Brain Gym loses its trousers (figuratively)

The Bad Science firmament has a new star.

Step forward… Charlie Brooker

Today in the Guardian Charlie Brooker gave the laughable Brain Gym one of the funniest and most comprehensive rhetorical flayings I have ever read. It brightened up a dull Monday.

It is also, I confidently predict, the only time Charlie Brooker’s column is ever likely to mention the British Neuroscience Association, or the Physiological Society.

I should say that Brain Gym, or more accurately Brain Gym® is (in case there is anyone left who hasn’t heard of it) a series of “ fun exercises” for schoolchildren to do in class. It has been widely used in UK schools over the last few years.

Well, what’s wrong with that, I hear you ask? Anyone who ever revised for a load of exams will probably remember the advice to get up and walk round the room, or stretch, every 30 minutes or so. So why not little exercises for the kids?

Well, there are a couple of answers.

The first is that Brain Gym® comes equipped with a ludicrous set of pseudo-babble explanations. And posts from anonymous teachers back when BadScience discussed Brain Gym suggested that they were made, on pain of dressing down and even disciplinary measures from the Head, to buy into these explanations in their Brain Gym® training sessions.

So the teachers are told by the trainer, and may even pass on to the kids, idiotic stuff like:

“Rubbing these [Positive Points] above each eye with the fingertips of each hand… brings blood flow to the frontal bits of your brain where rational thought occurs.”

The charity Sense About Science, in the person of our own Frank the science punk, has now got some neuroscientists together to do a comprehensive debunking job on all this. For instance, referring to the explanation just give, they quote Professor David Attwell FRS:

“Rational thought does not just occur in the frontal lobes, and there is no evidence that touching these points can alter blood flow within the brain.”

…More of this here, where you can see all of the Brain Gym® explanations and a list of simple (but scientific) reasons why they are nonsense.

Yep, the Brain Gym® explanations are what noted educationalist the late Ted Wragg used to call, to put it in technical language, “World Class Bollocks”.

Basically, everything that comes with Brain Gym® is pseudo-babble. Even the name of Brain Gym®’s UK supplier carries the Pseudo-babble taint – step forward UK Educational Kinesiology (sic).

And would you believe it, the “UK Educational Kinesiology Trust”, actually admits on the very first page of their website that Brain Gym®’s explanations are made up:

“The UK Educational Kinesiology Trust makes no claims to understand the neuroscience of Brain Gym®. The author has advised that the simple explanations in the Brain Gym Teachers Edition about how the movements work are hypothetical and based on advice from a neurobiologist at the time the books were written.”

Hmm… “hypothetical” …“based on advice from a neurobiologist”.

Allow me to translate:

The author, when he was dreaming up all this out in Southern California, took one neurobiologist he vaguely knew out to lunch. After a good meal and a few glasses of wine, he asked: ”Can you think of any sort of hypothetical mechanism that anyone has ever suggested for how any of this stuff might work? But something that wouldn’t sounds too science-y? Sort of like any theories there are of how massage or stuff like that might work? Anything?”

Having half-remembered whatever vague hum-ing and hah-ing the anonymous neurobiologist came up with, the author then gave it a sort of New Age-y coating and… bingo:

A Global Phenomenon was born.

Which brings us to the second thing I dislike about Brain Gym®. It is A Commercial Product, and is sold to schools. The schools pay to have an “authorized Brain Gym® Trainer” come in and teach the teachers – who have almost certainly been ordered to give up their time to be there – to “use” Brain Gym®. The whole package costs.

As the Americans like to say, “Your tax money at work”

So to sum up:

What can we say for, and against, Brain Gym®?

Sort of for: the children do little exercises to break the routine of class, which might – depending on the teacher’s command of the class – be sort of helpful

Against: the explanations teachers are sold are complete and utter bollocks. Anti-science. Nonsensical explanations with no basis in reality.

Also against: someone is making money off all this. And the fact that it is being paid for will almost certainly ensure that its use is being “mandated”, and pushed. And the money that has paid for this is yours, the public’s, and could have paid for more books, or teachers, or sports equipment.

Also against: coming back to the explanations, we are mingling reality and unreality, and basically giving children the steer that there is no meaningful difference between one and the other. As Charlie Brooker puts it:

fantasy and reality [are] both …great in isolation, but, like chalk and cheese or church and state, are best kept separate.”

And if we start them with nonsense young, why are we surprised when people grow up unable to distinguish sense and nonsense?

On which topic, the last word should go to Brooker, who puts it much better than me:

“If we mistrust the real world so much that we’re prepared to fill the next generation’s heads with a load of gibbering crap about “brain buttons”, why stop there? Why not spice up maths by telling kids the number five was born in Greece and invented biscuits? Replace history lessons with screenings of the Star Wars trilogy? Teach them how to whistle in French? Let’s just issue the kids with blinkers.

Because we, the adults, don’t just gleefully pull the wool over our own eyes – we knit permanent blindfolds. We’ve decided we hate facts. Hate, hate, hate them. Everywhere you look, we’re down on our knees, gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms. From crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns – we just can’t get enough of that musky, mudlike taste. Brain Gym is just one small tile in an immense and frightening mosaic of fantasy.”

Tell it like it is, brother. And roll on the next column.

7 Responses to “Brain Gym loses its trousers (figuratively)”

  1. Frank Says:

    It’s not just BG instructors who are pushing it – many Local Authorities and even the Dept for Schools, Children & Families recommend brain gym courses as part of the continued professional development of teachers. Which is why we wrote to every single LA in the land to persuade them that BG isn’t science. Hopefully that’ll mean less tax money spent on expensive nonsense.

  2. draust Says:

    That is appalling, Frank. It does make the analogy with other “science-free parallel-reality nonsense approaches” clearer, though. Thus as with “officially sanctioned” BG for teachers, so also Hospital Trust-approved Vocational Qualifications in Homeopathy, Reiki or “Therapeutic Touch” for Nurses, and so on.

    It is the “Doublethink” of forcing teachers to buy into it that really pisses me off. At one stroke you give the dozier teachers the thumbs up to mislead themselves and the children, whilst giving the more analytically and critically minded ones the clear steer that Educational Authorities no longer care about distinguishing reality and mumbo-jumbo. Barking.

    Anyway, good job on the debunking fact sheet – nice to see eminences like David Attwell and Colin Blakemore lending their names to it,as well as the younger folk. Here’s hoping all the LEA folk and the civil servants read it and that BG disappears without trace.

    Perhaps teachers could replace it with some stretching exercises*….

    *Which might genuinely increase blood flow, though not by any of the kind of idiotic mechanisms BG implies.

  3. In-human resources, science and pizza Says:

    […] Dr Aust’s cogent comments are at “Brain Gym” loses its trousers. […]

  4. Sana Santos Says:

    I will be attending a 3-day Brain Gym training in several weeks, paid for by my school district. I have decided to design a one-unit Independent Study class based on my summer school teaching before and after the training (which falls in the middle). I promised my professor that I would also research professional critiques of this program.
    Any help??
    Thanks!

  5. draust Says:

    Hi Sana

    The best place to start is the Bad Science collection that deals with Brain Gym and the (vaguely related) Dore programme for dyslexia.

    In particular, Ben Goldacre’s original 2006 piece flaying Brain Gym, and the follow up a week later contain (among much entertaining ranting) a discussion of, and links to, any academic references that relate to Brain Gym. Basically the message is that there are no independent trials specifically of the Brain Gym programme, and the evidence the company cites is minimal, amateur-ish, wholly done or funded by them, and not published in anything remotely resembling a serious journal.

    You could also try asking Brainduck, who is a psychologist (just graduated) and has written a lot about the Dore Programme, but I see from the blog that s/he (the Duck) is off on holiday

    As I understand it the critique of Brain Gym is NOT the underlying principle that physical exercise might be of mild benefit for helping concentration, or even improving cognitive ability. The problem is that this fairly common sense idea needs to be dressed up in a whole load of utter scientific nonsense (the patented “Brain Gym” programme). And not just that: patented nonsense that is making money for someone AND requires teachers to sign up to, and pass on to the kids, a whole bunch of stuff that is laughably silly and factually incorrect – as detailed in the Sense About Science debunk job I linked to in the original post.

  6. She-Liger Says:

    [link deleted to long and rambling post denouncing Edzard Ernst on “She-Liger’s” blog]

  7. draust Says:

    To re-iterate: posts with something to say are welcome. Posts which simply add spam-style links to long tirades of personal abuse are not.

    She-Liger, if you cannot stick to this I will have to bar you altogether.

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