Is neuroscience anything more than snake oil?

It’s hard to know which things come our way as fads and which are here to stay. Which are snake oil and which are the real deal. Which are genuinely of value and which tell us nothing even though they persist.

Tarot card readers interest me. Random cards get drawn, interpretations are made and someone thinks their fate is laid bare before them. Of course it’s nothing more than mentalism at its best, but you can’t but help be taken in by it.

More closer to home, Learning Styles is one of those where the L&D profession needs to let go of this once highly held model of how learning can be delivered most effectively. The problem is that on the face of it, it seems to make sense. The reality is that there is no empirical or academic research to support the theory for practical learning transfer. You can be a steadfast believer in it all you want, but there’s just nothing there to insist we continue using this model in design of learning solutions.

Is neuroscience like snake oil? That is, is there anything about the study of the brain and how it works that we can doubt?

Sure there is. If you don’t think scientific methodology has validity then why pay attention to what this field of study tells us?

Here’s the thing though. We’re learning a lot about the mechanics of the brain which support a lot of the good practise we’ve been enabling in others.

Like giving praise to others and they receive it well? That’s probably because you’ve helped deliver the message well (kept the brain feeling safe), reinforced a positive message strongly (releasing neurochemicals that support a person feeling good) and allowed them opportunity to engage with the feedback (reinforcing a sense of fairness for the brain to assimilate the message).

Had an unexpected response from a team member about a piece of work they were doing? You were probably unclear about the task (creating uncertainty in the brain), told them what to do (taking away the persons sense of autonomy) and at the same time elevated their stress level (releasing a different neurochemical which shuts down brains capacity to think clearly).

Had a great connection with a colleague at work and feel like you’re getting along brilliantly? That’s probably because you’ve helped create a safe environment for them to talk with you (allowing the brain to feel safe with you), and helped them feel good and connected with you (releasing a different neurochemical which reinforces positive affect towards others).

Without the neuroscience, we understand why the above are good things to do, or why they could have gone badly. What we’re learning better is that there are very positive ways we can interact with and connect with others which is supportive of helping the brain to work much more efficiently.

It can all be ignored for sure. Psychology itself helps us understand a lot about the human condition, thinking and behaviours. The neuroscience behind it all is revealing interesting insights (like these neuromyths) and helps us to know what things we should be paying attention to and what we shouldn’t.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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