May 01 2008
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.
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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