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Virtual Healthy Environments: Feasibility Study in Societies Affected by COVID-19 Summary of Results

Between 19 April and 12 May 2020, we ran an online survey titled "VHE for Well-Being".  Our goal was to better understand people's psychological needs, especially the relationship between Covid-19 confinement and mental health. We also aimed to test feasibility and demand for Virtual Healthy Environments (VHE) - our solution for health and well-being. To do this, we developed a questionnaire in five languages: English, Polish, Italian, Spanish and French and shared it through our website and social media (see the call for responses here). Please check out the summary of our work below! A special thank you to all participants who helped us discover these important trends!

Sample Characteristics

We collected 507 (318 female) responses from nearly every continent, but mainly from Europe. Most were from Poland, Spain and Italy, primarily representing two different socio-geographic zones: South-European (Mediterranean) and Central European regions. There were also contributions from France and the UK to help understand Western European trends. 

The respondents were between 19 and 90 years old, with most between 24 and 41 years old (n=294). There were 23 elderly respondents (>65 years old). The largest portion of our respondents was from high-density cities (33%) or large or medium-sized cities (25%). 12% reported living in the suburbs of big cities. This means the majority of respondents (70%) were from the urban population.

Summary of Main Findings

We ran our analysis based on two groups of psychological issues:

1. General mental health & well-being: comprised of the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, isolation, restlessness, sadness or depression, anxiety, worry and uncertainty about the future, higher irritability, and insomnia.

2. Productivity & cognitive performance: comprised of the feeling of boredom, problems with memory, and decreased motivation, productivity and concentration.

    • Men reported less general mental health issues than women, but stronger productivity/cognitive issues. It looks like women cope better with cognitive performance but are worse with general mental health issues than men. However, it is also possible that women were more willing to report these mental health issues as other research suggests.
    • A large majority (85%) of respondents missed meeting with friends and family the most during confinement (Figure 8). Travelling and contact with nature were the second most missed activities with 59% and 58% of people affected, respectively. Over half (53%) of respondents missed events and socialising, 36% missed going to work and/or school and 37% practising sport.

 

  • Percentage of respondents listing each activity in response to the question: "What did you miss the most in the period of confinement?", broken down by gender.

Did people miss nature?

    • In our survey, 58% of people reported missing contact with nature during the confinement period. Interestingly, this was an activity missed equally by men and women; people of all ages, across all income brackets, and levels of education.
    • People living in big cities missed contact with nature significantly more than others (strong link found between city size and missing nature during confinement).
    • Also, self-employed individuals and homemakers reported missing nature significantly more than others.
  • person experiencing the healing benefits of being in nature
    Lack of time in nature was a significant factor during Covid-19 confinement and mental health was negatively affected as a result
  • Other research shows that people are poor at explicitly seeing the positive health effect of nature: it is good for them, but they are not always aware of it. This makes it challenging to capture these effects in self-reported surveys.  This highlights the need for providing education about and evidence for the benefits of exposure to nature on mental health and well-being.

 

Can Virtual Healthy Environments be a Solution?

At NeuroLandscape we are developing a self-care tool based on Virtual Reality (VR) technology and exposure to nature (read more about the project). It is a solution for all those who cannot access healing natural environments as often as they would like to in order to keep their mind healthy. We addressed some survey questions to test the feasibility of our solution. This will be useful to support our research grant applications. Below are some interesting findings we hope will convince the grantors.

  • The vast majority (79%) of respondents declared being interested in VR technology. VR use at home and during potential future confinement periods was the preferred situation.
  • People who declared missing travelling were more likely to try Virtual Healthy Environments.
  • Women, in general, reported greater interest in using VR for contact with nature and self-care activities than men (32% vs. 17% for contact with nature), while men preferred VR for games and movies.
"For what activities would you use VR technology?" - Percentage of individuals who listed each activity, broken down by gender.

 

Other interesting findings

Overall, people reported a decline in mental health and wellbeing due to confinement. However, the effect was not incremental over time (more time confined did not correlate with worse mental health and wellbeing). Our respondents missed meeting friends and family the most, followed by travelling, socializing, and contact with nature. The least missed activity was shopping. Nature was missed more by urban than rural dwellers, but it was equally missed by men and women, people of all ages, across all income brackets, and levels of education. Interestingly,  people who missed going to work or school reported worsened productivity and cognitive performance as a consequence of confinement.

Conclusions

This survey has more clearly defined the relationship between Covid-19 confinement and mental health. Respondents were not only able to self-report the effects on their mood, but also shared the degree to which specific activities were missed. These findings were useful in evaluating the potential of the VHE app in helping to mitigate the negative effects of adverse stressful circumstances (such as the confinement period). They show it could be effective to provide a digital tool based on VR for improving mental health.

We would like to thank all participants of the survey!

Survey and Report Authors : Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, Dr Nicolas Escoffier, Dr Weronika Gąsior, Agnieszka Chadała. Full text of the report available through info@neurolandscape.org

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Landscape & Brain – neuroscience data collection outdoors (VIDEO)

Brain scans outdoors: how to collect reliable EEG and FNIRS data in-situ?

Rigorous neuroscience research would question collecting the neuroscience data outdoors, due to too many confounding factors occurring and researchers not being able to control them all. In the sensory exposure research, each participant has to be exposed to the same set of stimuli, which is very difficult if not impossible in an outdoor setting.  For example, small environmental nuances such as certain type of cloud covering the sun would change the amount of light reaching the eye of the participant , which can dramatically change the alpha power produced by the brain.

For this sake we should collect the exposure data in a controlled-lab environment, controlling for each factor such as brightness, temperature, etc. Also, we should use the same set of stimuli, that can be recorded in a form of photo, video or more immersive - VR.

However, environmental researchers, landscape architects and ecologists will all agree that the exposure to nature in the lab has nothing to do with the one outdoors in a real setting. Lab-based experiment lacks the so-called "ecological validity" - meaning it cannot be fully compared with the real experience. As it is essential to advance the knowledge in the area of real exposure to nature as opposed to natural images, we took a challenge to collect a reliable data outdoors, while controlling for most important environmental factors (temperature, humidity, brightness and noise), and making sure for each participant the experience is as similar as possible.

We recorded the video of in-situ data collection from the "Effects of Landscapes on the Brain" project in Singapore, where we show how the EEG and fNIRS data can be collected outside. We have published the preliminary findings from that research in a journal.

Let us know if you have comments or questions about that procedure, also share and support pushing this discipline forward!

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Our Brain On Perspectives by IMAGINE CITIES | 23rd June 2020

23 June,  6PM MST

In Yuval Harari’s book Home Deus, he states that the greatest leaps in human progress were not simply the result of individual acts. Instead, the greatest leaps have been the result of our ability as a species to cooperate in large numbers.

Join us for an insightful conversation about how breakthroughs in neuroscience have led us to better understand how the brain functions when we’re faced with perspectives that are different from our own. By understanding how our brain works we can better understand each other, improve our ability to work together, and more effectively solve humanity’s most pressing urban challenges.

Special Guests

Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo is the Founder & President of NeuroLandscape, a non-profit dedicated to improving mental health and wealth-being through green space design. With a Ph.D. from the University of Porto in Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, alongside experience developing numerous research projects worldwide, Agnieszka possesses a unique understanding of how urban design impacts the human brain.

Maria Escobar-Bordyn is the Vice President of Creating WE, an organization that coaches CEO's on the importance of conversations in shaping corporate culture and achieving goals. After spending her early career on HR teams in two Fortune 100 companies, Maria spent 12 years at a global human performance consulting firm where she coached hundreds of hundreds of executives. She has a degree in Social Ecology with a concentration in human behaviour from the University of California, Irvine.

Mitchell Reardon is the Lead for Urban Planning, Design & Experiments at Happy City. Happy City is an interdisciplinary urban planning and design consultancy that uses the science of wellbeing to create healthier, happier and more inclusive communities. Mitchell is also the co-founder of Metropolitan Collective, a group of tactical urbanists who transform unloved and overlooked spaces. He received his Masters of Science in Urban and Regional Planning at Stockholm University and his insights have been heard on CBC News, StarMetro, CBC Radio and more.

Link to registration page

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Take part in our survey and support research and development in the times of pandemic

The current global outbreak of #COVID19 makes the problem of our living space and mental health more relevant than ever. Read more in our recent blog post.  This is why we need new solutions and new approaches.

Please complete this 5-min, anonymous survey. If possible, share it with your family and friends, with special attention to elderly people, who (that’s our guess) could benefit from our solutions the most.

The form is available in 5 languages:

1) English – https://forms.gle/SDfC3reh21pXdWw79

2) Polish – https://forms.gle/5jkfNLn7vrsVRKLW9

3) Italian – https://forms.gle/DMPEYNVtKXFLQ1367

4) Spanish – https://forms.gle/3iUCWRZMJ4HhUYWp6

5) French –https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSchCH4Wzs4Y7eVtHHtsB0SrIbs23-I2mgvIz0vmGjQCsgYzQg/viewform

We envision to share the results from this survey on our website soon, in the form of a comprehensive report.

Stay tuned. Stay healthy. Stay sane.

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Mental Health is also important – something about the connection with nature in the times of confinement

Landscape architects and urban ecology researchers have always been trying to bring people more to the outdoors, make the most of urban parks and gardens, calling the public attention to issues such as nature deficit disorder, mental health consequences from spending our time mostly indoors, looking at phones or monitors…

Today, the situation is calling for staying at home out of social responsibility or simply following the new regulations.  Those who haven’t got a garden, those who live in dense cities are being completely disconnected from nature. Many countries, such as Poland for example, have banned access to any forests, parks and gardens for all citizens in the cities or in the countryside.

There is a lot of shaming going on for those who leave homes to get a walk outside.  It is in fact socially irresponsible to go out now and risk spreading the virus to others.

As this is not the post to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do. It is rather to remind ourselves of the psychological consequences of social distancing, self-isolation and disconnection with nature that we all are facing now.

Many of us will feel lonely, bored and stuck; our motivation to work, productivity and ability to concentrate on tasks may decrease. We may experience restlessness and insomnia, depression, anxiety and high irritability. All these are typical for “cabin fever syndrome”, and fit very well to what we’re facing today.  Adding the worry and uncertainty about the future on the top of this doesn’t make it better…

Getting out from home, and even unconscious contact with nature (being under the sky, feeling the slight breeze of wind, seeing flowers or trees) can have a powerful positive effect on us today. Nature can help us keep sane and grounded. If you cannot go outside, spend time on the balcony, gaze outside the window, observe the moving clouds, or leaves dancing with the wind. Even observing the daylight moving along the daily cycle gives some connection to the environment outside.

Conscious practice of the connection with nature can help you keep mental health hygiene in these difficult times.

Stay healthy and sane everyone!

Generations of women in slums in a snap

Unraveling links among climate change, poverty and health in slums of Dhaka

It is well known to the environmentalists that Bangladesh is currently considered the 7th most vulnerable country to the adverse effects of ongoing climate change. What we do not know, however, is the adverse effects that are already in place and how much it is tangled with rural-urban migration, rehabilitation, gender, human rights, and health issues with a large share of mental health problems, seldom studied and looked into

To investigate what is the aftermath of women coming into Dhaka and settling inside the slums after facing the atrocities of natural hazards linked with climate change- I, along with my teammate Rupita, Ananya, Mimi, Jahin went through thorough interviews and focus group discussions with the displaced ladies.  We focused on women who came to Dhaka in 10-15 years from the present time, as various studies suggest that more than 80% of displaced people from the time after 2010 would be climate migrants. 

What we found out so far was more astounding than expected. Women, unlike men, came to Dhaka only when their families had reached the bottom level of poverty- when they had lost everything to the disasters. There were attempts to be settled near their origins by many of them, but futile. Dhaka city, to them, was not an option, rather the only hope of survival. None of the interviewees claimed they wish to live in Dhaka– many of them have adopted a tedious life on bare minimums to save money- so that perhaps one day they can go back to their origins and settle. But in reality, this is a dream achievable by only a few. With their average household income of 5 to 10 dollar a day, in the 72nd most expensive city to live in, saving money is nearly impossible. 

All of our respondents claimed being stricken with ‘poverty’ after surviving climatic hazards. Neither authorities of their origin nor in Dhaka were prepared to rehabilitate them. The result- migration into shabby slums in Dhaka as these were the only places accessible and ‘relatively’ affordable to them, and the city had better employment opportunities for such ‘ill-fated’ women. 

Women in Tejgaon Railway Slum selling vegetables for a living

Misery, however, never left the ladies.

According to the women, they feel despair from the cutoff of rural lifestyle. The environment and culture is very different from what they are used to live in. They feel out pf space. Poverty in the slums is worse than imagination. Not only the people, especially women, earn less, but the cost of basic facilities are much higher, yet inadequate. Moreover, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) like catcalling and sexual abuse is very common for the women in slums. The structures and design of slums only make things worse for them. The houses in the slum are very small, roughly 100 sq ft. Each family reside within one of such houses, with only one room in it. The houses have no space in between them, and the paths connecting the slums can be as narrow as 3 ft. This makes the residence in the houses and even walking in the paths uncomfortable. They feel a lack of privacy in their new life. Fire hazards are frequent, and fear of eviction is a constant threat in their lives.  Lack of water supply points and toilets leave them prone to health hazards and security threats alike. On one hand, lack of toilets puts women in a vulnerable position to GBV when using the toilet or collecting water, especially during night time. On the other hand, it forces them to reduce drinking water, hold onto urine and follow unsanitary practices during menstruation- causing dehydration, urinary infection, constipation, uterine prolapse, and reproductive problems. Rising temperature increases the demand for drinking water. With groundwater depletion, the supply of water becomes scarce and women are the worst sufferers of the condition. They are the ones expected to reduce consumption first. Also, erratic rainfall causes flooding in the slums, that impede them from collecting water or going to toilets.

Ashes from fire outbreak still remain after a month
A woman inside a ‘toilet’ in Tejgaon Railway Slum
Row of houses in Korail Slum

 

 

 

Abandoned house after ‘development project’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though our interviews didn’t focus on the mental health of the woman, prevailing notion of chronic stress and fear they deal with every day was evident within the fear of violence, eviction and lack of belonging and identity. In all of our interviews, participants expressed their frustrations, insecurities and struggles of everyday life. 

In short, the cost of survival is beyond our imagination. Further investigation can help us understand their extent of adaptation within urban spaces, especially in slums. Mental health associated with coping with a new urban environment losing their home,  security threats, condition of facilities and changed identity and their needs for rehabilitation needs to be thoroughly understood to ensure a better life for them. 

Bangladesh has made remarkable improvements in tackling natural hazards by reducing casualties and economic loss. But to be truly a resilient nation, we have to prepare ourselves to restore the lives of climate survivors, not forgetting the ladies.

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Blue space and mental health report out for review!

As a contributor to Expert Working Group Biodiversity & Health of the 3rd French Plan on Health and Environment (PNSE3) – Ministry in charge of the Environment (MTES) France, since 2017 we have been working to answer the following question:

Which types and components of urban and peri-urban blue/green spaces have a significant impact on human mental health and mental well-being?

As our work is coming to an end we came up with a draft systematic review on the blue space part. To ensure that we follow a transparent and robust process, we ask our peer experts to review the draft report developed by the expert working group. In light of your expertise on this important policy-relevant topic, we would be most grateful if you could assist us in the peer-review of the draft report (in this case part 1, blue spaces).

The draft report in pdf can be found here and the form for comments here:

Please note the deadline for submitting comments is February 28th 2020.

More information can also be found directly on the EKLIPSE website under the following link: http://www.eklipse-mechanism.eu/open_calls

Thank you very much in advance for your support.

 

URD

Where Government Listens to Scientists: Urban Sustainability R&D Congress, Singapore

Singapore is one of the most prominent examples of Urban Sustainability through new technologies, research and development. It is also one of the few countries where the government is actively supporting science and innovation in order to inform the practice of urban design and solve urban living issues. The Urban Sustainability R&D Congress is organized since 2011, biannually, and invites all R&D projects pursued by Government agencies, collaborating with local and international research institutions.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr Elsa Arcaute from UCL, a researcher of Cities as Complex Systems, when asked by a panel moderator, Dr Cheong Koon Hean  (CEO of Housing & Development Board) what advice does she have for Singapore, she answered to just continue what Singapore was already doing. She mentioned that she as a researcher is used to “begging” urban decision-makers to look at the results of her work. In Singapore, authorities are not only interested to hear researchers out but also keen to fund the applicable research.

Congress is a national platform for government agencies, research community and industries to come together to discuss R&D responses for urban solutions and sustainability. The exhibition is also a showcase of the most interesting solutions and research in progress. Everything is presented with typical to Singapore care to impress all the visitors.

Singapore has been striving to balance economic growth with a high quality of life and care for the environment. As a result, it has to deal with many challenges, including the growing burden of mental health disorders and the aging population. These challenges were recognized and addressed at the Congress through a “Greater Sustainability Track”,  which shared the benefits of adopting sustainable and biophilic design ideas, provide behavioural and technological insights to aid the creation of a high-quality living environment. On this track the preliminary study of Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, President of NeuroLandscape was presented, you can watch her speech on our youtube channel!

Photos: 1. Punggol Digital District https://www.jtc.gov.sg/industrial-land-and-space/Pages/punggol-digital-district.aspx , 2.& 3. A.O.G

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Heidi’s Syndrome or Nature-Deficit Disorder

Heidi’s Syndrome is known also as ‘nature-deficit disorder’; a term coined by an American author and activist Richard Louv to describe “the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.”  While it is not a formal diagnosis, it reflects a medical jargon that is weaving its way to describe things parents knew since forever, kids are happier when they spend some time outside and less so when they’ve been indoors too much.

But why Heidi’s Syndrome? For those who didn’t grow up with the company of a young girl from the Swiss Alps, this analogy means nothing. Heidi is a character from a children’s book by Johanna Spyri written in 1880, later turned into various cartoons and movies, such as the classic one with Shirley Temple (1937). Heidi is a little girl who leads an idyllic life in the valleys of Swiss Alps, surrounded by the mountains and very much in contact with nature. However, as an orphan, she then moves to the city of Frankfurt to join her aunt who works there. And this is where things start to go not so well for Heidi and she seems a shadow of a girl she was in the mountain village, depressed and longing for the lush pastures and her home village (and of course the people she loves most). Also, when Klara, a wheelchair-bound little girl Heidi befriends in Frankfurt spends the summer in Heidi’s village, she almost miraculously gets stronger and starts walking again. The story paints a curious dichotomy of urban setting being depressing and crippling and rural setting being healing and joyful.

So what have we learned since Heidi’s times? Researchers are still investigating just how exactly our lack of contact with nature affects our health, both physical and mental and the results are scary on the one hand, but hopeful on the other. When it comes to children, research suggests they spend about only half the time outside in comparison to their parents, anywhere from 7 to only 4 hours a week (Francis 2018). This results in more child obesity, mental illnesses such as depression, lower concentration and learning abilities, lack of social skills, among others, like for instance short-sightedness (Williams 2018, p. 6). And while before it seemed natural that children spent their time outside, nowadays both parents and children need a little push and encouragement to actually get outside and play.

But of course, it’s not only a kid-related issue. We all need to get some ‘vitamin N’, aka spend time in nature. We should think about it as recharging our body and mind’s internal batteries, but also as unplugging from social media and the hustle of everyday life. The effects of an hour’s walk in the woods, while practicing mindfulness and taking in the landscape, can last about a month! This means lower blood pressure, better mood and sleep, and better productivity at work (Li 2018). For children, spending about 3 hours a day outdoors is thought to be optimal for their overall development. What is even more encouraging is that growing up being surrounded by nature protects children long-term and makes them more resilient to mental illness as adults (Engemannet al. 2019).

As Louv rightly points out, even though the biophilia hypothesis is based on our biological needs, our yearning to be one with nature is also a spiritual one (Louv 2016). Nowadays, as the collective awareness about the benefits of reconnecting with nature is on the rise, we can see more research and literature on the topic. The year 2019 has already been marked by another young girl, this time an activist for the planet Earth, Greta Thunberg. There are also many more outdoor kindergartens, where children spend the entire day outside, in all weather. We are also seeing more organisations that promote and educate parents, children, and other 'stakeholders' in the importance of being in touch with nature in childhood and beyond, like the #nochildleftinside movement that mirrors the US national 'No Child Left Behind' Act or local NGOs like Kraków-based  'Dzieci w Naturę'. The movement of forest bathing or the Japanese art of ‘shinrin-yoku’ is also getting more attention from the general public. All in all, for those searching for the antidote for the ills of indoor-itis and Heidi’s Syndrome, all it takes is getting out of the house and into nature every, and that means EVERY, SINGLE, day.

Louv recalls an old Jewish story that builds on the idea of spending time in nature being a time for our senses and also for our souls: “The child of a certain rabbi used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned.” One day, he said to his son, ‘“You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder why you go there?’ The boy answered, ‘I go there to find God.’ ‘That is a very good thing,’ the father replied gently. ‘I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?’ ‘Yes,’ the boy answered, ‘but I’m not.’” Perhaps it is a bit of an overstatement, but really, taking our children outside can literarily change their little worlds and the future of our planet, because if we let children into the forest (or a meadow or a park for that matter), they will become adults who will protect it (Li 2018).

P.S. If you’re curious how Heidi’s story ends, it is a happy ending as she gets to be close to her grandfather and nature back in the Alps.

References:

Aarhus University (2018) Being surrounded by green space in childhood may improve mental health of adults, [press release], 28 Feb, available: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-02/au-bsb022019.php

Francis, G. (2018) “Kids spend just ONE HOUR a day outdoors but two hours staring at screen”, The Mirror, 15 Jul, available: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/kids-spend-just-one-hour-12923237

Engemann,K. Bøcker Pedersen, C., Arge, L., Tsirogiannis, C., Mortensen, P.B, and Svenning, J-S. (2019) “Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood”, PNAS, 116 (11), 5188-5193. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807504116

Li, Qing (2018) Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing, London: Penguin Random House.

Louv, R. (2009) No More "Nature-Deficit Disorder",Psychology Today(online), 28 Jan, available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/people-in-nature/200901/no-more-nature-deficit-disorder

Louv, R. (2016) ‘Vitamin N for the soul’, Tikkun, 31(4): 58-61.

Williams, F. (2017) The Nature Fix, New York: Norton &  Co.

Environmental Ambassadors

Neuromyths in education

If you’ve ever played the Chinese whispers game, you know it that the original message gets distorted by the time it reaches the final player with often hilarious effects. However, when it comes to research and neuroscience, the result of passing on information through various persons may not be as funny and innocent as an all-time-favourite game. Neuromyths are already gaining their way into different disciplines such as education and unfortunately doing quite well among teachers, as recent research suggests.

Over a decade ago, the OECD published a report about the importance of breakthroughs in brain science informing other disciplines, such as education (OECD 2002). The report also identified the danger of spread of misbeliefs about neuroscience and its relevance in education, which they called ‘neuromyths’ and defined as “a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”. Since then, international studies have confirmed that many teachers actually believe in these neuromyths and suggested that a red flag is to be raised to stop this trend.

In a series of studies that included several European countries (UK, Holland and Spain) teachers were asked about their knowledge of the brain, their preferred sources of neuro knowledge and tried to identify the most common neuromyths. (Articles to both studies reporting results are open access – see Reference list where you'll also find the Latin American part of this study). The results showed that teachers actually care a whole lot about their practice as between 95% and 98% of teachers were interested in the brain and its role on learning and considered scientific knowledge about the brain very important for their teaching practice. However, only 7% stated they read primary scientific journals, as the rest read popular magazines about science or education or used internet pseudoscientific sources (Ferrero et al. 2016). Interestingly, those that read the actual scientific journals were in fact those which later identified best neuromyths amongst other neuro facts. However, having read educational magazines actually increased the belief in neuromyths. These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.

Overall, teachers agreed with 49% of the statements promoting myths indicating that they believed them to be true in the UK/Holland study, and from a total of 12 neuromyths presented, five were believed by more than 50% of the educators in the Spanish sample. The most prevalent neuromyths were

  1.  “Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school children.”
  2. “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.”, and
  3. “Exercises that rehearse coordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skills”.

In contrast, the most successfully identified neuromyths (marked as ‘false’ by the teachers) were

  1. “Children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned.”
  2.  “Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.”, and
  3. “If students do not drink sufficient amounts of water their brains shrink.” (Ferrero et al. 2016).

The fact that teachers who are most interested in brain research are also more susceptible to neuromyths is rather troublesome, since it may misguide their educational practice. The difficulty in differentiating between correct and incorrect information is a clash between the eagerness to implement their knowledge about the brain in educational practice and a lack of expertise in neuroscience. Experiments have shown that people with some neuroscientific knowledge (having done a short neuroscience course) were fooled by neuroscientific explanations in the same way as laypeople. Only neuroscience experts (having a degree in cognitive neuroscience or related areas) were able to correctly identify when the neuroscientific explanations were irrelevant to the actual core of the findings. Thus, the level of knowledge of the teachers in the aforementioned studies was not sufficient to protect them against the general credibility of neuroscience findings. “When teachers are eager to implement neuroscientific findings, but lack expertise in neuroscience and seek quick and easy solutions, they may fail to recognize misconceptions” (Weisberg 2007 in Dekker et al. 2012.).

Another issue worth mentioning is the commercial value of buzz-terms that pertain to neuroscience. The UK sample of teachers, for instance, showed stronger belief in some myths probably due to the proliferation of commercialised education ‘brain-based’ programmes. Those methods are sold under the vague idea of enhancing education thanks to neuroscience, such as Brain Gym or the VAK approach (visual, auditive or kinesthetic learning styles), but lack robust, scientific backing. Spain is seeing similar trend of new brain science programmes being introduced in schools (albeit more slowly).

Let us not forget, however, that teachers are not the only ones who can be easily fooled. Research has shown that people are actually more likely to believe research findings when they are accompanied by brain images (like this image below) and neuroscience explanations, regardless of their scientific correctness (Weisberg et al., 2007in Dekker et al.2012). “Weisberg found that the public’s perception of a poor explanation became more positive when neuroscience was included, even though the neuroscience was irrelevant. This may lead to misjudgements of scientific evidence.”

The teachers in the studies mentioned here were genuinely interested in brain science, hoping it would inform their teaching practice in the best way possible. However, they lacked perhaps in the depth and breadth of actual neuroscientific knowledge to be able to (1) understand how brain really works and what that means for their pedagogical practice, and (2) to identify facts from myths when coming across neuroscientific news. As per usual, good intentions are not enough to protect oneself from being fooled by the shiny promises of neuroscience when presented with incomplete, altered, rephrased findings that only then can be translated into actionable steps and applications in education and other fields.

What can be done, then? The researchers suggest various solutions to address these findings, such as “enhancing links between research and educational practice, where some experts have started elaborating papers to properly inform laypeople about some of the main findings of neuroscience applied to education” (Ferrer et al. 2016). Teacher training is also mentioned as the place where trainee teachers can learn the skills to critically identify relevant neuroscientific information in their practice. Finally, non-commercial in-service courses can address the common myths for those who are already applying their knowledge in the classroom.

As for other non-experts (including yours truly) let us not be fooled by the neuro jargon and brain scan images, but rather ‘consume responsibly’ the latest neuroscientific news. Ultimately, a decent dose of critical scepticism should protect us from the spread of neuromyths.

REFERENCES:

Carreira, S. (2018) ‘Eso que crees de la neuroeducación es mentira, La Voz de Galicia,  3.12.201, available: https://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/educacion/2018/11/21/neuromito/00031542825201509389918.htm

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., and Jolles, J. (2012) Neuromyths in education: prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3:429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., and Vadillo, M.A. (2016) Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10: 496. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Gleichgerrcht, E., Luttges, B. L., Salvarezza, F., and Campos, A. L. (2015). Educational neuromyths among teachers in Latin America. Mind Brain Education, 9, 170–178. doi: 10.1111/mbe.12086

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.