Turns out that some of the most popular theories on how the brain learns might not be true.
There are many theories the best ways to learn new information or a new skillset. But at least some of these theories aren’t as well supported by research as you might think.
Popular Science recently dove into the topic, looking at three common ideas of learning. What the outlet found was fascinating: From inherent difficulties with setting up studies to studies funded by companies profiting from positive results, there's more than enough to be skeptical about.
The concept of learning styles--such as visual versus verbal or active versus reflective--is commonplace, but it turns out that there is little evidence to support it. The outlet pointed to Hal Pashler, a psychology professor from UCSD, who led a study on learning styles in 2009. He concluded that to prove that it is possible to teach to a style of learning, you have to show that people don’t learn as well when taught in a style that isn't "theirs"--but that there are very few studies out there that do this.
"It takes a fairly particular sort of research design to really test whether learning styles really have any utility," Pashler told Popular Science. "There are hundreds of articles on learning styles--practically none, a small handful, that used appropriate research design. Their results tend to be negative."
Myth #2: You are either right brained or left brained.
At some point, most of us have probably identified ourselves as being members of one camp or the other, but research doesn’t strongly support this concept of the lateral brain--or that people have a dominant side of the brain that dictates how we learn.
Popular Sciencecited a study from earlier this year in which researchers did not find evidence of a dominant side of the brain in their subjects. They did, however, find that certain processes were more likely to occur in one hemisphere versus the other--but also found that this varied.
A researcher told the outlet:
The conventional wisdom from a long time ago is that there was hemispheric specialization--one hemisphere was responsible for things such as language, and the other for spatial ability, and that ne’er the two would ever meet. What developed out of that was a view that you should teach to one hemisphere or the other depending on what you were trying to teach.
Myth #3: There is one exercise that will make you smarter.
Much like fashion and nutrition, learning has its own fads. One minute playing Mozart will make your baby a genius, the next crosswords will fend off your mental decline but according to Popular Science, the research behind these claims are weak.
Scientists refer to this idea of memory tests improving your overall knowledge base as a "far transfer."
"We’re definitely skeptical about far transfer. If there is improvement for most of these types of training, it tends to be limited to tests that are pretty similar to the types of things you train on," Thomas Redick, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, told the outlet.
So what learning methods are actually effective?
"It’s not so much based upon how the brain is structured, it’s based upon our experiences. Our experiences do affect brain development. The wiring of the brain depends upon the experiences we have," Alferink told Popular Science.