Debunking myths about the teenage brain (Wired UK)


Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is just as fascinated by the links between neuroscience and education as she is outraged by the pseudo science that often intrudes upon this territory.

Neuroscience in education has really been flourishing in recent years, she says on stage at WIRED Health 2015, but some theories about neuroscience have already infiltrated schools, and not necessarily in a good way.

Some products that makes claims about having a positive effect on cognition make bogus claims that may well have positive effects in the classroom, but at the same time promote completely inaccurate science. Blakemore points specifically to the Brain Gym educational model, which claims to improve memory, concentration and information retention. There are no problems with the exercises themselves, she says, but the claims made about the brain are baseless. 

For a start, she said, Brain Gym claims that children can push “brain buttons” on their bodies that will stimulate blood flow to the brain. Another physical exercise claimed to increase and improve connectivity between the two sides of the brain. “This makes no sense — they are in communication anyway,” says Blakemore.

Teachers like Brain Gym because it does what it says and results in improvements in the classroom, but it could just as easily be placebo or novelty causing the effects. One thing Blakemore is sure of? “They’re nothing to do with brain buttons or coordinating the two brain hemispheres.”

There are very few randomised trials in education, which Blakemore finds strange given the importance of the things being tried out on developing brains in the classrooms. “It doesn’t make any sense because education is by definition changing the brain,” she says.

Why then is Brain Gym quite so popular? “Part of the reason is probably because of the seductive allure of neuroscience,” says Blakemore. “People are seduced disproportionately by products that make claims about the brain.” Ironically, the more random brain words that are thrown in, the more likely those who are new to neuroscience are likely to be convinced. “But its not just the brain or neuroscience that is seductive. We’re all a little bit seduced by science we don’t understand,” says Blakemore, admitting that she can be won over by the complex language on shampoo bottle.

Neuroscience has much more impact even than psychology and brain words like “right-brained and left-brained” in particular have infiltrated schools, and even companies.

Michael Newington Gray

“What is this nonsense? This is total pseudo science,” says Blakemore. You use both sides of your brain all of the time and even of one aside is activated slightly earlier than the other, they still connect almost simultaneously. “All it is is a metaphor for different modes of thinking.”

So with her experience in neuroscience and education, what would Blakemore do if she were to make changes education was run in the UK? “I would get young people involved in designing schools and educational curricula,” she says. They would undoubtedly look entirely different to the way they do today.

She would also change school start time. “We know that circadian rhythms undergo changes during puberty,” she says. Teenagers can’t get out of bed in the morning for entirely biological reasons. “We still force adolescents to get up in the middle of their night to go to maths lessons.”

Some people have argued that because if the vast cultural differences between teenagers growing up in different societies that adolescence is a made-up phenomenon. “I would argue strongly against that; adolescence is a unique developmental period of life,” says Blakemore.

We know from animal trials that adolescence isn’t even something restricted to humans. Rodents go through several days of adolescence and they can be tested on during this time. The results are somewhat remarkable. “Adolescent rats drink more alcohol when they’re with other adolescent rats, and that’s not true of adult rats,” Blakemore says.

“This is the period of life where the sense of self and particularly the sense of social self undergoes real transition. What that research has taught us is that the human brain undergoes substantial and significant change throughout adolescence and into the twenties and even thirties.”

The teenage brain is changing and plastic and malleable to the point where researchers are starting to realise to understand it, they are going to have to look beyond the average teenage brain — which doesn’t really exist. Instead they will have to start to look at individual differences between brains to understand the impact of genetics, psychiatric condition or disorders and environmental factors.

“People are starting to ask those questions and in ten or twenty years we will have a lot of answers to those, I predict,” says Blakemore. The outcome will be, she adds, that we will be able to “pave the way to adapt education to the individual developing brain”.

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24 April 2015 | 4:48 pm – Source:


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