Saturday, 24 January 2015

Multilingual neuromyths

Neuromyths are misconceptions about how the brain works. They are the topic of the Nature Neuroscience editorial The mythical brain, which highlights that they are as false as they are appealing, and that their appeal is what explains their resilience.

Appealing seems to be the key word here, in its sense of ‘engaging’ with little or no rational engagement. Deena Skolnick Weisberg and colleagues showed this in The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations: when asked to choose between alternative nonsensical explanations of the same brain function, their informants systematically preferred the ones containing “logically irrelevant neuroscience information”. The mere mention of intimidating concepts like brain or neurology appears to lend credibility to any statement where they appear, in other words.

Statements about the so-called ‘bilingual/multilingual brain’ are no exception, in the wake of the current exponential growth of academic and media news about brains and neuro-prefixed things. This growth reflects a shift in our ways of thinking about our brain along the past couple of decades. Late last century’s trends modelled the brain on the most sophisticated information gathering and processing device of the time, the computer. Since models naturally constrain our ways of thinking about what we’re modelling, our views of the brain came complete with computer-bound characteristics: brain space got allocated once and for all, and brains developed one way, towards decay. Related neuromyths had it that more than one language takes up brain space, or that aged brains lose language learning abilities.

Early 21st century findings then spelled the death of brain death myths: ageing, which is what the brain and the rest of our bodies do from the moment we’re born, doesn’t entail brain decay. Brains were all but static, degenerative, limited-capacity CPUs: neural structures and functions evolve and regenerate themselves after all, in response to our experiences and needs, and both young and old brains retain the agility to do so. Brain plasticity duly became the new mantra and, not least, we could capture brains in action through imaging, our latest model. Related neuromyths have it that we now know what’s going on because we can see it, as Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil argue in The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. They show first, that we are experts at fooling ourselves that we “understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth” than we actually do, and second, that “The illusion for explanatory knowledge is most robust where the environment supports real-time explanations with visible mechanisms.”

Image © Thomas Schultz (Wikimedia Commons)

Likewise, in What can functional neuroimaging tell the experimental psychologist?, Richard Henson warns us of the “real danger that pictures of blobs on brains seduce one into thinking that we can now directly observe psychological processes”. Blob-based evidence nevertheless continues to flourish, all the way from forensics, as Richard K. Sherwin observes in Visual jurisprudence, to education, as Sanne Dekker and colleagues show in Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers or Paul A. Howard-Jones shows in Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. The seductive appeal of visual animations is irresistible, in sum, and it naturally sells very well, which is the topic of Diane M. Beck’s study The appeal of the brain in the popular press.

But there are two problems. One is that the seduction is selective. Is it true, for example, that there is a bilingual/multilingual ‘advantage’, which may include inhibition of brain deterioration? Ellen Bialystok and colleagues say yes in Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task, Shanna Kousaie and Natalie A. Phillips say no in Ageing and bilingualism: Absence of a “bilingual advantage” in Stroop interference in a nonimmigrant sample, and J. Bruce Morton and Sarah N. Harper, in What did Simon say? Revisiting the bilingual advantage, reserve judgement about whether multilingualism relates to brain performance at all until we understand what is really causing what. A recent issue of the Applied Psycholinguistics journal, dedicated to Bilingualism and neuroplasticity, reviews what (little) we know about this topic, but the myth that multilingualism is ‘good for your brain’ goes on making headlines: it’s simply too appealing to not be true. Apparently, it doesn’t sell to popularise research finding that multilingual brains may be as exciting as monolingual ones – which I, for one, find extremely appealing.

The other problem is that academic and media reports don’t speak the same language. Media headlines stating that multilingualism “keeps the brain young” or that you should learn a new language in order to “boost your brain power”, though claiming to draw on scientific research on languages and brains, in fact misrepresent actual findings to go on feeding current neuromyths. In my academic courses, in one of the assignments that became most popular among students, I had them search for wow! media headlines about multilingualism, retrieve the original studies quoted in those pieces, and assess matches between headline and content of the piece, on the one hand, and content of the piece and the studies, on the other. Expectedly, very few matches were found. And unfortunately, given that academic publications aren’t regularly made available outside of academia, very few of us are able to judge for ourselves spin cycles and hype of this kind. Simple repetition of appealing myths doesn’t turn them into facts.

Keeping (somewhat) to the topic of what we like to believe, my next post departs from the adult world to check out how children look at their own multilingualism.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Child musings on being multilingual – The languages. Saturday 21st February 2015.


  1. Your point about the difference between academic-language and media-language resonates with something from a different post of yours, about the difference between home uses of language and school uses of language and how fluency is situational rather than universal. I've noticed that my family's home language seems to be more similar to academic language than the home languages of my peers. I'm curious to hear if you have any thoughts on how to bridge this linguistic gap? Certainly in my case, I suspect the education level of my parents and grandparents contributed to the use of academic-type language patterns in my own home, but I wonder if that's just confirmation bias?

  2. ‘Unknown’ (?Andrew),
    There may be no bias in your observation at all: we are what we hear/see around us through our languages, see e.g. ‘People see, people do’ and related articles.

    This is why the gap that you mention may be difficult to bridge. We do accommodate to our different environments if we so wish, as I’ve also discussed for example in ‘Linguistic ghettos’, but we need exposure to the different uses of our language(s) in each of those environments to be able to make a choice.

    Particularly where home and school uses of language are concerned, my current post, ‘Being multilingual at home’, deals with the widespread and very mistaken assumption that the concept of ‘knowing a language’ can be understood independently from where, why, by whom, etc., that language is used to us and required of us. My coming post (6th February) ‘Being multilingual in school’ will have more on this.

    Thank you so much for this comment and your thoughts!




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