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.

Environmental Ambassadors

Book review of “Shinrin-yoku” by Qing Li

It’s time to review a book that you might gladly keep on the bookshelf as a reminder of the important lesson it teaches about the magic of trees - the hardback edition of "Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing" written by the very man who could be considered the founding father of the movement, Dr Qing Li. He is an Associate Professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and an expert on forest-bathing and the president of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan. He took what was a Japanese tradition of spending time in nature, more specifically forest and gardens, as a health practice and turned it into a scientific discipline. And this, we have him to thank for.

The moment the book arrived, it looked like it could take a proud place next to my Meik Wiking’s “Little Book of Hygge”. They are both part of the Penguin Life collection and it shows; it smelled like a nice book should and was a pure pleasure to touch the quality paper pages as I was slowly turning them over. The book is a mixture of rather large font print and many high quality, carefully selected photographs, and a couple of maps, that do not just complement the text but are an essential part of appreciating the book. I don’t see how an audiobook version could give the ‘reader’ the same kind of experience.

One strange thing about the text was its alignment, where it occupies a quasi-column like part of the page, aligned to the left. The key points are then highlighted (repeated from the main text) in a larger, grey font as if they were in a second column. That bothered me at the start, but it’s easy to get used to. There are also inserts every now and then of personal stories of people’s experiences with forest-bathing. They bring a nice touch of showing how the art of forest-bathing applies to the average person.

The book is divided into four sections. The first part explains how the practice of forest-bathing moved from a Japanese cultures’ art of living to a science. This is where hard-to-convince readers might find a good source of scientific facts that prove that forest-bathing is a medicinal practice (there are plenty of references at the end of the book too). The second part explains how to practice shinrin-yoku, giving very practical clues regarding the details of the therapy. Third part explains how we can bring the forest indoors by using essential oils or house plants. And finally, the fourth section talks about the future of the planet, the forests and human health from the point of view of shinrin-yoku. As a bonus, at the end of the book, there is a POMS (Profile of Mood States) test we can take before and after forest-bathing.

There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.

So what is exactly shinrin-yoku and why is it worth our attention?

It is the practice of spending time in the forest for better health, happiness and productivity. The author studied the effects of forest walks on busy managers from Tokyo and it showed that the beneficial health effects can last as long as thirty days and can be felt after only 20 minutes in nature. Forest bathing is thought to not only improve mood and lower stress, but have many other health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood-sugar levels, improving pain threshold and boosting the immune system (increased NK cells count) and help to lose weight too.

Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our sense, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

How to properly forest-bathe to reap the most benefits?

The author recommends forest paths that are at least 5km long and should take about 2 hours to thread through. However, even a short walk in a city park is beneficial. Think about walking slowly, leaving all distractions behind and trying to experience the forest with all senses, touching the trees, smelling the flowers, ‘ingesting’ the humid air of a dark forest, and perhaps picking some wild berries, drinking some water from a pure stream or making tea from young pine buds.

Another important aspect is to choose forests with plenty of evergreen conifers, as their essential oils is where part of the benefit resides. Phytoncides, or trees natural oils that function as the trees’ defense mechanism to protect from fungi, bacteria and insects apparently also have a beneficial effect on our immune system when we breath it in. What’s more, using essential oil diffusers at home can have the same effect.

If you want to enhance even more your forest-bathing experience, choose forests paths along rivers, streams, ponds or waterfalls. Water helps to ionize negatively the air and bring our bodies to an electric balance, which has an energizing and refreshing effects and which further translates into higher mental clarity and overall sense of wellbeing. And don’t be afraid of going barefoot to get some grounding and boosting the balancing properties of your forest walk.

The art of forest-bathing is the art of connecting with nature through our senses.

The recipe is pretty straightforward and should be easy to apply even in the busiest of schedules and apparently unfavorable conditions. It’s as easy as leaving the phone and all distractions at home and going for a walk in the nearest park or forest. Maybe try to bring the kids along too. As the author says, “if we let children into the forest, they will become adults who will protect it”. Also, research shows that spending time in nature makes us more trusting, generous and caring, which are usually the values we would certainly want to teach our children too.

In summary, the book is an easy, inspiring and a relaxing read. The only problem is reading it at home and wanting to get out into the forest right that very moment! Every now and then a new term/concept becomes a hype and everyone seems to be tagging their pictures just to show how #hygge their evenings are or how they have mastered #mindfulness. Perhaps #forestbathing and #shinrinyoku should be next things to adopt and put into practice. I know I am jumping on that bandwagon with both feet.

Sources and picture credits:

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

Images:

  1. Weronika Gasior
  2. Weronika Gasior
  3. andrew-charney/ Unsplash
  4. jake-melara/ Unsplash
  5. jordan-whitt/ Unsplash
watson hockerdesign

Maintenance of green in the city and health

Different initiatives undertaken by the urban authorities can contribute to the improvement of urban dweller’s contact with nature and the nature exposure

These include:

  1. Leaving unmowed areas in the urban green spaces, for developing a small ecosystems for flora & fauna, (urban meadows)
  2. Promoting the spontaneous habitat creation
  3. Leaving the fallen leaves on the ground for the winter (improves conditions of the soil)

These actions, (or rather withdrawing from action) not only improve the urban ecosystems functioning, but also can save some money in the local budget. Most importantly however from our point of view, they improve the sense of connectedness of people with urban nature, by making the changing seasons noticeable, and more pronounced, enabling the observation of the life phases of the plant and ultimately contemplation of the continuous life cycles.

These three postulate  were included in an open letter to the Major of Warsaw, Poland by the local community and proffessionals, and will contribute to the  Greenery Council (Zarzad Zieleni) activities, (see the campaign here ).  Because of the postulates are strongly aligned with the NeuroLandscape’s vision of the city, we support this action, and look forward to positive changes on city lawns!

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WHO to fund a systematic review about blue spaces and health

In our ongoing collaboration with the EKLIPSE mechanism, together with Expert Working Group from different European countries and representing various disciplines, we are trying to answer the 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?

EKLIPSE is project funded by the European Union, under “SC5-2015 Climate Action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials” scheme. It’s goal is to answer the requested questions in the most comprehensive and scientifically sound form i.e. systematic review.  In the case of the above question the requester is the MInistry in Charge of Environment in France (MTES).

While working on the systematic review for green & blue spaces, the group was contacted by World Health Organization, who offered additional funding for separating the blue spaces into a separate systematic review. The offer was accepted and currently we are working on the soon to be released review of the types and characteristics of the blue spaces and their effect on mental health and well-being.

FInd out more in our projects!

expanding brain

Follow the awakening in urban green spaces for health!

Our newest publication  XSection Journal features the process of evolution in perception of urban green spaces in terms of the health benefits they can deliver, through a popular “expanding brain meme.

Check out this short article and how to interpret the image here:

https://www.xsectionjournal.com/edition-8/2018/11/22/generations-of-urban-green-for-health-dr-agnieszka-olszewska-guizzo

river-urban

RIVER. A powerful landscape component restoring the human nervous system.

The more we know about the interactions between the landscape and human nervous system the better we can plan and design our living environments to serve our health.

With water being the essential component of any form of life, it is not surprising that it also influence our psychophysiological response, even if we are just passively exposed to it.  But what kind of water feature, and what do we have to do with this water to achieve this response? This is a question that scientists (NeuroLandscape included) have been trying to answer.

Let’s concentrate on the river. According to Jungian dream analysis, based on his theory of collective unconscious, the river is a symbol of death and rebirth (baptism), the flowing of time into eternity, transitional phases of the life cycle, and incarnations of deities. In Dr. Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo’s research river is one of the archetypal elements making the landscape “contemplative” and therefore therapeutical.

In the fMRI study from 2017 the team of Prof Chang, Chun-Yen (National Taiwan University) discovered that the passive exposure to the river views alters the brain functioning significantly, when compared to the urban views (see the image above).

The brain activity related to the “urban versus water ” contract was located in the left and right cuneus (Fig. 5).
The cuneus is primarily known for its involvement in basic visual processing. Furthermore, the right cingulate gyrus and left precuneus were also activated. These regions, which are part of Brodmann area 31 (BA31) and known as the dorsal
posterior cingulate cortex, are assumed to influence the focus of attention by adjusting whole-brain metastability (Leech & Sharp, 2014).   – Tang et.al 2017

It looks like there is nothing better for our nerves fatigues from all day in the office or and after several hours commuting through the urban jungle than walk along the riverfront immersing with our senses into the soothing flow of the waters.

 

 

Scientific references:

Olszewska, A. A., Marques, P. F., Ryan, R. L., & Barbosa, F. (2018). What makes a landscape contemplative?. Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science45(1), 7-25.

Leech, R., & Sharp, D. J. (2014). The role of the posterior cingulate cortex in cognition and disease. Brain, 137(1), 12–32.

Tang, I. C., Tsai, Y. P., Lin, Y. J., Chen, J. H., Hsieh, C. H., Hung, S. H., … & Chang, C. Y. (2017). Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to analyze brain region activity when viewing landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning162, 137-144.

brain

Scenic vs urban landscapes

A lot of studies have been performed comparing the reaction to  urban vs scenic, or natural landscapes in the lab.  This is one of them and we decided to feature it because it is performed with the most advanced method of brain scanning that we know thus far , fMRI.

From the figure we can see with the naked eye a difference between the pattern of activity when exposed to scenic (A) and urban (B) pictures.

The paper did not provide the stimuli photographs, which would be very important to see… Are they contemplative landscapes? Are they possible to design and implement in our cities? …

Interestingly enough, this study acknowledges that the benefits from inducing this particular brain activity come from just passive observation of images, which are far from the real landscape immersion.

Certain benefits may be derived from exposure to virtual versions of the natural environment, too. For example, people who were shown pictures of scenic, natural environments had increased brain activity in the region associated with recalling happy memories, compared to people that were shown pictures of urban landscapes.

Source: Kim, G. W., Jeong, G. W., Kim, T. H., Baek, H. S., Oh, S. K., Kang, H. K., … & Song, J. K. (2010). Functional neuroanatomy associated with natural and urban scenic views in the human brain: 3.0 T functional MR imaging. Korean Journal of Radiology11(5), 507-513.

pichouzz

NeuroURBANISM, NeuroARCHITECTURE, NeuroLANDSCAPE!

Many aspects of our lives are far more interlinked than we normally imagine. Breakthroughs in neuroscience have made these links even more sensible than ever.

Read more at the practical design and construction site Houzz, how nouroarchitecture can look like in practice.

Photo credits: #Houzz

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Neuro-urbanism & Neuro-landscape

A new term has officially been introduced in the scientific world – NEUROURBANISM.  It happened together with the  publication in Lancet in Psychiatry in March 2017 [link here].  City life has a lot to do with the psychiatric conditions , and this is the path we have been following in NeuroLandscape as well.

Our cities are growing and we know: City life influences our behavior, our emotions and our psychological well-being. The brain of an urban dweller reacts differently to social stress than that of a rural dweller. Whether this is also the reason for the aggregation of some stress sequelae in cities is a question that we want to answer with Neuro-Urbanism, a new discipline assembling neurologists, urban researchers and architects. 

-Dr Mazda Adli, Director of the Mood Disorders Research Group at the Charité Berlin and Head of the Fliedner Klinik Berlin

We are happy to get involved with the development of this new discipline in regard to urban nature, and the quality of urban environment. We are looking forward to join forces and connect with the interdisciplinary forum of Neurourbanism in Germany.

 

© SingEx | Photography by Lionel Lin

Window View and the Brain – study results

Most people in Asian biggest metropolitan areas live above the ground in multi-storey buildings. Here in Singapore residential blocks can reach up to 50+ floors! Developers try to fit as many housing units on small plots of lands without the consideration of what will be the view from the window. Well, maybe it is about the time for them to reflect on that.

This newest study from researchers of NeuroLandscape shows that the window views depending of the floor level and the amount of visible green can affect the brain activity in a positive or negative way.  This goes along with the scientists claim that the daily passive exposures to the living environment can have tremendous impact on our mental health.

Check out your window view!

Update! The paper from this study is already published online in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, click here to read!