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‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism

By Thomas Newkirk — October 11, 2005 4 min read
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The problem for boys is not blood flow, but the kind of reading they are asked to do, or the lack of male models for reading.

“Brain research” is everywhere these days. Teachers are bombarded with claims about “brain-based learning” at conferences, where they are regularly invited to view photo imaging of cerebral blood flow. Gender differences in learning are explained by variations in the cortical activity of boys and girls. And typically this research, or so proponents claim, can lead to clear implications for teaching. It often seems a short step from blood-flow studies to single-sex schools.

In reality, all of this happens at a considerable remove from actual research in neuropsychology or the chemistry of the brain. We rarely see references to journals such as Brain and Language, which carry such articles as “Rapid Serial Naming: Relationships Between Different Stimuli and Neuropsychological Factors.” More likely, teachers get a popularization of a popularization.

One reason for caution is obvious. The human brain is the most highly evolved life form we know of. And reading and writing are dazzlingly complex learning activities. The fields that study the brain’s role in these activities are among the most sophisticated and complex areas of science. One would think this alone would call for some humility on the part of educators, some awareness of our own limitations, some appreciation for the intricacy of the field itself. How likely is it that we, as amateurs, can dabble in this work, understand it, and extract unambiguous guidelines for teaching?

Another reason for caution is the sorry history of such efforts—a story told by the late Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man. Craniologists in the 19th century regularly used brain measurements to justify racial and sexual discrimination. In 1879, for example, Gustave Le Bon noted that the brains of many women were closer to the size of gorillas’ than to developed male brains. This size difference helped explain—at least to Le Bon—why women “represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man.” Cranial differences were also used to justify the superiority of northern European immigrants over those from southern Europe—and, of course, the differences between whites and African-Americans.

I don’t want to suggest that the current use of brain research is motivated by the same racial or misogynist motives. Yet in it we still find the assumption of a clear, direct, causal link between brain anatomy on the one hand, and learning behaviors and academic achievement on the other. The picture painted is a deterministic one: Anatomy is indeed destiny.

As a case in point, I would like to look at some claims made by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, the authors of The Minds of Boys, in the November 2004 issue of Educational Leadership. They attempt to show that gender differences in the classroom are caused by physiological differences in the brain. Here, for example, is how the authors explain girls’ superiority in listening, visual and auditory memory, and descriptive writing:

    “Girls have, in general, stronger neural connectors in their temporal lobes than boys have. These connectors lead to more sensually detailed memory storage, better listening skills, and better discrimination among the various tones of voice. This leads, among other things, to greater use of detail in writing assignments.”

This would seem to be a scientific claim, when in fact it is simply speculation on a cause. We have Fact A (stronger neural connectors) and Fact B (greater use of detail), and we are asked to accept that A causes B. But there could be any number of causes for this lack of detail in boys’ writing: indifference, lack of writing practice, lack of reading experience, preference for fast-paced narratives. A truly scientific claim would have to rule out—or at least weigh—these other variables.

The operating principle behind these claims usually comes down to “size matters.” Bigger is invariably better. If a bigger area of the brain is activated, the performance is invariably better. For example, Gurian and Stevens claim that the female brain, which experiences 15 percent greater blood flow to central areas, drives itself toward stimulants like reading and writing, while boys resist “the monotony of words.”

Like many other educators, I believe that the problem for boys is not blood flow, but the kind of reading they are asked to do, or the lack of male models for reading. Blood flow does not seem to be nearly the problem for upper-middle-class white boys that it is for poor black ones. In fact, this very stereotype—that reading is unnatural for boys—may play into underachievement.

Clearly, there are biological differences that matter. Boys, as a group, are slower off the mark in literacy, and schools must work to keep them feeling successful in these early years. Many learning disabilities surely have some neurological base. And the educational innovations urged by advocates of brain research often make perfect sense. Boys (and many girls) need more activity and movement, more chance to manipulate objects. But I don’t think we need brain studies to accept this—just a good rereading of Rousseau and Dewey. Or better, our own observations.

Citing “brain research” can perhaps give presenters the veneer of science; it can make us feel we are in contact with something solid. But I suspect it only makes us look foolish in the eyes of actual scientists. At worst, it overstates differences and looks for causes in all the wrong places.

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism

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