Reconciling the Neurosophists and the Neurosnobs, by Betsy Hill

December 2, 2015

A recent article in Brain in the News, a publication of the Dana Foundation (www.dana.org)  lamented the increase in the impressive sounding but empty use of references to the brain in education.  They use the term neurosophism to criticize the use of neuroscientific language to make statements about good pedagogy sound more important or to justify what educators have known for a long time.

I am sympathetic to this argument.  Educators have too often embraced neuromyths and neurofads and neuroscientific terminology without a deep enough understanding.  At the same time, I think the authors of the article are excessively dismissive of educators’ attempts to accept that neuroscience (and other scientific disciplines) may have something to offer their field.  Educators will undoubtedly oversimplify and make mistakes along the way, but rather than dismissing the whole effort as neurosophism – which smacks to me of neurosnobbism – I think a more constructive approach might be in order.

For example, the authors of the article are highly critical of this statement:  You can’t think when you’re stressed, you can’t learn when you’re anxious and that’s one of the primary principles of the neuroscience … Their criticism is that it suggests that teachers were unaware previously of the effects of stress on learning.  If the authors had talked to any of the people who actually educate teachers on neuroscience and its applications to education, they would have heard that we often say – and I always say – “There are many of the things that you will hear that will not be new to you.  In fact, they will reinforce what you already know to be good instructional practice and good ways of working with students.  But understanding the underlying principles of how brains work and why this is the case will be much more helpful to you than simply knowing that students don’t learn as well when they are stressed.”

In fact, it seems to me the height of neurosnobbism to take the position that only the neuroscientists are smart enough or worthy enough of commanding certain principles of neuroscience, and that the field of education should be confined to memorizing examples of instances.  This is exactly what we are told we should not be asking of our students.

In another example, the authors take exception when the type of research that is quoted is not neuroscience research but research from the field of psychology.  One has to wonder what good it does to understand the structure of neurons or the connection of the hippocampus to other parts of the brain if we can’t also connect that to human behavior.  Neuroscience is a relatively new field and many really useful findings are happening at the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics and a variety of other fields.  Personally, I celebrate the fact that the practice of teaching is becoming more evidence-based and more scientific and that educators are becoming better consumers of research.  I will admit that they have a ways to go, in general.  But please, let us help them and not make them feel that their stupidest fault is their misclassification of a piece of research as neuroscience when it was from the field of psychology.  If it is good research and they are using it appropriately, that is a huge step!

The need for collaboration between neuroscientists and educators is so urgent and important, it’s time to find some common ground among those who are willing to make and forgive some mistakes in the interest of helping improve an educational system that desperately needs all hands on deck.  Neurosnobbism will not help.  The only thing that will rid the field of education of neurosophisms is encouraging educators to understand the research better and to model it for them, not tell them what not to do, which will only encourage them not to do anything.


Thoughts on the Value of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative – by The BrainWare SAFARI Team

April 13, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative announced recently by President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of better understanding brain-behavior relationships and it holds potential for deeper knowledge of the mechanisms involved in the development of the cognitive skills involved in learning and thinking.

President Barack Obama this week announced that his 2014 budget proposal will contain $100 million in funding for a research initiative with the acronym BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a 10-year $3 billion initiative previewed in the President’s State of the Union Address.  The purpose of BRAIN is to develop technologies to expand our understanding of how brain cells (neurons) interact to produce thought and learning.

Here are some of our thoughts:

Betsy Hill, President & COO, BrainWare SAFARI:  The BRAIN initiative has been likened to the Human Genome mapping project, but there are some important differences.  The order of proteins in the human genome can be determined and will be the same the next time you look at it.  There is a basic sequence that applies to all of us.  The principle of neuroplasticity means that the organization of our brains – the neural networks that account for learning and thought – are unique and constantly changing.  Our brains literally construct themselves.  In fact, the creation and strengthening of neural networks is the definition of learning.  It is vital that we learn more about how the brain processes, uses, stores, and retrieves such enormous quantities of information.

Roger Stark, CEO, BrainWare SAFARI:  A key to technological exploration of brain-behavior relationships will likely be the use of tools and techniques that have already been developed to impact brain function and behaviors, such as attention, working memory, visual-spatial processing, auditory processing and the integration of cognitive functions.  BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software is just such a tool and has been shown in research and clinical practice to develop brain processes that enable us to take in, store, retrieve and manipulate information, the very processes the BRAIN initiative is designed to explore.  The BRAIN initiative could help explain in a much more detailed way than is currently available to exactly how key cognitive processes involved in learning and memory are developed and modified, leading to even better approaches.

Dr. Sara Sawtelle, Director of Scientific Affairs, BrainWare SAFARI:  We know that the brain develops in interaction with our environment.  BrainWare Safari helps the brain interact with the environment (in this case a software program, in a video-game format) in a way that develops cognitive processes critical for learning and thinking.  This could be a valuable tool in helping researchers working in the BRAIN initiative to examine how the brain develops and uses these key processes.  We look forward to collaborating with researchers on this exciting initiative with so much promise for our entire society.

What are your thoughts about the President’s BRAIN initiative?