Follow by Email

Sunday, 3 August 2014


Hollywood has a poor reputation when it comes to scientific accuracy.  Perhaps the classic example is the Rachel Welch's One Million Years B.C., which was premised on the claim that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and battled each other for survival.  In fact, the last dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago, and the species of whom which Ms Welch is a particular fine example did not appear until round 200,000 years ago.

This film is not unusual: most films that touch on science seem to get it wrong in some major respects.  James Cameron is a notorious stickler for details, yet he felt compelled to change the starlight backdrop to Titanic for that film’s re-release when Neil Degrasse Tyson pointed out that the stars were in the wrong place in the original!  And almost every space film ever made, from Star Wars to the new Star Wars has failed to deal with the annoying fact that - what with space being a vacuum - there would be no noise.

The recent movie Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, joins this list of offenders by rekindling the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brains.  Johansson’s eponymous character undergoes a transformation when a bag of drugs she was forced to transport inside of her stomach leaks, and rather than causing an agonising, inevitable death, this event somehow gives her access to all of her brain’s potential.  With this gift Lucy is ability to learn languages in an instant, beat up gangsters, and throw around cars with the power of her mind.

The premise of the film is summarised by Morgan Freeman, who plays the world’s leading neuroscientist: “It is estimated most human beings use only 10 percent of the brain’s capacity.  Imagine if we could access 100 percent.”

The idea that we use only a fraction of our cognitive capacity has become something of a Hollywood cliche.  From Flight of the Navigator (1986), via John Travolta’s Scientology advertisement Phenomenon (1996), Inception (2010), and Limitless (2011), movies have asked ‘what if we really are using just a fraction of our true potential?’  Even The Simpsons succumbed, when Bart is prescribed a fictional hyperactivity drug that allows him to use the “full” potential of his brain:

“Most people use 10 percent of their brains. I am now one of them!”

Wouldn’t it be nice?
Many speculative ideas about the brain and learning seem to be motivated by a powerful drive, that I call the ‘wouldn’t it be nice drive?’, inspired by the Beach Boys paean to wishful thinking:

Wishful thinking has become one of the dominant themes in modern educational practice, and lies behind the waves of bullshit and pseudoscience that currently bombard schools. 
Wouldn’t it be nice if my son was not academically weak?  Oh look, it turns out that he isn’t!  He is a kinaesthetic learner, and the school system simply ignores his gifts!

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some magical way to accelerate my daughter’s performance in mathematics?  Quick, get the chequebook: neuro-psycho-physio-gym can join up disconnected parts of her brain without her breaking a sweat!

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could become happier, healthier and wealthier, without investing any time or energy into making it happen?  Woo-wee!  There are lots of ways of doing this, and the only reason they aren’t better known is because scientists and governments are keeping them from us!

I suspect that ideas like those promoted in films like Lucy give fuel to this sort of wishful thinking by combining an allusion to 'sciency' brain talk with the intuitive power of a simple idea that is frequently repeated.  And people do believe it.  A 2012 survey of British and Dutch teachers found that 48% and 46%, respectively, accept the claim.  According to a 2013 study of Americans by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, 65% of Americans believe it too.

The claim has now spread around the world, including into schools and workplaces.  I have heard doctors, teachers and academics cite it as if it were proven fact.  You probably have too.

The bad news
Unfortunately, it is not true.  We do not use 10% of our brains: most of us have access to 100%, and without the boost from a life-threatening injection of drugs.

The human brain has evolved over hundreds and thousands of years, at great cost.  The average brain weighs just 3% of the body's weight but uses 20% of the body's energy.  The idea that this process of development would result in an expensive organ that left 90% of its capacity unused is absurd.  And unused cells in the brain that are unused would turn to atrophy, anyway.  Not surprisingly, brain scans show the entire brain is active all of the time, even whilst resting or sleeping.  In fact, even the most basic functions of the brain - like those controlling breathing and balance - take up more than 10%, and these are needed just to keep us alive.

But don’t take my word for it …

So what?
The 10% Myth is unusual among contemporary brain myths as it does not seem to have originated from a misunderstanding of real science.  It seems that it was simply made up.  No one really knows where it began, although a popular culprit is American psychologist and philosopher William James, who once mentioned in passing that we “are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources".  This comment was repeated in the preface to Dale Carnegie’s 15-million-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Does it matter that it is not true?

Many people find the idea inspiring in some way.  Perhaps we should continue to use the idea, but as a metaphor rather than a factual claim.  We do know that performance in almost every domain can be significantly improved through lots and lots of high quality practice, so maybe the 10% Myth can become a memorable ‘meme’ for emphasising the difference between our potential and our current performance.  Perhaps.

But the simple fact is that most people who repeat the 10% Myth are not using it in this way.  They are making a claim about the brain that is not true, and is not even plausible.  And since gullibility and scientific illiteracy tend to like company, this myth is often accompanied by a host of other nonsense.  So, Lucy does not just become brighter and stronger.  She develops telekinesis!  Advocates in the wonderful world of social media use the 10% Myth as the jumping-off point for an endless stream of equally unsubstantiated claims, from NLP and learning styles to spoon-bending and spiritual healing!

We do not use 10% of our brains.  Not even people who believe the claim do.  Perhaps it is about time we put this particular myth to rest?  Believing bullshit is a dangerous habit to acquire.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Michael Gove has been sacked as Education Secretary - is the only way up?

"We been broken down
the lowest turn
and been on the bottom line
sure ain't no fun
but if we should be evicted from our homes
we'll just move somewere else
and still carry on
Hold on, Hold on, Hold on

"The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me"
('The Only Way is Up', Yazz & The Plastic Population)

There is a principle is statistics called 'regression to the mean', which refers to the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement.  In other words, it means that events tend to even out, so an unusual measure is likely to be followed by a more 'normal' result.

Regression to the mean explains why football managers often seem to experience a brief period of success when they begin a new post (because they usually get their job after a particularly disasterous time for their predecessor - even standard levels of performance will appear to be an improvement after abject failure).  It also explains why alternative medicine sometimes seems to work (people tend to seek unusual treatments when their symptoms are severe, and any slight improvement is attributed the magical sugar tablet, rather than simply that random fluctuations would mean that the severity would have probably declined anyway).

Regression to the mean also explains the widespread euphoria that followed the sacking of Michael Gove as English Secretary of State for Education. Such was the contempt felt for Mr Gove by large numbers of teachers and parents, that it was simply assumed that his replacement, Nicky Morgan could not fail to be improvement.  That Ms Morgan is a political and religious conservative who opposed equal marriage (she says she's in parliament not only for her constituents, but "to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord") was more than out-weighed by her assertion that an important part of her job was to work with teachers, rather than against them:

'I will obviously be nice to teachers, because working with teachers and heads and governors and everyone else in the system is critical in getting the best outcome for our children. Education can be life-transforming.'

That the government minister responsible for education has to state something so blindingly obvious out-loud is an indication of how warped and distorted this role has become.  Whether or not Mr Gove, who showed his contempt for teachers with his every utterance and ill-thought-out policy, is the worst Secretary of State ever is a matter of debate.  He certainly has some stiff opposition for that title from the various bullies, incompetents and loons who have held the position over the preceding decades.

In this context, Nicky Morgan could become a wildly popular Education boss merely by staying in her office and watching daytime TV.  Perhaps she could appear from time to time at conferences to tell teachers and parents, like 'Young' Mr Grace of 'Are you Being Served', 'You've all done very well', before being carried back to her LaZboy recliner and the latest episode of 'Doctors'.

But lest we forget, Nicky Morgan was appointed by the same man who thought it was a good idea to hand over our children's futures to Michael Gove.  She is an ambitious Cameronite, and immediately felt compelled to jump on all of the standard Tory educational bandwagons, including Academies, faith-based schooling, and Grammar Schools. 

As I have argued before, the case for Grammar Schools is weak, and its impact could be summarised simply as 'benefit for a few at the expense of the rest'.  Much the same conclusion, I suspect, could be said of academies and faith-based schooling, although I would not include children among the beneficiaries of the latter.

My concern, though, is not that the new Secretary of State for Education holds these views.  It is that she is at the very beginning of her role, and has already decided her position on some of the most contested issue in education without, it seems, recourse to evidence or even discussion with those in the teaching profession.

Does that remind you of someone?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

New Psychology Today Post: Healthy Body and a Sound Mind? Does Physical Fitness Improve Cognition?

The Roman poet Juvenile popularised the motto “a sound mind in a healthy body”).  But is this really the case?  What is the relationship between physical health and mental power, and why does it matter for schools?

I've just published the latest contribution to my Psychology Today column: Healthy Body and a Sound Mind?  Does Physical Fitness Improve Cognition? 

Please check it out, leave a comment and share!


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Make the Familiar Strange: one action that can transform your coaching

I have recently achieved an amazing thing, and I feel very proud of myself.  In fact, as I walked away from the encounter with a broad grin on my face, I found myself doing that least English of all things: I punched the air!

So what have I done?  I've opened a bank account.

I accept that you might not too impressed, unless you are a close friend or family member who generally assume that even the most basic life skills are beyond me.  But there is another element to the story: I achieved this feat in another country, and in another language.  Germany and German, respectively.

Although I speak enough German to make my way around the place with only occasional humiliation and ridicule, I have found myself paralysed with anxiety at the thought of doing something that would ordinarily be an everyday task for most people.  I feared that my 'how-much-are-the-Lederhosen' language skills would not stretch to conversations about current accounts, variable interest rates and regulations about money laundering. 

Anxiety of this sort has been a recurring experience since I moved to Berlin a couple of months ago, and every time I walk into a shop planning to buy some bread only to leave with 10 metres of garden hose and a box of Tampons, I find myself jolted into an awareness that I am a novice with regard to an endless list of activities.

My banking adventure brings to mind a comment from the Russian writer, Viktor Shklovsky:

“Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived. To do this it presents its material in unexpected, even outlandish ways: the shock of the new.”

That pretty much captures my outlook since moving to Germany: the familiar has become strange (and this is not including the genuinely strange aspects of German life!).

Zen Buddhists talk about 'Beginner's Mind' (Shoshin, 初心), which is characterised by an openness to new challenges and the absence of prejudgement.  For the beginner, even the most rudimentary task is thrilling or scary and new.  For a bewildered foreigner, Beginner's Mind is not so much a spiritual goal as a lived experience.

The Beginner's Mind is the learner's mind, and it is very difficult to artificially generate, because it is so difficult to shut up the continual audio-commentary produced by previous experience.  It is an usual teacher or coach who, when attending a course on a subject they know well, doesn't find the mind forcing the information provided through the filter of their own presuppositions and prejudgements: I agree, therefore it is right; I disagree, so it is wrong; this is similar to how I teach; I wouldn't do it that way!

This sort of dialogue seems to be the default way the human mind makes sense of the world, by seeing how new experiences fit in the pre-existing patterns that allow it to operate. But there are clearly consequences.  The Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

If we genuinely wish to experience the Beginner's Mind, we need to learn how to suspend judgement and just experience things fresh and shiny new.

This creates something of a problem for the expert or experienced teacher or coach, those purpose and function are premised on the absence of beginner-ness.  The novice approaches the expert precisely because the expert is more familiar with the activity than they are.  But even the most traditional and didactic teacher or coach needs to react and adapt to some extent to the idiosyncratic needs and responses of the students in front of them.  So the expert's strength can also easily become their weakness, as the challenges facing the novice become progressively more alien.  The coach who think they understand the experiences of their most inexperienced students is almost certainly wrong!

How can a coach of twenty years possibly understand the fears and challenges of someone taking their very first lesson?  Or deal with a lack of comprehension of the most basic ideas?  And if they can't do this, how can they communicate in a way that truly connects with the novice?

After years of trying and failing, I have concluded that it is probably impossible to do this through a feat of imagination.  I cannot forgot what I have learned though years of practice, and I cannot shed the sense of familiarity and expertise that accompanies it.

So I am left with just one alternative: to become a beginner again.  As far as I can tell, the only way a coach can understand the Beginner's Mind is to become a beginner again.  Learning something that is new-alien, unfamiliar-disorientating, and exciting-nerve-wracking offers an unparalleled first-hand appreciation of the challenges that the students' experience everyday, and of which most coaches are more-or-less unaware.

Most coaches and teachers would accept, I think, the need to attend courses related to their sport or subject.  Continued professional development is self-evidently necessary in order to keep in touch with new ideas and extend skill-sets.  But I do not think any of this is as important as learning something completely new.

Stepping outside of the comfort zone means stepping into an area that is unfamiliar and uncertain, and in which possibilities are still endless.  Beginner's Mind cannot be imagined; it can only be lived.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

New Column with Psychology Today

I am delighted to report that I have recently started a: with the hugely popular psychology today magazine!

The focus of the column is the relationship between sport, physical activity and learning.

I will continue to publish entries to Talking Education and Sport.  And in the meantime, please do check out my new venture!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Cricket versus Barbarism

Having just returned from watching the German Cup Final, with all of the diving, playing for fouls, and general gamesmanship that are often just accepted as part of the modern game, I find myself drifting towards one of my perennial ruminations about the place of "sport" in professional sport.  

Then I found an short earlier post about another game.  And it seemed pertinent, somehow.


I'd like to start with a quiz. Who said this
“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket ..; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”
I will reveal the answer at the end of this entry.

The stimulus for my mention of cricket is an interesting article in the magazine All About Cricket. The author, Safi Thind, reports on the emergence of a number of initiatives that have used cricket as a vehicle to combat problems like misbehaviour at school and youth delinquency.

For example,

"StreetChance "aims to increase aspiration, promote mutual respect, and enhance relationships with others, including schools, police and the wider community by providing structured coaching and competitive opportunities for young people."

Another charity - Cricket for Change - gives some clues about the selection of cricket as the means to these ends:

"We see cricket, because of its history throughout the world, as being uniquely able to transcend the major urban racial groups, black, white and Asian and because it's a non-contact game, is also uniquely able to help young people with a disability share in the benefits of competitive team sport.

We believe that cricket can be used to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals and communities and for the last 30 years we have used our unique cricket programmes to help young people, in particular, make positive choices about their lives and to help them feel good about themselves."

Cricket, above all other sports that emerged from Victorian Britain (which is, let's face it, almost all sports) has the reputation for developing decent behaviour.

This was the view of the philosopher David Stove. Cricket, he wrote, “requires gentlemanliness, and teaches it”. And such gentlemanliness is expressed both in the nature of the game (and its often extreme delays of gratification) and its spirit. In other words, cricket teaches decent behaviour by providing an environment in which such behaviour is practiced.

Of course, it is not difficult to undermine a simple equation between cricket and civility: bodyline, ball-tampering, match fixing, and so on. But that the vast majority of cricket matches manage to maintain an over-riding air of good manners and good spirits - even at the very highest levels - does suggest that these schemes are on to something.

And the source of the claim that cricket civilises people that I quoted at the start of this entry? It was that great humanitarian Robert Mugabe.


And if Mugabe cannot persuade you of the virtues of cricket, take a look at the story of a truly remarkable Cricket club: the Compton Cricket club in California, USA ...

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Five Books (not about Coaching) that can Transform your Coaching

STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to:

It seems to me that coaching, and teaching in general, are basically thinking activities. Thought is required in planning, throughout delivery of sessions, and during the reflective phase that necessarily follows it (at least, it is a necessary element  

All of the good and great coaches and teachers I have known have had ceaselessly enquiring minds. And most of them have repeatedly stepped away from the cosy certainties offered by their areas of specialism, and have looked elsewhere in the pursuit of new insights and new ways of thinking.

I certainly do not regard myself as a great coach or teacher, but I have benefited enormously, both professionally and personally, from the books I list here have inspired me, others have infuriated or disorientated me. But all of them have left their mark on my thinking about thinking about sport. 

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceDon't be put off by the title: it is not really about motorcycles, or about Zen.  This is an engaging, thought-provoking book, probably best described as 'philosophical fiction'. The discussion about the nature and development of Quality, in particular, should be of great interest and relevance to coaches and teachers.

"We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Sometimes mistaken for a story about a seagull. OK, it is a story about a seagull. But is also a parable about skill, perfection, and the meaning of a life worth living.  And it is very short.

"Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science
Sports coaching is awash with bullshit.  Gimmicks, fads, and magical nonsense rob us all of time, money, and professional integrity.  Read this funny and shocking book, and see the light!

"Repeat after me: pharma being shit does not mean magic beans cure cancer."

Gary Marcus, Guitar ZeroA cognitive scientist tries to learn to play the guitar. This is probably the best book, to date, that tries to bridge the gap between what is known about how people learn complicated skills and what this can mean in practice.  However, just as important is the author's account of the joys and frustrations of learning and then mastering a new skill.  A great book.

"To dismiss talent is to ignore all evidence from biology.”

Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
A psychiatrist chronicles is experiences as an inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. Frankl's story is remarkable, and it is beautifully told. The lessons he learned and shares from this nightmare are, for many people, life changing. His discussion of the importance of meaning in one's life has enormous implications for education and sport.

"Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'."

STOP PRESS: I am delighted to announce that Arton 'Float Sting ' Baleci and I are running a new course on learning - for coaches, teachers and other learners!For more information, and the register, please go to: