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U of Minnesota study: Pictures of brains will make us fall for anything

Think you're good at spotting bunk science? Think again.

Think you're good at spotting bunk science? Think again. Getty Images/iStockphoto

A recent University of Minnesota study found that articles on educational topics are usually more believable if they include one important thing: a picture of a brain.

Researchers from the university’s Department of Educational Psychology recruited 320 participants and had them read articles written in poppy, science magazine prose. Each article contained sound arguments for why some neuroscience phenomenon could be deployed in the classroom.

Yet some also included science that had nothing to do with anything.

If these unrelated tidbits were presented alongside a bar graph, readers could usually tell they were irrelevant. When they were “described verbally and accompanied with a colorful brain image,” however, readers thought they were way more credible.

Voila. That’s literally all it takes.

The inspiration for the study goes back to the ‘90s, which President George H. W. Bush declared “the decade of the brain.” In the ‘80s, neuroscience had blossomed, allowing scientists to map the regions of the brain and study how they worked in tandem. The following decade would be all about figuring out how to apply that knowledge for the betterment of learning.

Predictably, it was also a promising time for hocking pseudo-science. Take, for example, Brain Gym, the trade name for the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Brain Gym promotes a series of exercises (like “neck rolls,” “belly breathing” and “energy yawns”) that are supposed to “warm up the brain” and improve academic performance.

University of Minnesota professor Sashank Varma isn't buying.

“There’s no way that putting your body in a certain position makes you more ready for learning,” he says. Still, plenty of schools find this stuff believable enough to use it day-to-day. Just like the participants in Varma's study, teachers and principals are excited about the opportunity to tap into the brain, but can’t siphon the good science from the bad.

“People, for whatever reason, find neuroscience explanations compelling,” Varma says. “And that’s not a bad thing. The problem is when the images are more compelling than the evidence.”

There’s something “seductive” about using what usually amounts to a single nugget’s worth of neuroscience to sustain an educational claim, lead author Soo-hyun Im says. Neuroscience is complex. A picture of a brain with one of the cortexes lighting up is simple. It’s as though the brain were as easy to puzzle out as an Ikea coffee table.

It’s not. Which makes all that science easy to misinterpret or oversell.