Dr. Banerjee and his PhD student Jasper Teutsch: “It is really remarkable. These shared goals within science. Long-standing collaborations and lineage in science are really important."

Neuroscience research is vulnerable to hijacking in the self-improvement market

Neuroscience research will have a resounding effect on how we structure our own learning. But we need to be cautious about how the language of science is used in claims about learning.

12.10.2021

In recent years, neuroscience has had a significant impact on the field of education. We have seen an excess of products – games, books, courses, nutritional supplements, etc. – using the language of science to make claims about learning.

So, it is important to ask whether the knowledge gained from fundamental research can be readily utilised? And, moreover, to what extent can that knowledge be clearly communicated?

Dr Abhi Banerjee, Associate Professor and Head of the Adaptive Decisions Lab at Newcastle University, agreed to discuss some insights from his fundamental research, along with the nuances of science communication.

Together with his PhD student Jasper Teutsch, his lab is currently studying the dynamics and flexibility of decision-making processes.

“Our research,” Dr Banerjee states, “is significant for adults. We, as individuals, are always engaging cognitive processes to make decisions that are fundamental in nature, whether that be stopping at the traffic light while driving a car, choosing what we will have for lunch or making financial investments.”

If I have played squash all my life, how exactly would I learn to play tennis, say, much later in life?

More recently, during the pandemic, we all learnt to enter shops and trains wearing masks. We must make these small adjustments daily in the face of changing environments. This is cognitive flexibility based on feedback and little adjustments, Banerjee explains.

He warns about the difficulty of these terms. ‘Feedback’ should not be confused with ‘learning’, and this is sometimes part of the problem in the transmission process.

‘Feedback’, ‘adjustment’, ‘reinforcement’ and ‘learning’ can mean different things to different people, even to different kinds of scientists. Therefore, research, which uncovers something about ‘reinforcement’, risks being spun into a big finding about ‘learning’.

Fluidity and flexibility matter in adult learning

Yet Dr Banerjee acknowledges that the findings from fundamental neuroscience are piercing through professional fields, and for the better.

“Naturally,” he says, “it is generally agreed that some forms of flexibility are lost later in life. We see this in animals, switching tasks becomes harder when they are older. But we have a long way to go”.

When talking about his and Teutsch’s research, a key takeaway that is interesting for adult learners and educators is how precisely and flexibly we learn something new.

“If I have played squash all my life, how exactly would I learn to play tennis, say, much later in life? The general strategy remains the same, but small tweaking is necessary. There is a hunch that we mostly learn the structure of the task itself.”

Sometimes, Banerjee goes on, we learn the context of the task, but forget the minor details.

“This is called fluid intelligence. You are navigating through task-space. It is not a straight line and some specific brain areas help to guide us in such mental navigation.”

This could be precious information for educators and learners. How we learn ‘content’ later on in life is bound up with our exposure to task types in earlier years. Yet, we would be making the sort of leap that we are warned against.

No magic-bullet solutions

Although there is solid ground to stand on, and our understanding of how we learn has become much more defined, Dr. Banerjee is sceptical about magic-bullet solutions.

“I don’t have the full answer, but there is such a thing as neural diversity, and this means that we don’t all have the same capacity. In my view, it is a flawed neurocentric view to say that it is individual neurons leading to complex cognitive thoughts. Training can help alleviate a problem or find a solution, but we need to be cautious.”

Science is always vulnerable to hijacking, be it to bump up credentials and claims, for ideological reasons or simply to increase profits. And neuroscience seems especially vulnerable now because the implications of neuroplasticity chime well with the self-improvement and growth market.

We need to talk to teachers and specialists who are trying to develop new learning aids or new learning strategies.

Moreover, the adult learning sphere is ripe for such exploitation.

The educational market wants the big headline splash, what is called ‘the file-drawer effect’ in science publications.

Headlines like ‘new neurons until ninety’, ‘magnetic stimulation of brain improves memory’, and ‘the brain releases dopamine without external cues’ are all valid findings from fundamental research.

But these cannot always be spun into broader claims about learning. Dr Banerjee warns of these speculative jumps. “Conclusions”, he says, “drawn from animal models cannot also simply be made about humans.”

There is no absolute truth in science

Traces of this type of misuse can be found everywhere. Whether that is Lumosity’s Brain Training, the brain stimulation technology from Halo (motto: “upgrade your brain”), or the audacious Supercharged Brain Training Bundle, which asks us to “think of neuroplasticity as the process of rewiring your brain”.

There is also a whole glut of memory enhancing supplements on the market, like ginkgo tree leaf extracts or certain fish oils, none of which have concrete research behind them.

Abhi Banerjee is an Associate Professor at Newcastle University and his lab is working on neural circuit mechanisms underlying flexibility of decision-making and how circuit dysfunctions arise in neurological disorders. He has a PhD from Oxford and have previously taught at Harvard and MIT.

A reading software such as Fast ForWord, despite its claim of “channelling neuroscience”, has no conclusive evidence suggesting it is more beneficial in any outcome.

Dr Banerjee draws a key difference between big changes and fundamental changes. But what’s important to note, he says, is that “there is also no absolute truth in science”. “Science”, he continues, “is largely an additive pursuit and scientific discoveries are incremental yet important advancements.”

Additionally, there are also a lot of myths with which to contend. Some of the more dominant neuromyths are the existence of specific learner types, the benefits of multi-tasking and the left-brain/right-brain divide.

More caution and humility needed

When asking directly about the translation gap, he responds by saying that the gap is, without doubt, quite big.

“Fortunately, we have recognised it. Our approach needs to be humble. We need to talk to teachers and specialists who are trying to develop new learning aids or new learning strategies. We can learn a lot from each other. These links need to be boosted.”

The current work being done in neuroscience research will no doubt have a resounding impact on how our educational systems are structured, how our online learning is structured, and how we structure our own learning.

Open dialogue and outreach are important to bridge this gap, as is humility and a good dose of caution.

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