Feb 20 2018

Superbrain Yoga is Still BS

In 2015 I wrote about a new fad called Superbrain Yoga (SBY – I suggest just reading that article for background). This one is pure pseudoscience – silly and ritualistic movements are used to increase “prana” energy (which is make-believe) and thereby increase mental energy and focus. There is, of course, no credible evidence to support such claims, and no scientific plausibility.

Even though that is an old article, a comment just appeared proclaiming: “Please do some research before you call things a hoax,” followed by four links to alleged evidence that SBY works. One of the links is dead, but the other three refer to studies published in 2016 and 2017. Since my article was written in 2015 it seems unfair to admonish me for not researching future publications.

In any case, it seemed like a good opportunity to update my article on SBY with the new research. As you might have guessed, the articles don’t show what the commenter apparently thinks they do. In fact they are excellent examples of pseudoscience, displaying many of the features I have complained about over the years.

One article looks at alpha wave activity on EEG. The second studies hyperactivity in children with ADHD. And the third looks at memory and attention in children. All three studies share a number of features which makes them less than compelling as evidence. First, they are all published in low-rent journals, such as the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge. They may have a slightly biased editorial approach over there at the IJTK. But let’s look at the studies themselves.

All three studies take a “pre-test, post-test” approach. In fact the second study describes itself as “quasiexperimental.” You might wonder what that means. None of these studies are controlled at all – there is no control group. They essentially took a group of children, tested them in some way, then did a bunch of interventions and tested them again. It is completely unsurprising that there was a difference post-test, and it is entirely established that such uncontrolled “quasiexperimental” observations are essentially useless as evidence.

There are a number of reasons we do not rely on uncontrolled observations such as this. There is an experimenter or observer effect (sometimes called the Hawthorne effect). Just being observed is likely to create a change in behavior and subjective reporting. Imagine children being told to do these special exercises by enthusiastic adults, and then tested on effort-dependent performance. You think the kids might be trying a bit harder in the post-test situation to please the adults?

Unblinded evaluators are also notoriously biased. It is incredibly easy to essentially see what you want to see.

To put the bias of the experimenters into context – in the third study they also measured “pranic energy.” What is “pranic energy?” It is a made up “subtle” energy that is supposed to improve health and mental function. There is no evidence that it actually exists, an no theory to support its existence. Yet the researchers claim in the study that they measured pranic energy “using a scale.” That is the extent of the description, which left me wanting more details. I wasn’t even sure if by “scale” they meant a physical scale, like one used to measure weight, or a scale like a numbering system. In either case, how the pranic energy is detected and quantified is not described.

Of course, if these researchers could objectively detect and quantify a new type of energy important to biological function, there are some Nobel Prizes in their future. One might argue that they are burying the lead in this study, if they are really able to do that. Alternatively, it is possible that one or more of the researchers just felt the pranic energy and proclaimed it to be whatever they wanted. This is like using a psychic to communicate with time-traveling aliens.

There is also the ever-present concern of p-hacking – subtle biases in data collection and analysis that can create a significant outcome out of noisy data. P-hacking is maximized with small studies, subjective outcomes, unblinded evaluations, and biased researchers. I think all those boxes are ticked here.

All the studies also acknowledge in their discussions  that exercise is known to have an effect on mental function. I agree Рexercise is good for the brain. So again we see the fallacy of designing a study so that a non-specific effect can be interpreted as a specific effect. In this case, the effects of exercise in general are being used to create the appearance of an effect from SBY specifically.

Taken together we have a perfect storm of pseudoscience. These studies are not designed to determine if SBY is a real thing with a real effect. They are designed to create the false impression that something is happening with SBY, via observer effects and other non-specific effects, such as from exercise in general. They are small, observational, not blinded or controlled in any way, make free-wheeling claims about magical energy, and are published in fringe journals.

But apparently they had their intended effect, which was not to do actual science but to create the veneer of science. That is what pseudoscience is all about. At least this one commenter was sufficiently bedazzled by this crap science to think it countered my thorough analysis of why super-brain yoga is entirely BS.

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