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Brain Gym

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Brain Gym is a "training program" offered to people, and most often, schoolchildren as a means to boost concentration, memory and intelligence.[1] Most of what the Brain Gym program offers is textbook woo and bullshit. All peer-reviewed studies into its efficacy have come up negative.[2] It was notably given an entire chapter in Ben Goldacre's Bad Science book.

Claims[edit]

Brain Gym attempts to link mental activity with physical activity. This claim does have some sense behind it, as the brain is an organ of the body and isn't immune or isolated from the physical state of the rest of the body. However, Brain Gym attempts to codify this relationship into particular exercises that have a specific claimed effect. Central to Brain Gym is the idea that mental defects are the result of co-ordination issues between three dimensions of the brain, left-right, front-back and top-bottom — named in the Brain Gym lingo as "laterality," "focus," and "centering," respectively. Most neurological research, as well as common anatomical observations of the body do not support the mental model used by Brain Gym or its claims on how this "co-ordination" affects learning and mental agility.

Based on the Brain Gym model of the brain and learning, the program includes various exercises that are claimed to get the brain functioning, although the lack of evidence for even the basic principles leads to the immediate conclusion of a placebo effect. Special movements of the arms and massaging "brain buttons" on the body are claimed to increase mental attributes like memory ability. In the woo words of the Brain Gym manual, the exercise "activates the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information," which with its complex sentence structure and larger-than-necessary words could easily trick an unsuspecting person into thinking it was in some way scientific. Further claims along these lines include massages that stimulate blood vessels, namely the carotid artery, leading media critic Ben Goldacre to wonder how such a feat was possible "Through your ribcage. Without using scissors."

The program also places a lot of emphasis on water and good hydration of the body, although again the claims jump from applied sense to assertions that are, for lack of a better term, outright lies. At one point, the programme claims that holding water on the roof of your mouth directly hydrates the brain. Needless to say, this is impossible (there is a good layer of cartilage between the brain and the mouth, and the skin there, like all skin, is pretty much waterproof, and even if you did somehow get water into your brain, having a sudden increase in water in your skull is a bad thing). The Brain Gym program also maintains that "processed" foods do not contain water (or "are processed by the body as food, not water" depending on who you ask) and so don't serve the body's water needs. This is patently false, unless the processing includes thorough dehydration. This view is often repeated in many woo based diet schemes as it plays on people's perceived dichotomy between liquid and solid nutrients. In truth, anything containing water will be processed as water, and indeed most of the body's water needs throughout the day are met by what people would consider solid, or dry food. This is a well known claim amongst those who refute bottled water claims about needing "six litres of water per day".

Common sense[edit]

Like most woo, Brain Gym does contain good and relevant advice; it advocates exercise and regular breaks in the classroom, for example. This is very good advice and has been shown to work very well; breaks and exercises are advocated and taught by many experienced teachers and lecturers.

However, most of this is common sense and common knowledge, and importantly you can't sell common sense. Therefore, it is marketed by taking good ideas, mixing them with supposed therapeutic techniques to increase its flashiness and adding a good dollop of pseudoscientific claims to get it to sell well. This is essentially the equivalent of telling a frustrated computer user to "straighten out the cables behind you monitor so the "1" characters in the binary code don't get stuck" as a reassuring lie that makes them feel as if they're doing something productive, when really it's the turning-it-off-and-on-again that does the trick. It has been shown in some neuroscience studies that people are more likely to believe "dressed up" explanations, and Brain Gym is one of the better examples of this in action.

Published criticism[edit]

In an article published in Nature, Professor Usha Goswami of Cambridge University's Centre for Neuroscience in Education was highly critical of Brain Gym and other programs that relied on what she refers to as "neuromyths". Goswani attributes any successes of these programs to the placebo effect and concludes that while teachers are interested to see what neuroscience can do for teaching, it is far from in the position to offer proper advice on the subject.[3] In the Sense About Science briefing document on Brain Gym, thirteen British scientists responded to claims and assertions made by the program, looking into all peer reviewed and controlled studies on its efficacy. While they admitted that the studies were few in number, the evidence was sufficient to reject Brain Gym's claims as a valid part of science or an effective method of mental stimulation.

References[edit]