We’ve already busted the myth of learning styles dictating how we learn, but there are countless other misconceptions around learning that may have shaped the way you think about how we learn, our intelligence, and studying. We’re here to bust five more of the most common myths around learning.

Some of these myths have been around for decades and are still being spread today. One of those harmful learning myths revolves around aging and not being as effective at learning as you grow older.

1. Myth: You can’t teach an old dog (or human) new tricks

It’s been long thought that your brain’s neuroplasticity (the ability to adapt and change) is the greatest in the first several years of your life, and begins to drop off heavily in your mid-twenties.

While it’s true that children have the most plasticity of brains and can adapt and learn relatively easily, that doesn’t mean that your ability to learn falls off a cliff in your mid twenties. It’s actually been found that older adults are able to build new brain cells just as easily as young children. That means that your ability to learn new things doesn’t diminish and your baseline for learning continues well into old age.

You can also improve your neuroplasticity as you age by challenging yourself to learn new things and adapting a healthy lifestyle. By exercising your brain and your body, you’ll build new neural connections, and in turn, make your brain stronger.

2. Myth: You’re either a right or left brain person

We all have a brain… I hope. That brain is split between two major hemispheres, your left and right side. The left controls logic, while the right controls creativity. Because of that, the artists among us are “right brained” and the more analytical types are “left brained”, right?

Actually, that’s been proven false. The left and right side of your brain does control different things, mostly your movement (right brain controls the left side of your body and vice versa) and vision, but it pretty much ends there. Each side of your brain controls different aspects of creativity and logic, not strictly one or the other, which has been proven with neuroimaging.

Black line drawing of right and left brain hemispheres with squiggles.
Drawing by Oleksandr

So where did this popular myth come from? Scholars believe that Robert Louis Stevenson was somewhat responsible with his work Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where he posited that people have an emotional right and a logical left brain that are constantly competing with each other. This captivated the world, and birthed the idea of a left vs. right brain.

3. Myth: You should always stick with your first answer

We’ve all been there, you’re taking a test and come across a question that you have second thoughts on after answering, but you decide not to change it because that little voice in the back of your head tells you “stick with your gut!”. This is called the first instinct fallacy.

There’s actually no solid proof that “sticking with your gut” improves your test taking performance. In fact, it’s actually quite the opposite. Studies have shown that the majority of changed answers actually end up being correct in test samples that have been analyzed.

Scientists believe we are told to stick with our first answer because of our emotions. It feels much worse to change your answer to an incorrect choice than sticking with your first choice and being incorrect.

4. Myth: Your intelligence is fixed and genetically limited

The original IQ test was invented back in 1904 by Alfred Binet. Since then, the thought that intelligence is fixed and genetically limited has permeated throughout our culture. But Carol Dweck, a world renowned psychologist, challenged that idea.

Carol believes that intelligence is something that is developed and changes over time with the right stimuli, something that she called a ‘growth mindset’. Intelligence can be thought of like any other skill you develop. By challenging your brain with new and difficult problems, you enhance your intelligence and become smarter.

On the other hand, there is also a ‘fixed mindset’. People who adopt a fixed mindset limit their tasks and problem solving to things they already know how to do so they can avoid failure and continue looking smart. Someone with a growth mindset can actually surpass a higher intelligence fixed mindset person over time by continuing to challenge themselves and develop their intelligence.

So, a high IQ doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a genius, and you can continue to develop and grow your intelligence just like any other skill.

5. Myth: More studying = better test scores

“You need to study more for better grades!” Anyone else hear that constantly growing up? I know I did. But is it true that those who study more score better on exams? Not really. The focus shouldn’t be on studying more, but studying more effectively.

Let’s look at someone who has a big exam coming up in a couple of days. They haven’t studied at all yet, so they decide to pull a couple of all-nighters and study for 12 hours each day leading up to the exam (i.e. cramming). Someone taking the same exam starts studying a couple of weeks out for an hour a day. The person who crammed actually studied for more cumulative hours than the person who stretched it out, but in most scenarios the crammer would score lower.

That’s because cramming is considered an ineffective method of studying. When you cram, you overwork your brain, which leads to you memorizing rather than understanding. By spacing out your studying, you give your brain the opportunity to process and contextualize smaller chunks of information, leading to better overall understanding of the material. More understanding = better test scores, more studying = more stress.

Learning science is still a very young scientific field. The first learning science degree wasn’t even offered until 1991. This means there are still plenty of learning myths to debunk out there, and we’re just scratching the surface of the inner workings of the human brain and its development. So the next time someone tells you they’re left brained, you can have a chuckle and tell them to check out this quick TED talk.