Brain research aims to study the human brain’s functions and potential. Yet, its results are often misinterpreted into popular self-help tips which don’t work.
The multi-billion dollar self-help and personal development industry can be seen as a testament to our collective search for escape, meaning and transcendence in an otherwise hum-drum muggle world. High-speed internet paired with mobile devices allows people all over the world find gurus, read blogs, watch videos and take online courses – all with the touch of a few buttons. In many ways, this is the golden age of self-help, which often claims to be based on brain research.
On the downside, the lack of internet policing means that anyone can claim to be an expert, recommend a solution and/or make money as an affiliate while recommending some amazing (unproven) life-hack to unsuspecting punters.
Scientists have their own name for this phenomenon – neuromyths. The term ‘neuromyth’ refers to misconceptions about brain research and its applications to education and learning.
Here are five self-help techniques that are unproven by brain research (aka neuromyths).
1. Self-Affirmations To Boost Self-Esteem
Self-help guru Tony Robbins is big on self-affirmations. His loyal followers are encouraged to repeat positive self-affirmations throughout the day but especially during the ‘hour of power’ in the morning.
A leading researcher in the field of self-esteem and self-concept has ‘challenged this approach on conceptual, methodological and empirical grounds’ (aka he does not agree at all) (1).
Other researchers explain that self-affirmations are least likely toward for the people who most need them as people with low self-esteem may be less likely to accept positive feedback from themselves espoused to others (2).
Bottom line: you can delete those self-affirmation tracks and enjoy some fun music as you work out.
2. Active Listening Helps Couples Communicate
According to the blogosphere, ‘active listening’ can help couples communicate well to avoid misunderstandings. After all, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
Psychologist Sybil Carrere who studies ‘anger dysregulation’ in married couples reports that active listening is not a factor in newlywed couples (3). She conducted an in-depth brain research study in newlyweds over six years and recommends humor or hugs instead of active listening.
I think she could have saved her a lot of time and just asked my grandparents (just saying).
3. The Power Nap
Before you pop your feet up on the desk to take that well-deserved (and highly recommended) power nap, just be aware that there is a direct relationship between the duration of nap time and all-cause mortality (4). This conclusion was based on data taken from a brain research study that involved over 150,000 people.
Put another way, the longer your power nap the more likely you are to die. Ooops!
4. People Have Different Learning Styles
Tailoring teaching to different learning styles (auditory, visual, kinestethic) is another key teaching from Tony Robbins. Also known as the ‘meshing theory’, it suggests that visual learners perform better when presented with visual information and auditory learners perform best with auditory lessons.
Teachers (and marketers) all over the world try to cater to the different learning styles. But actual science shows that while individuals have preferences for different learning styles, there is no evidence to suggest that student outcomes improve when students are taught according to their preferred teaching style (5). Another glorious waste of time.
5. Listening To Classical Music Makes You Smarter
So now that you have stopped those self-affirmations tracks, which music should you listen to? Maybe some Mozart to make you smarter?
After reviewing the scientific literature on this subject, researchers found that the effects of exposure to music by Mozart were limited to a specific skill that did not last for more than a few minutes (7). Furthermore, there seemed to be a ceiling effect meaning that people with musical training benefitted less than non-musicians.
Hang in there. If you are feeling cheated having loyally climbed out of bed at an unreasonably early hour to mindlessly chant self-affirmations (while doing jumping jacks with Mozart playing in the background) and maybe playing catch-up with a power nap, take heart, you are not alone.
Brain research has shown that belief in neuromyths decreases with training in neuroscience, but that training in neuroscience does not eliminate belief in these myths (4).
Even smart people who should know better fall for them too. Additionally, people tend to believe not just in one myth but in a cluster of neuromyths.
Neuromyth researchers blame the confusion on the inaccessibility of original brain research behind paywalls (such as science journals that charge for reading articles).
The paywall barrier means that the general public tends to rely on those ‘gurus’ rather than the original data which is a key factor in the popularity of the modern neuromyth culture.
- Do people’s self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life.
- Self-esteem maintenance processes: why low self-esteem may be resistant to change.
- The roles of marriage and anger dysregulation in biobehavioral stress responses.
- Daytime Napping and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality: A Prospective Study and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis.
- Dispelling the Myth: Training in Education or Neuroscience Decreases but Does Not Eliminate Beliefs in Neuromyths.
- Mozart, music and medicine.
- Musical perception and cognitive functions. Is there such a thing as the Mozart effect?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Campbell is a practicing MD, Ph.D., and contributor at HealthyButSmart.com where she promotes an evidence-based approach to health.