In the opening pages of his recent book, The Myth of the First Three Years—A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning, John Bruer recalls a 1996 phone call he received from a journalist at a national parenting magazine. “Based on neuroscience” she asked, “what can we tell parents about choosing a preschool for their children?” “Based on neuroscience,” Bruer replied, “absolutely nothing.” Incredulous, the journalist politely suggested that Bruer, the President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, must be out of touch with the very cognitive neuroscientific research his foundation funded.

Bruer realized that the journalist was merely one of a vanguard of media types, policymakers, and celebrities promulgating brain science myths—myths that the public was accepting as scientific truths. Hilary Clinton, for instance, told the nation that “It is clear that by the time most children start preschool, the architecture of the brain has essentially been constructed.” Rob Reiner, the Hollywood director and creator of the “I Am Your Child” campaign, proclaimed that the brain was “cooked” by age ten.

As the above suggests, the central myth was that a narrow window of opportunity exists (usually defined as ages 0-3) during which a young child’s brain could be “stoked,” as it were, by intensive, “neurological correct” stimulation. Once the window closed, educators and parents were more or less in maintenance mode; they could teach children new skills and knowledge, but never again so dramatically spark brain cell growth.

The myth did have some basis in real science. The brain, it’s true, does produce an extraordinary number of connections, or synapses, during a child’s first few years, after which there is a period of profound and prolonged synaptic pruning. The media exaggerated such findings to create sensational headlines about how children need to “use it or lose it” (the brain, that is), causing anxious parents to buy up Mozart recordings and Calder mobiles, and to sign their children up for expensive, accessory-laden preschools.

But as Bruer argues in his book, the-stimulate-the-early-brain rage ignores the fact that synapses will wither away after the age of three or so regardless of what parents do. Furthermore, research indicates that this natural pruning process is actually necessary for intellectual growth, leading Bruer to suggest that “less is more” when it comes to synapses. The brains of infants and toddlers, he concludes, need no special stimulation—ordinary loving exchanges between loving parents and their children will do just fine.

Recently, I reached Bruer at his St. Louis office, which is not an easy thing to do. He’s on the speaking circuit much of the time, cautioning audiences to be skeptical of claims made about the applicability of brain science to teaching and learning. A philosopher by training, Bruer likes to break up his exposition with small bursts of wry laughter.

BC: Are people confusing brain science with cognitive science? I’ve heard teachers, for instance, talk about Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences as if it is neurologically-based.
JB: Yes, there is that confusion. It’s true, for instance, that Gardner’s first insights came out of his experiences at a neurological clinic, where he saw that patients had “intelligences” that were fully intact even when they had significant kinds of brain damage. But in no way—and I think Howard would agree with this—is his theory of Multiple Intelligences a brain-based theory at all.

The problem is that there is now this huge cottage industry of brain-based education. It consists of a mixture of very basic but quite dated results from cognitive science and experimental psychology mixed in with really bad brain science. Too many consultants are now putting together what they know about the brain with what they learned at education graduate school into a kind of plausible story they pass onto teachers. Consequently, I’ll talk to teachers about what a study of cognitive psychology might do for the classroom and they’ll inevitably ask a question about left brain/right brain. But right now, only by understanding behavior can we understand the brain—there’s very little in terms of explanatory value coming back the other way. We simply don’t know enough yet. Brain science may never be that relevant in that sense until we get to the point of being able to implant neuromaps or chips into children’s brains.

BC: Are you saying that we’ll never be able to apply brain science to what goes on in the classroom?
JB: Not exactly. It could be that my inability to see the applicability of brain science to classroom instruction shows a lack of imagination on my part—after all, who knows what the future will bring? Besides, there are areas of brain science that are likely to be more helpful than those educators are currently looking at. Most discussion in education involves what’s going on at the synaptic level, but serious applications of that level of research are in the very distant future. However, if you look at areas of cognitive neuroscience—linking low level psychology with very high level circuit-based organization—there are certain things such as dyslexia and attentional problems about which we may learn something in the very near future.

I also think that somewhere down the road brain science may lead us to the possibility of having many different educational models. Behavioral output may be the same across tasks—that is, individuals may do something more or less equally well—but yet they may be using quite different mental computations and brain circuits to perform these tasks. From this perspective, brain science may be able a few decades from now to give us insights into what kind of learning styles individuals will find difficult and which are likely to be more natural for them.

Stephen Kosslyn at Harvard, for instance, has been studying how experts in certain fields take on their tasks. With new improvements in technology he thinks that we might be able to explore brain level differences in how individuals learn various skills and tasks. The idea wouldn’t be to tell someone he shouldn’t try to become a concert pianist, but to point out that if that’s what he really wants there may be better ways for him to approach it.

BC: What particular concerns do you have about the misapplication of brain science in education?
JB: Well, with any of this early childhood stuff, to claim that there’s a brain science basis for it is exceedingly misleading. The popular press, for instance, made it seem as if Head Start didn’t start early enough to permanently wire the brain—well, that’s nonsense. Now, we do know enough from observing behavior to know that social deprivation is not a good thing for young children. But what should we do about it? It might be that children need experiences that prepare them for what I call the paradigmatic middle class experience. But it may be that there are experiences you can give to adolescents and adults at a much later age to make them productive citizens.

One of the things that concerns me about an agenda for an ambitious early childhood education program is that it requires setting up a whole other tier of the education system which is very expensive and perhaps not necessary. Before we take a dramatic step like that, we ought to make sure that we can’t take our dollars and make good use of them within the K-12 structure we already have.

BC: Does research tell us anything about what kinds of teaching approaches are most effective in the classroom?
JB: Once again, it’s hard to see that what goes on with synapses will ever relevant to that issue. But cognitive science, I think, will tell us that many different kinds of learning experiences are necessary. For some kinds of things drill practice and repetition may be the only way—learning number facts, foreign words, very boring and rote stuff. However, if you’re looking to increase people’s ability to solve problems, the more experience you have with ill-structured problems the better.

The problem is that the two camps of progressive and traditional education have looked at one kind of approach you need to be successful in some things and used that piece for the whole thing. We’re trying to apply cognitive research to a middle school here in St. Louis. It emphasizes a lot of progressive things like meta-cognition, problem-solving, children setting their own curriculum. However, it also became evident that on several mornings a week students would have to work on basic facts, number skills, spelling, word recognition, and so on.

BC: What effect do you think your message about the current limitations of brain science will have on parents?
JB: Positive, I hope. Parents are so anxious. You know, one of the messages I’m trying to get out to parents is that relatively normal neurological children will do fine in a lot of very different environments.