IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Neuromyths prevalent among general population and educators

3 November 2021

New research finds misconceptions about the brain, known as neuromyths, are common, particularly those related to neurodevelopmental disorders such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorders.

Brain model

The study was led by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and conducted with Birkbeck College London as part of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience’s work. It saw researchers create an online survey that was completed by 366 members of the general public and 203 individuals working in education. The results showed that in both groups around 1 in 10 participants endorsed neuromyths about the brain, and a quarter endorsed myths about neurodevelopmental disorders. The researchers note that this has the potential to exacerbate the stigma of neurodevelopmental disorders.

The researchers found that greater access to information about the brain was a protective factor against endorsing myths among the general public and educators. They argue that the problem of neuromyths could be addressed through a greater number of neuroeducational resources being made available.

Dr Jo Van Herwegen said: “There are a number of reasons as to why neuromyths remain popular: firstly there has been an increased interest in the brain overall by people, secondly there has been a drive to focus on evidence-based practice and science, within education and thus, this has led to sometimes products and educational programmes being attributed to scientific findings but in that translation facts about the brain are oversimplified or incorrectly attributed."

“These neuromyths matter as they can lead to stigma but also impact on whether or not a child gets a diagnosis. Having a diagnosis means that a child can get help to improve their learning outcomes but again neuromyths might impact on what kind of provisions schools will put into place.”

Common neuromyths

Five of the most commonly held neuromyths are:

Dyslexia is caused by visual problems

This neuromyth probably evolved from the original description of dyslexia as “word blindness”. This was because individuals were typically in the normal range for intelligence but could not develop literacy skills. It was believed that this must be due to individuals’ vision. However, this explanation has long-since been dispelled.

Dyslexia can be helped by using coloured lenses and/or coloured overlays

The researchers note: “Visual stress describes the sensation of distortions and discomfort when reading. In the past it was thought to be a cause of dyslexia, and interventions used coloured overlays on text to alleviate this stress. However, this approach has since been shown to be ineffective.”

Reducing dietary intake of sugar or food additives is generally effective in reducing the symptoms of ADHD

A common belief is that certain diets can be used as treatments for ADHD. However, the evidence-base for specific ADHD dietary interventions is currently weak and inconclusive. A prevailing belief is that sugar can cause ADHD and that reducing sugar intake may alleviate ADHD symptoms. However, there is little clear evidence for a causal link between sugar and ADHD.

Prolonged use of stimulant medications for ADHD leads to increased addiction (e.g. drugs, alcohol) in adulthood

Treatment for ADHD often involves stimulant medications that work by stimulating the brain's braking system, helping children to concentrate and control impulsive behaviour. ADHD is associated with higher rates of drug misuse. However, there is no evidence to suggest that stimulant medication increases the risk of drug misuse.

The researchers state:  

“The relationship between ADHD and substance misuse is complex: ADHD traits such as impulsivity and emotional dysregulation may themselves contribute to the association between ADHD and higher rates of substance misuse. However, the evidence on whether treating ADHD with stimulants affects the prevalence of substance misuse is mixed.”

Autistic children do not like to be touched

Writing on this neuromyth, the researchers note: 

“Unusual sensory experiences are a key feature in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and many autistic people have sensitive sensory experiences, especially related to touch. […] However, autism is a spectrum disorder with some individuals showing hyper-sensitivity to touch (i.e., may overreact to a touch stimuli due to hypersensitivity) and some showing hypo-sensitivity to touch (i.e. need more input to respond). Indeed, interviews with parents of autistic individuals showed large individual differences with some autistic individuals liking to touch everything and other responding negatively to touch. However, tactile sensitivity in autism is currently not well understood and further research in this domain is required.”