The Straight Dope on Learning Styles


The glorious truth is that people think and learn differently. Some people like words, but not pictures, some like movements rather than sounds. Why are people different? Who knows, perhaps because Allah loves wondrous variety.

A funny thing is that we have the tendency to ignore this fact. Perhaps because empathy is difficult, perhaps because learning makes itself invisible. I have a dear friend, Cat, who doesn’t have visual imagery. When she thinks of a dog, for example, she doesn’t see one in her mind’s eye. She doesn’t see anything. When she dreams she rarely has pictures — she just knows what is happening in the dream. People often don’t believe this. They think that everyone must experience their inner world in pictures, the way they do. Sorry. People are just different. Some always see things when they imagine them, some don’t. Some people have a sense of pitch, some don’t. So it goes.

So the idea of learning styles makes a lot of intuitive sense. Surely if we know that people think and learn differently, we should be able to design our teaching to take advantage of different learning styles. Right?

This is where we hit problems. Are learners either primarily visual, auditory, kinesthetic (as claimed in NLP)? Or are they primarily analytic, creative or pragmatic (as proposed by Robert Sternberg). Is the world made of Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators and Accomodators? Maybe instead we should use the Myers-Briggs categories of Sensers, Intuitors, Thinkers and Feelers?

Faced with these possibilities an academic psychologist has a standard set of questions they would like answered: can you really divide people up into a particular set of categories? Are the tests for these categories reliable; if you take the test twice will you come out the same both times? Are the categories you are trying to use related to how people learn? If you use a theory of learning styles, do people learn better? Can you use learning styles to predict who will benefit most from particular styles of instruction? Does using a learning styles system – any system – for teaching have other effects on learners or teachings, such as making them more confident or making them expend more effort?

These questions stem from the way academic psychologists systematically approach topics: we like to establish the truth of psychological claims. If someone comes to us with a theory about learning styles we want to know (a) if learning styles really exist, (b) if they really are associated with better learning and also (c) if, when learning styles are taken into account, learning is better because of something about the specific learing style theory rather than just being a side effect of an increase in teacher confidence, effort or somesuch.

So, what have academic psychologists found out about learning styles? We know that some of the supposed categories of learning styles are actually dimensions that vary continuously across the population. For example visual imagery: it is not that some people are visual thinkers, it is that most people have some visual imagery and a few have very strong imagery and a few, like my friend Cat, have less than average. We also know that people can change their learning styles over time, for different tasks and in different contexts. We also know that it is very difficult to prove that teaching that uses learning styles is better because of the particular theory of learning styles used, rather than merely because a learning style theory, any learning style theory, is being used and this makes people pay more attention to what they are doing.

Learning styles seem intuitively sensible. Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation. But there is no strong evidence that any one theory of learning styles is the best, or most true, compared to the others. Learning style theories can be useful without being true, and it isn’t clear that knowing the truth about the differences in how people learn will be immediately useful or produce a more useful theory of learning styles. This difference between truth and utility is a typical dilemma of psychology.

Sadly, the headlines for this conclusion aren’t snappy. It is easier to say that “Some people are visual thinkers and others are auditory thinkers” than it is to say that “Thinking about presenting information in different sensory modalities will make your teaching more varied and help those you are teaching who have different preferences to yourself”. Using a learning style theory is great, but you lose a lot of flexibility and potential for change if you start to believe that the theory is based on proven facts about the way the world is, rather than just being a useful set of habits and suggestions which might, sometimes, help guide us through the maze of teaching and learning.

Cross-posted at

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Image: jelly belly by House of Sims

Giant killing

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are about to settle a legal case brought by the US Government over illegal promotion of their now withdrawn painkiller Bextra (valdecoxib) for a staggering $2.3 billion.

This follows the news that Eli Lilly have just settled a similar case against them for a previous record of $1.42 billion related to illegal promotion of their antipsychotic drug Zyprexa (olanzapine) with several cases against them still ongoing.

The cases relate to ‘off-label marketing’, an illegal practice where companies explicitly encourage doctors to prescribe drugs for conditions that the compound isn’t licensed for. In the case of olanzapine, this included dementia, and we now know the combination of antipsychotics and dementia greatly increases short and longer-term mortality.

The practice of off-label promotion is widespread and has been for years but this is the first time that such massive cases have been settled against the companies concerned.

As an aside, one of the most useful sources for news on the pharma industry and psychiatry is a blog we often link to called Furious Seasons.

It’s written by Phil Dawdy, an ex-newspaper journalist and ex-antipsychotic user who does some remarkable investigative journalism that is almost entirely supported by donations from readers of the website.

I mention this as he’s just had another experience of a journalist pumping him for information and then neglecting to mention him, despite the fact that he’s not only been on the pulse of developments for the last few years, he’s actually been part of the story as he publicly hosted some incriminating documents for the Zyprexa case.

He was recently flagged up as a great example of independent web journalism by respected science writer David Dobbs, but only seems to get credit from writers who already get self-publishing.

I don’t always agree with his take but find Furious Seasons essential reading nonetheless, which must be a sign of a good writer.

I credit him with having a sort of underground sensibility for sorting through the spin of corporate psychiatry but it won’t be long before he goes mainstream, so catch him while he’s still live and direct.

Link to WSJ on Pfizer settlement.
Link to Furious Seasons.

Neuroimaging, before the invention of television

Neuroscience textbooks often suggest that the ability to image the structure of the brain in living patients started in the 1970s with the introduction of the CT scanner. What they tend to forget is that brain surgeon Walter Dandy was already neuroimaging patients as early as 1918.

We think of x-rays as only being useful for getting pictures of bones but soft tissue does show up on an x-ray.

The images rely on certain bits of the body having a higher density and therefore blocking more of the rays falling on the photographic plate.

Bones are obviously very dense so show up well but look at this image of a hand x-ray. You can clearly see the difference between bone, flesh and air. What you can’t see is any difference in the soft tissue.

The crucial difference that struck Walter Dandy was the possibility of distinguishing flesh and air on an x-ray.

Knowing that the brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which also fills internal spaces called the ventricles, he decided to simply replace the fluid with air and x-ray the patient.

He published his first results in 1918. He described how he drilled a hole in the skull of a patient and carefully removed the CSF from the ventricles and replaced it with air.

Now known as ventriculography, one of the images he took is illustrated on the top left. For the first time, you could clearly see the ventricles in a living patient.

During the procedure, he noted that some of the air has escaped the ventricles and was occupying the space between the skull and the brain.

The following year he published another study where he deliberately filled this space with air as well, so the surface of the brain was surrounded by the gas and so could show up on an x-ray.

The bottom left image shows the result of this, and you can see it clearly shows some of the ‘trenches’, the cerebral sulci, on the surface of the brain.

Now called pneumoencephalography, the procedure was immensely useful, but, extremely unpleasant. In his 1918 article he noted that the patient’s reaction “was characterized by a rise of temperature, nausea, vomiting, and increased headache”.

Furthermore, it takes weeks, if not months, for the CSF to be replaced by the body, leaving the patient in a debilitated and fragile state.

However, it was used throughout the 20th century and the research literature is peppered with the results of this early neuroimaging research.

Link to 1918 paper on imaging of the ventricles.
Link to 1919 paper on imaging the brain surface.

Complex beginnings

The term ‘complex’, used to refer to a mental illness or psychological hang-up, has become so common as to have entered everyday language (e.g. ‘he has an inferiority complex’) but I only just recently found out about the origin of the concept.

The following is from the epic and endlessly fascinating book The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henri Ellenberger, where he discusses the use of the ‘word association test’ in early 1900s psychiatry.

The story takes us through some of the most important figures in the history of 19th and 20th century mind science. From p691:

The test consisted of enunciating to a subject a succession of carefully chosen words; to each of them the subject had to respond with the first word that occurred to him; the reaction time was exactly measured…

It was invented by Galton, who showed how it could be used to explore the hidden recesses of the mind. It was taken over and perfected by Wundt, who attempted to experimentally establish the laws of the association of ideas.

Then Aschaffenberg and Kraepelin introduced the distinction of inner and outer associations; the former are associations according to meaning, the latter according to forms of speech and sound; they could also be called semantic and verbal associations.

Kraepelin showed that fatigue caused a gradual shift toward a greater proportion of verbal associations. Similar effects were observed in fever and alcoholic intoxication. The same authors compared the results of the word association test in various mental conditions.

Then a new path was opened by Ziehen who found that the reaction time was was longer when the stimulus word was to something unpleasant to the subject. Sometimes, by picking out several delayed responses, one could relate them to a common underlying representation that Ziehen called gefühlsbetonter Vorstellungskomplex (emotionally charged complex of representations), or simply a complex.

Carl Jung later used the test extensively as a more rigorous alternative to Freudian free association and found some interesting results.

In women, erotic complexes were in the foreground with complexes related to the family and dwelling, pregnancy, children and marital situation; in older women he detected complexes showing regrets about former lovers. In men, complexes of ambition, money and striving to succeed came before erotic complexes.

The description comes from a chapter about Carl Jung, who was originally a psychoanalyst but broke away from Freud’s system and developed his own.

Freud’s theories, with only a few exceptions, just seem to get loopier the more you read them. Jung is interesting because on the surface his ideas seem quite barmy but are often remarkably sensible when you understand them in more detail.

Despite his interest in everything from ghosts to UFOs, he always maintained these were essentially psychological phenomena that reflected important aspects of our collective culture and subconcious mind.

For example, I always thought his concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ was supposed to be some sort of semi-mystical psychic connection, but in fact, he was just describing much of what is now a premise of evolutionary psychology.

Namely, that by nature of being human, we may share some inherited psychological structures, common symbols or ideas – such as what ‘motherhood’ entails – that can be seen in both common behaviours and in myths and stories throughout history.

Irrational reading

Science writer Jonah Lehrer has a short but useful piece in the Wall Street Journal where he recommends five must-read books on irrational decision-making.

Lehrer is well placed to be making recommendations as he’s recently been completely immersed in the science of decision-making to write his newly released book How We Decide.

The five books he recommends are:

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay.

Judgment Under Uncertainty by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic and Amos Tversky

How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich

The Winner’s Curse by Richard H. Thaler

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

All of which I can also heartily recommend, except The Winner’s Curse, but simply because I’m not familiar with it.

By the way, the first book that Lehrer recommends was published in 1841 and is freely available online.

Link to ‘Books on Irrational Decision-Making’ from the WSJ (via FC).

Electricity, let it wash all over me

I’ve just found a fantastic article that discusses the representation of epilepsy in contemporary rock and hip hop. It was published last year in the neurology journal Epilepsy and Behaviour and is both fascinating and funny owing to the contrast between the stuffy academic journal style and the lyrics drawn from the street.

For example, where else are you likely to read anything like the following:

In “Ballad of Worms,” Cage, a New York rap artist with a troubled psychiatric past, rails against God for giving his girlfriend (previously “the hottest bitch”) meningitis.

It’s a fascinating review, not least because most of the songs that mention epilepsy are from death metal bands, lyrical singer-song writers or hip hop artists.

I was a bit confused at first because it misses out some obvious tracks, but I quickly realised it’s just sampling from lyrics about epilepsy, rather than trying to give a complete overview.

For example, we mentioned a Beastie Boys track where Adrock gives props to his own epilepsy back in 2007. Beck also gives a nod to his epilepsy in his 2006 track Elevator Music:

I shake a leg on the ground
Like an epileptic battery man
I’m making my move

Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis famously developed epilepsy and had several seizures on stage. Their pulsing 1979 track She’s Lost Control, although not explicitly about his own experiences, vividly describes a girl having a seizure in the street.

There are many more examples, and after doing a search I was surprised at quite how often epilepsy and seizures are referenced in rock n’ roll.

The review notes that epilepsy is often linked to the historical themes of madness and cognitive impairment, but interestingly contemporary music also uses it as a metaphor for all consuming love and sexual desire, as well as wild abandon in dancing – which are not traditional themes.

The paper is by clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale, who does some compelling and diverse research into epilepsy, including a recent article on the representation of epilepsy in movies.

Link to ‘The representation of epilepsy in popular music’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Corseting female sexuality

The New York Times has an interesting and in-depth article on research into female sexuality that looks at the work of some of the most prominent female researchers in the field.

It does a great job of discussing the often surprising results of recent scientific studies but a commentary on Neuroanthropology really nails why it misses the mark.

The whole article is pitched to support that old tired clich√© of sexuality that ‘women are complicated, men are simple’ and it uses the differences in research findings to suggest women are enigmatic, complex, they don’t know what they want, or are torn by competing sexual desires.

But this is largely because the scientific studies have looked at specific research questions that don’t relate to ‘what do women want?’ line, as if this is a question that could actually be answered.

Neuroanthropology uses a great analogy that demonstrates why this is just bad spin:

One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs.

One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!

You get my drift. The line of questioning is rhetorically time-tested (can we say clichéd even?) but objectively and empirically nonsensical. So many of these experiments seem to be testing a series of different, related, but ultimately distinct questions.

Can they all be glossed as, ‘What do women want?’ Yeah, sort of, but you’re going to get a hopeless answer.

Rather ironically, the NYT article celebrates the complexity of female sexuality but ultimately suggests that it’s the one-dimensional question that’s important when this is nothing but a caricature of human nature.

It’s worth reading for the coverage of the research, but the whole premise of the article is slightly askew. The Neuroanthropology piece is an excellent way of getting a broader vista.

Link to NYT article ‘What Do Women Want?’.
Link to excellent Neuroanthropology commentary.