It’s bad enough when silly ideas are made marketable. It’s worse when smart people buy into them. And it’s worst of all when many, many people buy into them.
Years ago, a teacher observed one of my classes and remarked enthusiastically that I’d had my students “cross the midline.” When she explained that moving a limb across the opposite side of the body did something special within the brain, I just accepted it with an “Oh. Cool.”
There’s no question most children are unnaturally sedentary today, and spend too many hours indoors looking at screens of one kind or another. They need movement. Rather than simply allowing children to spend more time in active, outdoor play, schools are re-discovering movement as a phenomenon within the classroom. Adding bits of movement here and there, now and then, have demonstrated that – surprise! – when children move, even for a few minutes, they tend to function better.
This isn’t magic, nor is it new. We’ve known about blood circulation and oxygen for some time now. Taking breaks to move, stretch, breathe, get some water is nothing new, either. (Adults call these ‘coffee breaks.’) For today’s classroom teachers, injecting a little movement into the day can have seemingly miraculous results because – surprise again! – the brain and body aren’t separate.
Neuroscience has much to teach educators about how the brain functions. But it’s important to listen to the scientists before getting in line to buy a commercial product. Pseudoscience sells.
Debunked theories die hard.
Even after ideas have been refuted by science, they do have a way of hanging around… Psychomotor Patterning, developed by Glenn Doman and C. Delacato in the 1960s, held that children’s physical skill development mirrors evolution, and directly affects intellect. So getting children to crawl, for instance – even if an adult is manipulating the limbs – was thought to overcome brain injury and mental retardation. By the 1970s, science concluded it was wrong.
Wynfred Dore, a millionaire paint entrepreneur, drew upon (or hijacked) research by Dr. Harold Levinson to build a new business. From Levinson’s ideas about the inner ear’s relationship to dyslexia, Dore asserted that his own special exercises were a new “miracle cure” for dyslexia. Flawed studies and grand claims met with loud repudiation from scientists. At one point, Dore’s marketing materials touted “NASA space technology and exercises.” This drew so much attention, NASA actually had to put out a statement on the matter (“To the best of our knowledge, NASA is not funding or engaging in research concerning dyslexia…”). The British Dore centers shut down, but the business is still around.
It’s not snake oil. It’s fish oil.
Based on little or no evidence, people have been brushing children for sensory integration, giving them fish oil for academic performance, and having them sit on balls for ADHD (from a “study” of three – count ‘em – three kids).
In the American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience, authors Chancellor and Chatterjee give a scientific explanation for the marketing success of such products and ideas. Their article, Brain Branding: When Neuroscience and Commerce Collide, identifies three factors influencing people to buy: “the allure of neuroscience, the power of images, and the potential vulnerability of patients.”
How to launch your own Brain-Body Business.
- Choose a product to sell. (Random example: I see a bottle of hand lotion beside my kitchen sink, to which I could add something in my cupboard — hmmm… a dash of extremely old ground ginger and some salt. There. You could create special socks with thorns and marbles in them, build a 3-legged desk, mix an MP3 of unusual sounds.. you get the idea.)
- Create a special way to use your product. (For my adulterated lotion, this could involve applying it by tracing one’s lifelines, while chanting something.)
- Name your method any combination of “Mind,” “Brain,” or “Body.” (I’ll go with, “Brain-Body Balancing Balm.”)
- Make up a scientific-sounding rationale for its effectiveness. (“Ginger stimulates the olfactory system which is connected to the area of the brain responsible for cognition, while salt allows the ginger to penetrate the skin for absorption by the body while boosting hydration…” Whatever.) Pictures are good, too.
- Test it in the field:
A. Tell children that the product is part of a special scientific program that will help them concentrate, think more clearly and learn faster.
B. Have the control group sit at desks, doing nothing in particular. Meanwhile, your study group actively uses your invention as directed. (The Brain-Body Balancing Balm’s directions, after lifelines and chanting, could involve performing special exercises – a hopping movement followed by rolling on the floor, ending with calm breathing, inhaling the aroma of stale ginger powder.)
C. Tell the children they look much calmer. Ask them if they feel calmer, while nodding your head in the affirmative. Tell them they did a great job, and you can’t wait to see how this changes their handwriting and math.
D. Discover that they’ve improved, especially compared to the control group, who are falling asleep. Congratulations – your invention is now “Research-Based!!”
How it works: People believe things they want to believe. The teacher passes her positive expectations on to the students. They get exercise, deep breathing, positive reinforcement, and a placebo effect. It probably won’t last long, so it will have to be repeated — this is accomplished by building levels of “progress.”
It’s even quicker and easier if you leave out the scientific explanation. Say instead that you’ll leave the explanations to the experts. That will bring us to Part II next time: Brain Gym®.