Battling and countering myths is, of course, something we skeptics do a lot, especially here at the Skeptoid podcast and blog. But once in a while, some organization outside of the skeptical circle also tackles the topic of countering common myths. No, this time I’m not talking about Playboy, but about the consulting company McKinsey.
In their July issue of their McKinsey Quarterly, they critically analyze three myths about learning. As others have said elsewhere (such as Jozef Van Giel, on his Belgian skeptical podcast Kritisch Denken) and as I’ve experienced myself, the workplace and HR are sadly riddled with a lot of myths and woo. So it is refreshing to see a respected institution like McKinsey tackle these. Hopefully this article gets read by a lot of people in charge.
McKinsey tackles here three “neuromyths,” common misperceptions linked to learning and the brain. They are not new to skeptics, but one needs to start somewhere, so that’s alright. Furthermore, a rare treat, the article also mentions its scientific sources.
The first belief is about the critical window of childhood. The myth here is that our brain is only flexible enough in its first few years to learn and to change, and that afterwards our development is more or less fixed. Now there are, of course, a couple of things we learn best as a child—such as language as a native speaker—but it is never too late to learn a language or any other skill. In the article, the authors (Artin Atabaki, Stacey Dietsch and Julia M. Sperling) also link this to mindfulness, a topic on which I generated some controversy. However, as mentioned here, it seems legit: mindfulness in a workplace situation can reduce stress and apparently some researchers see changes in the brain after eight weeks of practicing it. I can accept that, but getting well rested for eight weeks in a row will probably have the same effect.
The second myth is well known, namely the idle-brain theory. Claims abound that up to 80-90% of a brain is unused at any given moment. This is completely wrong; our brain is always active, though some regions might at a certain point be more active than others. Inactive parts of the brain would simply die off and disappear in a short evolutionary timeframe, since our brain eats up a lot of our resources. The article counters this myth and links it explicitly to learning. It says that we can learn not by tapping into unused sources of our brain but by freeing up our working memory to increase connections between nerve cells. This relates to a phenomenon of learning I discussed in an earlier post on learning and multitasking: you cannot actually multitask. Even just checking your phone (even on vibrate) will hinder learning. The McKinsey authors indicate that freeing up working memory by focussing on one task will aid in better learning. A wise lesson indeed!
The third myth tackled by the McKinsey authors is the enduring left brain/right brain hypothesis, again something known to many skeptics. There is indeed no such thing as being dominantly analytical (left) or creative (right), and interestingly in a corporate context, there is no such thing as a preferred learning style for one or the other supposed “brain dominance.” I didn’t know it was that radical, namely that there are a multitude of learning methods, and the authors note that the best methods engage all senses.
The article ends by lamenting that there is still a lot of work to be done eradicating these myths, even in the face of solid scientific research. We know that feeling all too well…
In all, it’s a very interesting article that could have appeared on this blog or any skeptical outlet without any problem. The fact that it appears in a corporate publication is all the better, as it probably has a bigger reach.