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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

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Why L&D should not mistake ‘NeuroDazzle’ for neuroscience

Is what you think you know about neuroscience really true?

The brain is… kind of complicated. After even 150 years of scientific psychology, we really don’t know much about this magical part of ourselves and how it really works.

There’s lots going on to try and change that right now, and it’s so exciting and intriguing that we can’t help get entranced by it sometimes in learning and development… but I think we should be cautious, and not get bewitched by what I am starting to call ‘NeuroDazzle’.

Actually, we should be as cautious as the psychologists themselves. The late, great Oliver Sachs once did a lovely job of exposing the beautiful complexity and mystery of memory, for example. In an essay in one of his last books, The River of Consciousness (2017), he recalls a memory he truly believed he had experienced — so much so he wrote about it in the first person in an earlier best selling book, that of his father shooting a dog. 

It turned out, though, that he actually never witnessed the event at all and he instead had learned about it from a letter read to him by his brother. For Sachs, this should illustrate how emotional intensity and repeated recollection of an incident alters and shapes our memory and makes a false memory seem real.

Incorrect or misleading assertions about how the brain is involved in learning’s origin often lie in genuine scientific findings. 

Taken out of context

But – you want the real. There is an explosion in advanced brain research (psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral science, etc.) that offers enormous promise to any of us trying to become true ‘learning scientists,’ using genuine, fact-based insight into how we learn, communicate and remember to up L&D’s game.

I am a passionate believer in this myself. And there is no shortage of learning/edtech companies claiming science-based techniques and technologies are at the heart of what they offer us. This is exciting, and we are all hungry for practical theories of brain behavior that can help us improve our work in training adults… but that’s a slightly dangerous thing, if done loosely. 

For example, famous Swedish psychologist K Anders Ericsson's work on memory and deliberate practice is rigorous and useful. But it got taken out of context and over-simplified to the idea that 10,000 hours of practice on the fairway is all you need to become Tiger Woods. (Hint: teaching and underlying ability are also pretty important.)

So beware the ‘NeuroDazzle’, a concept I first heard about at a Microsoft internal Data Science seminar. NeuroDazzle is the phenomenon of you claiming a neuro-scientific basis for a solution or technology.

Well intentioned or otherwise, when it comes to so called ‘brain friendly’ learning methods and programmes, who here hasn’t fallen for one of these at one time or another?

Now, we’ve all got so hungry for change and what looks like a dependable route forward that just the claim of being ‘research based’ or just a cute brain logo on the website is enough to lure us into accepting what might well instead be a bunch of misinformation and half-truths – and possibly strategies that would do you and your mission a lot of harm if you implemented them. 

What makes this more complicated? Incorrect or misleading assertions about how the brain is involved in learning’s origin often lie in genuine scientific findings. Hence another neuro-problem, the neuromyth, defined by the OECD as “a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”.

An example of such a ‘neuromyth’ is that learning could be improved if children were classified and taught according to their preferred learning style. This misconception is based on a valid research finding, namely that visual, auditory and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain. BUT, these separate structures in the brain are highly interconnected and there is deep cross-activation and transfer of information between sensory ‘modalities’ (more here). 

We’ve all fallen for this…

I’m not kidding about that last bit, by the way. Brain images are believed to have a particularly persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. I think they speak to people’s need for nice, simple explanations of complex cognitive phenomena.

And presenting brain images with articles summarising cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. 

So part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves (and think how many learning technology and AI providers use a brain image in their branding now). How’s that for psychology in action?

Indeed, there is an entire literature on the consequences of this, though it turns out we’ve been smoking this dope in L&D for quite a while now. Well intentioned or otherwise, when it comes to so called ‘brain friendly’ learning methods and programmes, who here hasn’t fallen for one of these at one time or another?

  • Left Brain Right Brain – Yeah. Not a thing

  • Myers-Briggs – No basis in science

  • Ebbinghaus’s famous ‘forgetting curve’ (the decrease in ability of the brain to retain memory over time, which claimed to inform more than one L&D software design) was based on a  limited, incomplete study on himself, and published way back in 1885! 

  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming – not a serious science, shall we say 

And even proper neuroscience is having a bad moment. All those MRI machines underpinning our current wave of research may have flaws that throw doubt on how we’ve been interpreting their output. 

Get properly data literate at last

In any case, I still very much believe that L&D needs to adopt a more scientific underpinning of our practice, and that we need to inform those practices by the latest thinking in data, social and, yes, neuroscience.

After all, we in workplace learning are in the brain plasticity business; we’re at one end of a spectrum of genuine interest in how minds work and people learn and retain information/become experts.

But it's also great to remind ourselves that science is a mindset and fluid set of hypotheses and experiments, not unassailable facts.

What to do:

  • Become neuroscience-literate and understand the basics so you can’t be blinded by the jargon so much

  • Starting getting super-skeptical about a product being ‘brain-based’ or straight out of the cognitive science labs – ask to see the research

  • Be aware that just talking about brains or seeing brain images makes you more susceptible to the marketing

  • Get properly data literate at last, and learn how numbers and stats can be used to skew ideas… plus always remind yourself that correlation is not the same as causation 

Inoculation measures

To help you develop immunity to NeuroDazzle, here are four brain-science oriented (and one data-science oriented) classics we think should be essential reading for all L&D professionals:

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioural economics. An essential and wonderful read on behaviour change.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

By Carol S Dweck. The book that launched a thousand ‘creating a Learning culture here’ aspirations 

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

By Matthew Walker. Yes sleep, that’s when much of the learning get’s actually done - When did you last design healthy sleep into your learning programmes?

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

By Robert Pool and Anders Ericsson, who here report their insights into how to achieve expert performance in domains as diverse as music, chess, medicine and sports. Coaching for deliberate practice.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

By Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling. Not brain science per se, but still an absolute masterclass on biases and how data is used to manipulate your thinking.

Interested in this topic? Listen to the latest Learning Is The New Working podcast episode in which host Chris Pirie and guest speaker and learning evangelist Nick Howe dive deep into the topic of learning science.


3 Responses

  1. How to destroy the
    How to destroy the credibility of your article and your own credibility in six words!

    “Myers Briggs – No basis in science”

    Penny Moyle & John Hackston (2018): Personality Assessment for
    Employee Development: Ivory Tower or Real World?, Journal of Personality Assessment, DOI:

  2. Chris – Thanks for a great
    Chris – Thanks for a great article. Another good read is ‘The Mind is Flat’ by Nick Chater which dispatches the idea of the unconscious. I couldn’t agree more also about Myers-Briggs and NLP. But! -I hope this doesn’t re-ignite the unresolvable debates on these subjects that have run and run for years, and are essentially about belief systems. De-bunking is a belief system too, that can be powerful in the training room! Whilst we can’t often replace a system (of for example invented personality typing) with something better, after de-bunking it, we are at least left with common sense, which I believe is a good starting point for exploring simpler ideas that have some authentic basis in science.

  3. Thanks Chris. A timely
    Thanks Chris. A timely reminder to be factfully cautious (thanks Hans Rosling).
    I’m a little persuaded, however, not to throw Left/Right Brain totally out with the bathwater, on reading Iain McGilchrist “The Master and his Emissary”.
    But totally agree we need to be very careful about how we quote and use this new scientific frontier.

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Chris Pirie

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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