some cases, that charge is justified. For example, some neuroscientists and educators have believed that children have differing learning styles and that teachers need to adjust teaching to accommodate visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. But controlled laboratory studies fail to confirm such biological differences among children. Yet belief in individualized learning styles is still believed by over 93-97% of teachers in five surveyed countries (U.K., China, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece). In those same countries, 71-91% of teachers believe, without evidence, that individual differences among learners are explained by differences in right-brain/left-brain dominance.
Many educators oppose IQ tests, presumably because the score differentials  discriminatively label capability. This has given rise to the notion of "multiple intelligences," which is an untestable hypothesis because of the uncontrolled variables involved in defining the types and number of intelligences. There is also a common belief that IQ is fixed and unchangeable, yet evidence to the contrary is abundant.
Another mistaken belief is that the early ages of 0-3 years old are a critical period wherein most brain development occurs. There is no supporting evidence, and a vast amount of evidence shows that the brain is in continual development throughout life, even possible in old age. Brain development and learning capabilities develop at different rates and times in different people.
Nonetheless, a belief in the special importance of pre-K seems to be growing, even though there are indications that some kinds of instruction, such as reading, achieve better success when they are delayed. In Finland, noted for its excellence in education, teaching policy aims at delaying didactic education; "pre-school" education begins at age 6. Their kindergarten day lasts only four hours and is filled mostly with play time and social activities. Teaching of reading may not begin until age 7. Yet, in the U.S., Common Core standards require rigorous language training in kindergarten. There is no evidence that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from the early exposure. Likewise, the latest evidence shows that "Head-start" programs have no lasting impact, yet there is great public support for creating pre-Head Start programs.
 Two common learning disabilities, ADHD and dyslexia, have been widely studied, both by educators and neuroscientists. Unfortunately, confusion abounds. In the case of ADHD, there is belief that it has to be treated with drugs and that it cannot be reduced by teaching or behavioral therapy. Myths have surrounded dyslexia, ranging from ideas that it does not exist to treatments based on the false notion that it was caused by a visual perception deficit. The real cause seems to be a problem with phonological coding.
As with any new scholarly discipline, a degree of misunderstanding and hype should be expected with educational neuroscience. The proper perspective is to be wary of false prophets and snake oil, but open to the possibility that new knowledge in neuroscience has genuine potential for enriching education practice and outcomes. Research on the biology of memory, reviewed in one of my books, has clear beneficial potential for education that has not been exploited. Better and more informed interdisciplinary collaboration is needed if we wish neuroscience to enrich rather than mislead education.  


1. Howard-Jones, Paul. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience. 15, 817-824.

2. History of SFN, 1969-1995.

3. Neuro-education: promoting cognitive development.

4. Walker, Tim. (2015). The joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland.

5. Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Free Will. New York: Elsevier. In press.

6. Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Recent News on Music and Memory

Most of us remember early school years where we were taught the memory trick of turning item names into a song. Lyrical rhymes seemed to help. In fact, one common mnemonic peg system uses rhyme to create numerical image pegs to which we can attach mental images of what we want to remember. The pegs are expressed, for example, for one as one/run, for two as two/zoo, for three as three/tree, and so on. Though I think there is a better number peg system, this one does show the power of rhyming.

While this approach works, it applies mostly to lists of items. However, I did once use a version of it to put on a stage show where I memorized the gist of a magazine content, by page number. While this is good memory exercise, it does not apply well for memorizing complicated concepts, as one might occur in academic courses in college.  

I get the impression from my college students that the vast majority of them study while listening to music. They say it helps them learn. But formal research on this matter is not clear. It is clear that music has rich structure (melodies, chords, themes, riffs, rhythms) that engages the entire brain in ways that certainly could be distracting. But music can also have strong emotional power for evoking emotions and moods. All I have learned about memory is that the most common memory problems come from interfering stimuli. Certainly, music with lyrics can be quite distracting if you are listening to the lyrics while trying to memorize school work. Rap music would probably create the most interference of all.

Finally, a recent scholarly research study, prompted by conflicting reports on music effects on memory, was based on the premise that music, if it could be helpful at all, would be instrumental music. In this study, 20 young non-musician adults were asked to memorize different lists of words presented while they listened to instrumental music, the sound of a waterfall, or silence. Pre-tests established that the chosen song  and the environmental sound were rated as enjoyable, of medium emotional intensity, and low arousal effect. Results revealed better recall under the music condition than either of the other two conditions. However, the degree of improvement was small, albeit statistically significant.

Another study that I reported in another blog post tested the role of music on memory in the elderly. The subjects were not musicians and had an average age of 69 years. The music test conditions were: 1) no music control, 2) white noise control, 3) a Mozart recording, and 4) a Mahler recording. All 65 subjects were tested in counter-balanced order in all four categories. The music was played at modest volume as background before and during performance of the cognitive tasks, two memory tasks and a mental processing speed task. An episodic memory task involved trying to recall a list of 15 words immediately after a two-minute study period. A semantic memory task involved word fluency in which subjects wrote as many words as they could think of beginning with three letters of the alphabet.

Episodic memory performance was better when listening to either type of music than while hearing white noise or no music. No memory difference was noted between the two types of music.
Semantic memory was better for both kinds of music than with white noise and better with Mozart that with no music. Processing speed performance was faster while listening to Mozart than with the Mahler or white noise conditions. No improvement in the Mahler condition was seen over white noise or no music.

Recognizing that emotions could be a relevant factor, the experimenters analyzed a mood questionnaire comparing the two music conditions with white noise. Mozart generated higher happiness indicators than did Mahler or white noise. Mahler was rated more sad than Mozart and comparable to white noise. Thus, happy, but not sad, music correlated with increased processing speed. The researchers speculated that happy subjects were more alert.

Surprisingly, both happy and sad music enhanced both kinds of memory over the white noise or silence condition. But it is not clear if this observation is generally applicable. The authors did mention without emphasis that the both kinds of music were instrumental and lacked loudness or lyrics that could have been distracting and thus impair memory. I think this point is substantial. When lyrics are present, the brain is dragged into trying to hear the words and thinking about their meaning. These thought processes would surely interfere with trying to memorize new information or recall previous learned material.

A point not considered at all in either study is personal preference for a certain types of music. The music in the most recent study was lyric-free "Down, Down, Down." This is certainly not classical music, and the version I heard on U Tube is more rock than jazz. In the earlier study that used classical music, we cannot assume that all of the 65 people like classical music. If one does not like a certain type of music, it is not pleasurable and most likely is a major irritant and distraction from whatever it is that needs to be memorized. My point is that studies of music and memory need to take into account whether the subjects were allowed to hear their preferred music.

My take-home lesson was actually formed over five decades ago when I listened to jazz background music while plowing my way through memorizing a veterinary medical curriculum. When I was a student, I listened to instrumental jazz and was convinced that it helped me learn. Two possible explanations come to mind: 1) it helped me relax and feel good, and positive emotions are proven to help memory, or 2) perhaps my brain was energized by the creativity and rhythms of jazz. At the time, I thought that the benefit was stress reduction (veterinary school IS stressful and happy jazz certainly reduces stress). Now I consider the possibility that frequent listening to such music might have actually helped my memory capability in general.

Another point to emphasize is that background music probably interferes with memory in musicians. They are likely to attend to the music structure and technical performance, which would most certainly interfere with memorizing. My final advice: it you are not certain that background music helps studying, then think in silence. When it comes to learning, it is hard to beat intense focus.

Ferreri, L. Bigand, E., and Bugalska, A. (2015). The positive effect of music on source memory. Musicae Scientiae. 19 (4), 402-411.

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Music Effects on Cognitive Function of the Elderly.

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.