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Brain Gym

January 4, 2009

As a newly qualified teacher (NQT), recently promoted to head of my own academic department, I was sitting in a classroom on one of my first, official “Continuing Professional Development” (CPD) days. Along with about half a dozen others in my group, we were awaiting a session on the “Brain Gym”.

This was going to be delivered by an art teacher who had recently qualified as a Brain Gym instructor. The incongruity didn’t escape me even then – I had heard of the Brain Gym, knew it was supposed to be something vaguely related to learning activities and physiology. So I sat wondering what, one, two, three… four science teachers out of a group of six were going to make of the session.

I hoped nobody would be too critical, I quite liked the woman giving the session and was almost pitying her in advance… there were some sharp tongues in her audience.

I needn’t have bothered. None of us, and I am ashamed to admit it, not even myself, challenged one word of what was to come.

Now before I start, let me get this straight… regular exercise breaks and drinking plenty of water throughout a day of learning and other activities is “a good thing”.

But what we were told that day was complete and utter rubbish. I am not going to fully explain what Brain Gym purports to be, they do that on their web site and I really don’t want to give them any credence by perpetuating their drivel.

The detailed counter-arguments, highlighting exactly why this is drivel (and it really, really is), can be found all over the web, but the following are some excellent sites…

The Skeptic’s Dictionary -Educational kinesiology (Edu-K)
http://www.skepdic.com/braingym.html

Bad Science – Dr. Ben Goldacre’s web counterpart to his articles in The Guardian.
http://www.badscience.net/index.php?s=brain+gym

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

We heard the standard garbage about “drinking water in small mouthfuls, because if you gulp it, it isn’t absorbed by the body as well”, “holding water on your tongue so that it could be absorbed through the roof of the mouth and so more quickly to the brain.”

Arrant nonsense, all of it, and no science teacher spoke out.

We heard that “All other liquids [apart from water] are processed in the body as food, and do not serve the body’s water needs.” As a a trained biologist and previously a professional zoologist, I wondered at this point, how Kangaroo rats (genus Dipodomys), that live “independently of free water or even moist food” (Web site of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_adaptations_birds.php), ever survived. But still, I said nothing – and neither did anybody else.

Then we got on to how probing your rib cage in a particular way would “stimulate the carotid arteries” and “activate the brain for an increased flow of electromagnetic energy”.

The woman giving this session did not know where the carotid arteries were, let alone that poking your ribs was never going to get anywhere near them!

But still, we said nothing.

At one point, we were told that exercises detailed in the Brain Gym manuals would result in “increased oxidation for efficient relaxed functioning.”

If a student of mine had said that in an essay, I would have put a large cross next to it and told them that “oxidation” is what causes rusty metal and the word they were looking for was “oxygenation”. But this was being taken straight from the Brain Gym material, and the adult professional at the front of the class had been duped by people that really didn’t care.

And still, nobody stood up and said anything, or even walked out in quiet depression.

A couple of us sat giggling in the back and making jokes about it all, like the naughty schoolboys and girls we so often dealt with, but we just let it all go un-challenged.

I feel very guilty about that now. I should have stood up and said what most of us knew to be correct, that it was all a total load of garbage. But nobody wants to “rock the boat” and certainly, nobody wants to humiliate the colleague trying to do her job at the front of the class. So too many professionals let it go, and we teach our students crap.

I’d like to quote one of the best and most recent studies on the Brain Gym techniques. Unlike the studies quoted on the Brain Gym web site, which have not been peer-reviewed and are published in the organization’s own journal, this paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal as follows…

Journal of Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 28, No. 2, 117-124 (2007), written by Keith J. Hyatt of Western Washington University.

Hyatt says of one study…

the research reported in the article was conducted with elementary school students and then extrapolated to university students. The intervention consisted of students in the target school listening to Mozart during the day and participating in activities based on Brain Gym®, while students in the comparison group participated in their usual activities during the school year.

The author concluded that the intervention was successful; however, comparisons were made using only teacher ratings of students in the target school and percentages of increase in mean scores on academic tests, with no determination of whether the differences between the groups were statistically significant.

The researcher did not control for threats to validity or address issues related to reliability of measures or to treatment fidelity. The article concluded with a recommendation that university students use Brain Gym® type exercises before an examination to improve test performance but provided no credible research support for that recommendation.

Hyatt’s abstract then states as follows…

As part of the accountability movement, schools are increasingly called upon to provide interventions that are based on sound scientific research and that provide measurable outcomes for children.

Brain Gym® is a popular commercial program claiming that adherence to its regimen will result in more efficient learning in an almost miraculous manner.

However, a review of the theoretical foundations of Brain Gym® and the associated peer-reviewed research studies failed to support the contentions of the promoters of Brain Gym®.

Educators are encouraged to become informed consumers of research and to avoid implementing programming for which there is neither a credible theoretical nor a sound research basis.

Really, would you let your son or daughter take a headache tablet from a drug company that sold it’s product on the basis of shoddy testing on less than 100 people? A company that said they had good results with the drug, but hadn’t allowed other scientists to review their work before they sold the stuff?

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s close.

The UK education system is pouring many thousands of pounds into a system which is so embarrassingly foolish in it’s reasoning, it’s like, oh I don’t know, like spending £90,000 on reflexology for unruly students.

“Educators are encouraged to become informed consumers of research and to avoid implementing programming for which there is neither a credible theoretical nor a sound research basis.”

Not one of us in that room stood up and said what should have been said.

I can only apologize to the students of that school and to say in my defense, that at least I have never perpetuated the drivel by teaching it. Not much of a defense, that’s true, but I try and do a little more these days.

In closing, this is priceless, Jeremy Paxman on BBC2′s Newsnight, destroying Paul Dennison, one of the founders of Brain Gym…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2009 7:34 am

    My daughter starts school in September, and by Year 2 will be subjected to Brain Gym nonsense. As a teacher, any advice on how I can explain that teachers teach you all about the world and its wonders, except on Thursday afternoon in Brain Gym sessions? I suspect she will find a way to exploit this gap to her advantage, I just don’t know how yet…
    Keep fighting the good fight!

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