Category Archives: myths

Down with untrue intros


There are often opening sentences like, “only humans can x” or “only primates can x”. Why do people assume these sorts of statements are true without checking? Why does no one seem to complain? Either authors and readers don’t really care if the statements are true – they are just openers and not the important part of the piece; or they want the statements to be true and so are shy about looking at any evidence.

A recent paper (Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber, Anna Wilkinson. Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps). Animal Cognition, 2014) was reported in ScienceDaily with the opening line, “The ability to acquire new skills through the ‘true imitation’ of others’ behaviour is thought to be unique to humans and advanced primates, such as chimpanzees.” I knew this was not true and that other animals have this skill (a number of mammals besides primates and a number of birds). Looking at the abstract of the paper, I found a similar opening line. It was not so restrictive - “The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the basis of cultural transmission and was long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. There is now evidence that both mammals and birds are capable of imitation.” But even this is a bit restricted as octopuses also learn from one another. We should not be sure that some animal (an social insect for example) does not do x unless we have looked to see. And throw-away openings should be at least true.

But the paper has interesting news. Bearded dragons can learn from one another! Reptiles can be included too. We are more closely related to these reptiles than to birds. This finding strengthens the idea that social learning is an ancient skill in vertebrates, rather than separately evolved in various types of vertebrates. Although it is still reasonable to think that it evolved separately in invertebrates.

Here is the abstract:

The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the basis of cultural transmission and was long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. There is now evidence that both mammals and birds are capable of imitation. However, nothing is known about these abilities in the third amniotic class—reptiles. Here, we use a bidirectional control procedure to show that a reptile species, the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms such as local enhancement or goal emulation. Subjects in the experimental group opened a trap door to the side that had been demonstrated, while subjects in the ghost control group, who observed the door move without the intervention of a conspecific, were unsuccessful. This, together with differences in behaviour between experimental and control groups, provides compelling evidence that reptiles possess cognitive abilities that are comparable to those observed in mammals and birds and suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms.

Forget the hype


I have just done three very difficult posts and I want to do an easy one. How about a rant on mirror neuron theories?

Suppose I find a magic neuron that ‘lights up’ when the subject says ‘tree’. It also reacts if someone else says ‘tree’, or someone points to a tree. But it is silence for a little bush or the ‘word’ bush. This magic neuron allows me to understand a tree and know what is happening in someones mind when they say tree or point at one. It is probably the foundation of empathy, civilization, language and all good things. You will probably say nonsense, the cell just ‘lights up’ for the concept of tree – first you have to identify this thing and that it is called ‘tree’ before you can have a cell react to the concept. Understanding of concept causes a cell reacting to concept – not, cell reacting to concept causes understanding of concept. It is not a magic cell and so neither are mirror neurons. A cell reacting to the concept of ‘reaching’ is no more unusual or special than a cell reacting to the concept of ‘tree’.

I have ranted about this before. Others have ranted too, but somehow the magic just seems to stay associated to mirror neurons.

About a year ago Costandi in the Guardian said the whole subject was based on slim evidence. The neurons may not be where expected or act as described. (here) He was not the first to doubt the hype.

The doubts have come to the fore again with reactions to a paper by Heyes. (here)

Abstract: Fifty years ago, Niko Tinbergen defined the scope of behavioural biology with his four problems: causation, ontogeny, survival value and evolution. About 20 years ago, there was another highly significant development in behavioural biology-the discovery of mirror neurons (MNs). Here, I use Tinbergen’s original four problems (rather than the list that appears in textbooks) to highlight the differences between two prominent accounts of MNs, the genetic and associative accounts; to suggest that the latter provides the defeasible ‘best explanation’ for current data on the causation and ontogeny of MNs; and to argue that functional analysis, of the kind that Tinbergen identified somewhat misleadingly with studies of ‘survival value’, should be a high priority for future research. In this kind of functional analysis, system-level theories would assign MNs a small, but potentially important, role in the achievement of action understanding-or another social cognitive function-by a production line of interacting component processes. These theories would be tested by experimental intervention in human and non-human animal samples with carefully documented and controlled developmental histories.

Nautilus posted a review of the Heyes paper (here) in which he points out that mirror neurons are produced by associative learning – even Heyes agrees.

Move along folks – no magic here!


Avoid the simplistic


Why is the popular notions of neuroscience so often simplistic? I am going to list here a few (8) of the many reasons. I am sure there are more.

  1. Neuroscience is very young and very active. That means there are new facts to be considered almost weekly. Even areas that you would think should be relatively firm are not: plain anatomy and biochemistry of the brain, for example. Also many new ‘facts’ evaporate with further investigation. In other works everything is in flux. This would not be a problem if there was not a great public interest in the subject, with reporters publishing new results whenever possible. But the public would actually like some firm answers that they can understand, remember and use in their lives. At the present time many popular ‘answers’ are bound to be simplistic for that very reason.

  1. We are used to simplistic explanations of the brain/mind. There is a saying that what you don’t understand is simple. There were millennia of no explanation at all. We want to move – we put one foot in front of another. We want to say something – we open our mouths and the words come out. We want to recall something – it pops into our heads. There was no effort, no feeling of complex happenings in the background. What’s to explain? When explanations were finally sought, they were simplistic because they were arrived at by looking at the behavior that comes out of a ‘black box’ and thinking of the simplest way that behavior could arise.

  1. The brain is actually not easy to study and the methods are complex. Quite often, with scans for example, more seems to be shown than actually is. It is naturally misleading and is presented in misleading ways in the popular press. The notion that this spot ‘lights up’ because it is the spot for recognizing sports cars is just not reasonable.

  1. Philosophers and other thinkers had thought about the mind (without the brain being actually involved) for a long time and had developed a number of concepts that together made a model of the mind. But when these long-standing concepts were looked for in the brain there was not an easy fit. Some would say no fit at all. So there were many very simplistic explanations of brain functions. ‘Self’ for example is about as unitary as things get in a mind model, but in a ‘brain’ model it is possible to find a number of self-like functions, but no unitary one. The application of these older mind concepts to brain functions leads to some very simplistic notions. What is more, many thinkers feel that these legacy concepts have more validity than the process they are describing. For example that ‘willpower’ is real and a process in the brain must conform to that specification.

  1. There have been brain descriptions prior to our current one that still leave metaphors often with simplistic explanations. We have had vapour systems, hydraulics, telephone exchanges, computers and I am sure others. Bits and pieces like ‘pressure’ are still used in explanations although they have not been shown to apply to our present picture of the brain and are not actually explaining anything. As well as these older mind and brain concepts, there is a current one that treats the brain (and the mind) as a calculating mechanism. Many explanations based on calculation are put forward without any evidence from neuro- or behavioral-science, but only that they work in an electronic network. Models based on a metaphor can be very simplistic.

  1. There are many theoretical models of how the brain works (or some parts sort of work) that have some evidence to back them but not enough to make them convincing to a consensus of neuroscientists. In fact it seems that no relatively deep explanation has yet emerged that is accepted by most of the science. Each of these theories have concepts and mechanisms associated with them and the followers of that theory use these words as if they described real obvious or proven things. Nothing is wrong with that – it is how science works – but it is confusing to those trying to make practical sense of all these words. They sometimes end up with bits from different models in a structure of their own making. That is everyone’s right but these simplistic hodge-podges should not be published in the popular press as science.

  1. Neuroscience has become a popular way to bolster an idea. Want to sell something? Make it good for your memory. Want to stop something? Make it bad for your child’s upbring. Some of the claims contain a grain of truth, some are maybe not untrue and some are just rubbish. But, they all tend to be simplistic because those simple, symetrical, catch-phrasy things work in salesmanship. They are not out there to enlighten you but to manipulate you.

  1. There are also ways that neuroscience is used by those that have an axe to grind rather than a product to sell. In legal, religious, and political arguments, neuroscience in a very simplistic form is being used. If the point is to win the argument rather than find the best result, anything that will work is OK.

The brain is extremely complex and is not yet fully (maybe not more than a fraction) known. It is not as it appears to us but has an illusionary quality. Anyone who gives a neat, comfortable, easy to grasp model is likely to be wrong so you need to develop your antennae for recognizing the simplistic. Here is an example, a graphic from Eric Braveman.








This is neat; it has a certain symmetry; it has words that you have encountered elsewhere used by knowledgeable people; it implies a completeness, there is no hedging. But if you notice these attributes, you will see that it is simplistic (rather than simple). If a car had this much solidity, you would not buy it from a used car salesman. If you are not put off by this chart, you might read a bit by him. You then might notice that the idea of balance without any idea of what and how balance is achieved is suspect. Or you may notice that a prominent idea, “the edge effect”, is credited to Llinas but used with an entirely different meaning. There are little statements that are factually wrong, and an unreasonable attachment to the number 4 (Greek elements, humours etc.). It will then not surprise you that this doctor makes a very huge amount of money in supplements, tests, books and consulting based on his theory. Nor will you be surprised that he has been criticized for his methods. All these things are there to notice and check up on but the important thing is to learn to be suspicious of the simplistic approach in the first place.



Neuroscience is not ready for schools

I don’t believe that children’s education should be experimented with. This is a personal concern of mine. I am dyslexic and entered school in a short period when a drastic change in curriculum had banished all phonetics from learning to read/write. That may work for some students but it certainly did not work for me or any other dyslexics or just plain slow readers. Why was I experimented on? Why are children today being experimented on? It seems like the fads in language and mathematics just keep coming year after year. From a distance, I see a four cornered fight between parents, teachers, academics, and civil servants about who knows best and who should be in charge.

In the middle of this tug-of-war, there appears a new ingredient - neuroscience. D. Bishop drew attention to this in a tweet recommending an articles by Stephen Exley, Max Coltheart, Science editorial and the Santiago Declaration.

The teachers in the UK are demanding training in neuroscience. They feel that they need this - It is true that the emerging world of neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education, and it’s important that we bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.” But what do they envisage they will do with this additional knowledge? Apparently one example was to tailor lessons for creative right-brain thinkers. I have to say I cannot think of a better reason not to have this training. What we do not need is people in education following every half-baked popular idea that the press and companies selling their ‘neuro’ wares put out there. The last thing we want is teachers dividing their classes in the right and left brained children. Nor do we want visual learners as opposed to auditor learners, or whatever the next fad is. Even the Common Core mathematics in the US seems very faddish. This is just not fair to the children who will be the subjects of these experiments.

This is a repeat of seven years ago when neuroscientists were asked to explain learning and issued the Santiago Declaration. Nothing has changed – neuroscience is still not a settled body of knowledge on which you could base an education system. The neuroscientists were saying that at present, neuroscience is not the appropriate science to help education; instead it is the developmental and social sciences that will be helpful.

Here is the declaration signed by 136 neuroscientists in 2007. (the underlining is mine)

The education of young children has become an international priority. Science offers irrefutable evidence that high-quality early childhood education better prepares children for the transition to formal education. It helps each child reach his or her potential in reading, mathematics, and social skills. Around the world, there is renewed interest in investing in young children to prepare them for future participation in a global economy. This interest is manifest not only in governmental policies (from Japan to the United States to Chile) but also in popular culture through the media and commercial endeavors marketing educational products to the parents of young children. As internationally recognized scientists in child development, we applaud the attention now directed to the world’s youngest citizens, but we also urge that policies, standards, curricula, and to the extent possible, commercial ventures be based on the best scientific research and be sensitive to evidence-based practice. We also recognize the limitations of our own scientific disciplines. Our research can provide guides in designing the most efficient means to a policy ends, but cannot dictate those ends, which must arise out of political debate and social consensus. Our research can also be abused in attempts to rationalize pre-conceived policies and popular notions about early childhood, putting science to a rhetorical and selective, rather than rational use. For our part, we pledge to actively oppose this practice and to speak out whenever it occurs.

We assert that the following principles enjoy general and collective consensus among developmental scientists in 2007:

  • All polices, programs, and products directed toward young children should be sensitive to children’s developmental age and ability as defined through research- based developmental trajectories. Developmental trajectories and milestones are better construed through ranges and patterns of growth rather than absolute ages.
  • Children are active, not passive, learners who acquire knowledge by examining and exploring their environment.
  • Children, as all humans, are fundamentally social beings who learn most effectively in socially sensitive and responsive environments via their interactions with caring adults and other children.
  • Young children learn most effectively when information is embedded in meaningful contexts rather than in artificial contexts that foster rote learning. It is here where research coupling psychology with the use of emerging technologies (e.g. multimedia and virtual reality) can provide powerful educational insights.
  • Developmental models of child development offer roadmaps for policy makers, educators, and designers who want to understand not only what children learn but how they optimally learn and further imply that educational policies, curricula, and products must focus not only on the content, but also on the process of learning.
  • These developmental models along with advances in our understanding of learning in children at cognitive risk can be applied to improve learning among all children.
  • The principles enunciated above are based primarily on findings from social and behavioral research, not brain research. Neuroscientific research, at this stage in its development, does not offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or parenting.
  • Current brain research offers a promissory note, however, for the future. Developmental models and our understanding of learning will be aided by studies that reveal the effects of experience on brain systems working in concert. This work is likely to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms underlying learning.

We, the undersigned, recognize that the political agenda and marketplace forces often proceed without meaningful input from the science of child development. Given the manifest needs of many young children throughout the world, the current state of knowledge and consensus in developmental science, this gap between knowledge and action must be closed. Scientific data and evidence-based practice must be integral to the ongoing global dialogue.




Do we have a reptilian brain?

The reptilian brain is a myth that should not be taken seriously and yet is referred to by many writers and is even seen in educational sites for children. It is the idea that we have three brains: a reptilian one, the paleomammalian one and the mammalian one. The story goes that these were acquired one after another during evolution. The details differ with the writer. But it is all a myth based on an idea from the ’70s of Paul MacLean which he republished in 1990. Over the years in has been popularized by Sagan and Koestler among others.


So we get self-help like this: “Because until recently in our history, we had been conditioned to operate and function mainly out of the reptilian brain. We had been operating/ manifesting out of the ‘survival’ mode section of the brain. Once you can understand this concerted mental oppression, you can begin to re-train your mind (free yourself from constant reptilian brain generated reaction) and re-set your innate human gift of creative power.” And information for children like this: “Lower animals, such as fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, don’t do much “thinking,” but instead concern themselves with the everyday business of gathering food, eating, drinking, sleeping, reproducing and defending themselves. These are instinctual processes. Therefore, their brains are organized along the major centers that control these functions. We humans perform these functions as well, and so have a “reptilian” brain built into us. That means we have the same parts of the brain found in reptiles, namely the brain stem and the cerebellum.


Before our present knowledge of the brain and of evolution, the triune brain did not seem a bad idea and it was a simple model to understand. It no longer makes sense but it is still out there being passed on like right-brained vs left-brained and other myths.


One problem with the reptilian brain is that we are not evolved from reptiles. The last common link between mammals and reptiles is called amniotes. They were like amphibians but did not need to lay their eggs in water. In other words, they were the first truly land-dwelling vertebrates and all terrestrial vertebrates evolved from them. They did not have a neocortex but they had all the other anatomical parts of the brain. The amniotes evolved into two groups: the diapsids which further evolved into four lines - turtles, lizards/snake, crocodiles, birds; and the synapsids which evolved into mammals. Mammal evolution is separate from reptiles from the earliest terrestrial vertebrates. What is more, the neocortex makes its appearance very early in the synapsids line. The triune story of what animals had what sort of brain is simply not what evolutionary biology has found.


Another problem is the divisions of function that the triune model makes. The reptile brain is said to be only concerned with survival, to be reflexive, to act without thought. It is said to contain the basal ganglia and the lower parts of the brain. This would include the cerebellum and the cerebellum is an important sophisticated part of the brain – concerned with most things we do, not reflexive, and essential to many types of thought. The paleomammalian brain was also called the limbic system (another MacLean coinage) and was supposed to deal with feelings and emotions. But the limbic system includes an important part of consciousness and of memory. The neocortex can do very little without those parts of the brain that were labeled limbic. Finally the mammalian brain was said to be the neocortex but the neocortex cannot really be thought of as a brain, as if it could function without the paleocortex and the thalamus. It was said to do all the thinking.


The model presumes that birds and reptiles cannot feel or think, which is a preposterous idea. And early mammals could feel, it was supposed, but not think, again not believable. Birds and many reptiles (perhaps all) have a brain area which does not anatomically resemble the neocortex but which develops from the same part of the embryonic brain and has the same functions as the neocortex. All the descendants of amniotes have essentially the same architecture of brain with the same functions. There are differences in proportions, sizes, connections, fine-scale anatomy but not a gross difference of kind in the brains of land vertebrates.


Forget all about the triune model of the brain.