May 01 2008

Brain Gym – This Is Your Brain On Pseudoscience

I was recently asked to evaluate the claims of the Brain Gym – a system of physical movements and exercises that are purported to improve mental function. The method, referred to as “educational kinesiology,” (Edu-K) is the brainchild of Paul and Gail Dennison, who first proposed it in the 1970′s. Brain Gym is widely used in the UK, Canada, and other countries – incorporated into the public school systems. Unfortunately, Edu-K is little more than pseudoscientific wishful thinking and an example of researchers who refused to abandon their (lucrative) claims simply because they are wrong.

The official Brain Gym website claims that:

Brain Gym includes 26 easy and enjoyable targeted activities that integrate body and mind to bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in: concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination, and more.

and

We are a worldwide network dedicated to enhancing living and learning through the science of movement. For more than 30 years and in over 80 countries, we have been helping children, adults, and seniors to:

    • Learn ANYTHING faster and more easily
    • Perform better at sports
    • Be more focused and organized
    • Start and finish projects with ease
    • Overcome learning challenges
    • Reach new levels of excellence

The basic premise of Edu-K is that physical movements can improve the hardwiring and processing of the brain – beyond mere “muscle memory” and the learning of physical tasks. The kernel of truth to this (keeping in mind that the claims for Edu-K go way beyond this) is that physical activity is stimulating and does have generic biological benefits that do correlate with an improved ability to focus and concentrate. People who are physically active tend to be more mentally active as well. But this is not the premise of Edu-K.

Rather, the premise is that very specific physical movements change the brain so that it functions better, actually changing the hard wiring of the brain – improving just about any task. It is no surprise that the Dennisons formulated this idea in the 1970′s. At that time there was a theory within neuroscience called psychomotor patterning, which was in turn based upon the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This is a poetic way of saying that the development from embryo to mature adult follows the stages of the evolutionary history of an animal.

The recapitulation theory, in its hard form, has been largely discredited. Animals do not pass through the mature adult stages of their evolutionary ancestors. It is true, however, that embryological development does reveal features that are evidence of an evolutionary past. I mention this only because this topic has been part of the creation/evolution debate. It is not my intention to cover this debate here. My only point is that the strong form of the recapitulation theory has been discarded by biological science and with it the major theoretical justification for patterning theories of neurodevelopment, of which the Brain Gym is an offshoot.

Psychomotor patterning, the most direct form of this theory, claims that children who are cognitively delayed or impaired, regardless of the cause, can be improved and even cured by putting them through a rigorous program of physical exercises. These consist mostly of the child being passively moved in such a way as to mimic development stages (like crawling) in the hopes that this will coax the brain into normal development. The theory was always thin, and in addition it was widely studied in the 1970′s and found to be completely useless. Patterning therefore failed scientifically on theoretical and empirical grounds, and it was abandoned by the mainstream. It is only promoted today by it originators – Doman and Delacato – and their heirs, who are now playing the role of quacks preying upon desperate parents of cognitively impaired children.

Brain Gym and Edu-K comes out of the same tradition of the 1970′s- using physical movements to improve the brain. In the previous 3-4 decades there has been no empirical evidence to support the claims of Edu-K. This is a pattern we see in pseudosciences over and over again. Years and decades go by without the promoters of these dubious methods providing the evidence that would convince an appropriately skeptical scientific community. They have no legitimate excuses for this lack of evidence – even after years, and even after making substantial sums of money on their methods.

Brain Gym offers on their website testimonials – which any reader of this blog should recognize immediately as being worthless as definitive scientific evidence. They also offer – for a price – reprints of their own in-house studies that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals. These are about as useful as allowing pharmaceutical companies to conduct completely in-house studies, without any oversight, and published in their own newsletter without peer-review.

In order to appreciate the depth of pseudoscience here it is helpful to see Brain Gym in action and to hear the description and “explanation” of what is going on. For example, one exercise, called “hook ups” is described thusly:

[Hook-ups] shift electrical energy from the survival centers in the hindbrain to the reasoning centers in the midbrain and neocortex, thus activating hemispheric integration … the tongue pressing into the roof of the mouth stimulates the limbic system for emotional processing in concert with more refined reasoning in the frontal lobes.

This is nonsensical technobabble. This is what happens when a belief system is cut-off from reality and allowed to progress on its own – without any external validity. A few decades down the road you have a sophisticated and highly developed system of utter nonsense. The technobabble is dangerous, however, because it makes the claims sound plausible to the lay public – which is the point.

Because Brain Gym is popular in the UK, Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science blog, has been an active critic of it. In this entry on the Brain Gym he informs us:

They’re keen on drinking water. Fair enough. But why? “Processed foods,” says the Brain Gym manual, “do not contain water.” Is there water in soup? No. “All other liquids are processed in the body as food, and do not serve the body’s water needs.” This ridiculousness comes at very great cost, paid for by you, the taxpayer, in thousands of state schools. It is peddled directly to your children by their credulous and apparently moronic teachers.

Wow. Again – once you are cut off from reality there appears to be no limits to the absurdity of pseudoscience that will develop. Some animals, like the Koala bear, get most of their water from their food. They rarely drink. They would be surprised to find that they cannot get water from food. That statement – that liquids are “processed in the body as food,” does not even make any sense. It doesn’t matter how water gets into the body – it is absorbed as water. We get a substantial amount of our water from food.

Of course, it is a good idea to keep well-hydrated. And incorporating physical activity into the school day is useful, and probably improves overall performance. But these activities do not have to be wrapped in pseudoscience at great expense. Whatever non-specific benefits may come from the exercise are more than outweighed by authority figures preaching utter absurdities and false scientific information to the students.

To see the nonsense first hand, watch this video on Youtube. It also includes a great interview with Newsnight where Paul Dennison, the very creator of Brain Gym, fails to put forward even a minimally cogent defense of his claims.

It would be nice if we could improve our brain function just by pressing our “brain buttons,” but the complexities of reality rarely conspire to make life so simple and convenient. Brain Gym persists because its backers are making money, because it offers simple and pleasing solutions, and because of clever marketing. That, unfortunately, is the reality in which we live. But we can still rage against the pseudoscience machine, and savor our small victories where we can.

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13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Brain Gym – This Is Your Brain On Pseudoscience”

  1. ellazimmon 01 May 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Not only do we have to suffer under the yoke of brain gym in our public schools but we get to have “high in omega-3 oils” plastered on every packet of fish sticks. At least we haven’t got ID.

    From York, England

  2. anandamideon 01 May 2008 at 2:57 pm

    ellazimm – surely you’re aware of Vardy?

    “The Vardy Foundation, the sponsor of Emmanuel College in Gateshead, whose pupils are encouraged to doubt Darwin’s theory of evolution, will open its second school in Middlesbrough this year and is preparing to build a third in Doncaster”

    [sigh]

    And as for Brain Gym – I’m glad I managed to get over to my brother (a special needs tutor) just how utterly baseless it is. The problem is that stuff like this *sounds* scientific – how are people with qualifications in non-science subjects supposed to know it’s crap? It’s the same technique the nutritionists use – blind them with a load of words lifted from actual science, make it sound like you know what you’re talking about, and you get all the kudos without having to put any of the work in.

  3. isleson 01 May 2008 at 3:47 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. I once saw a Brain Gym presentation and rolled my eyes so hard I’m surprised they didn’t get stuck facing upwards. Not only is it a waste of money, but it misleads the kids about physiology.

  4. DevilsAdvocateon 01 May 2008 at 6:14 pm

    They are taking advantage of parents by selling them a simpler, easier way to improve the condition of their children. Whether one’s child is ‘normal’, or MR, DD, etc., you’d want improvement, of course.

    Much quackery can be reduced to essentially selling humans a simpler, easier way to help or solve a problem (letting placebo, coincidence, and faith hold off customer doubts of efficacy).

    It’s perfectly logical to seek simpler, easier solutions to problems. They need to actually work, of course.

  5. Potter1000on 01 May 2008 at 8:20 pm

    I hope my many years of regular intense masturbation has improved my brain. It’d be a real shame if it was all for nothing.

  6. Brain Gym « Brainduck’s Weblogon 02 May 2008 at 4:27 am

    [...] There’s a discussion of Brain Gym on the NeuroLogica blog, written from a neurological rather than EdPsych perspective. I found the discussion of the history [...]

  7. DevilsAdvocateon 02 May 2008 at 9:50 am

    Um, I think it was written from the ‘this doesn’t work’ perspective.

  8. psamathoson 03 May 2008 at 12:29 am

    Phew, I’m glad I found a way to shift my electrical energy to my reasoning centres. My survival centres were starting to overheat.

  9. [...] garbage / claims like chelation therapy and mercury myths that abound. I’d suggest sites like Neurologica Blog, Brain Duck, Holford Watch and of course Respectful Insolence on the topic. More recently you may [...]

  10. pseudoscienceson 28 May 2008 at 12:25 am

    [...] The method, referred to as ???educational kinesiology,??? Edu-K is the brainchild of Paul and Gaihttp://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=285Magnet Therapy, real healing or pseudoscienceLong thought of as pseudoscience, magnetic therapy has [...]

  11. huntressristichon 20 Jun 2008 at 12:12 pm

    I think the thing that make these exercises effective is probably just a combination of placebo effect and constant attention of a person working with client one on one. The gains are more from the confounding variable of personal attention than from what activity is going on, in other words.

    A scientific comparison study in which the same level of interaction occurs, but with different activites, could either prove or disprove the validity of this type of treatment plan. I imagine the people who came up with this idea don’t really want to test it. Not to mention the ethical concerns of using disabled children in a placebo group which would make it unfeasible.

  12. jgirvineon 07 Oct 2008 at 3:15 am

    Ugh… i’m a student teacher and the school I just started at uses this system. Should I say anything? I would like to pass my placement.

    Jim from Melbourne, Australia

  13. Brain Gym « The Milliganon 04 Jan 2009 at 9:58 am

    [...] Neurologica Blog – Dr. S. Novella’s excellent blog, addressing all such nonsense. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=285 [...]

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