BrainGym® – Success without Science!

Sorry, believers. I apologize in advance, because I know that people who are sold on BrainGym® can become quite upset when it’s criticized. After all, it works! And there’s research!

But what is really working? We don’t know, because there is no peer-reviewed scientific research supporting the theories.

Founder Paul Dennison makes claims for how and why BrainGym® “works,” but backs away from supporting those claims by saying, “We’ll leave the explanations to the experts.” (You can hear this for yourself in a video further down.)

My favorite: The absence of control groups in the “studies” is explained away on moral grounds: It would be wrong to withhold the benefits of BrainGym® from any of the children.

What’s needed is a double-blind study, with good sample size, that specifically isolates the BrainGym exercises as variables (having a control group perform other carefully-defined exercises). Current research is a long, long way from that.

Is there a neuroscientist in the house?

A leading critic of BrainGym® is Dr. Ben Goldacre, a British physician who has been pointing out “Bad Science” for over a decade in his blog, column in the Guardian, and best-selling books. I’ve linked to several of his columns in Part I of this topic, but I want to highlight his series of articles on BrainGym.® (It might have been a shorter series if not for the backlash he received at the outset.)

Lest you dismiss Goldacre as a cynic with an ax to grind (and books to sell), know that he isn’t alone in his views.

•  Guardian columnist Phillip Beagle backs him up with, “Keep your pupils stretched and watered.”
•  Tracing it to its roots in the old Psychomotor Patterning described above, further discredits the studies purported to support BrainGym®’s claims.
•  Sara Bernard urges using standards of proof in “Neuro Myths: Separating Fact and Fiction in Brain-Based Learning” on Edutopia.
•  (Bernard quotes Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, dismissing the term “brain-based learning” wryly: “As if it were kidney-based learning last year, and now it’s brain based.”).
•  In Brain Gym Makes Me Sad, educator David Colarusso blogs about dipping his toe into BrainGym. “We shouldn’t have teachers teaching students the scientific method in one lesson then spouting pseudoscience in the next,” he says.
•  Award for the cleverest title goes to: Got a brain, Jim? Then you don’t need Brain Gym!
•  Australian neuroscientists criticized Brain Gym® early this year.
•  Also from this year is an overview in Rational Wiki.
•  For a dose of truth (including about the “crossing the midline” claims) read “Ask a Neuroscientist: How to Train Your Brain” on Standford Neuroblog by Erica Seigneur.

Specifically . . . 

Perhaps the cleanest refutation of Brain Gym®’s claims comes from Sense About Science. Here you can read neuroscientists’ responses to specific myths. For example:

According to Brain Gym:
“The student lightly touches the

[Positive points] about each eye with the fingertips of each hand…halfway between the hairline and the eyebrows. The Positive Points bring blood flow from the hypothalamus to the frontal lobes, where rational thought occurs.”
Scientist’s Response:
“Rational Thought does not just occur in the frontal lobes, and there is no evidence that touching these points can alter blood flow within the brain. – Prof. David Attwell, neuroscientist

According to Brain Gym:
“Centering is the ability to cross the midline between the upper and lower body and the corresponding upper and lower brain functions: the midbrain (emotional content) and cerebrum (abstract thought). Nothing can be truly learned without feeling and a sense of meaningfulness.”
Scientist’s Response:
“The idea of symmetry between brain and body does not hold true. The top of the body doesn’t match up with the top of the brain, and so on. Also, the midbrain isn’t the seat of emotional content. Emotional content is processed all over the brain, including the cerebrum and the amygdala.” – Dr. Spencer LaVere Smith, neuroscientist

Take a closer look – on video.

When BrainGym® made its way to public schools in England, it met with resistance from many taxpayers. This Newsnight broadcast from 2008 is now a must-see classic:

Part One:
“Brain Buttons are particularly—well, shall we say, amusing,” scoffs neuroscientist Prof. Colin Blakesmore, a professor at Oxford. ”A bit like trying to regulate your central heating system by pressing on the wall of your house because the pipes are behind there.”

Part Two:
Paul Dennison attempts to answer basic questions, and it’s somewhat painful to watch. Interviewer Jeremy Paxman dryly poses such questions as, “Is the fact that you’re not medically qualified explanation enough for statements in this teacher’s manual of the kind that, ‘Processed foods do not contain water,’ which you know is arrant nonsense?”

It’s not going away. It’s growing.

Despite facts, you can’t walk into an elementary school these days without tripping over a brain body mind movement pseudoscientific commercial product of some sort. Some say it “works” and does no harm, so why not?

Here’s why not: it teaches children an untruth. Pseudoscience shouldn’t be practiced in schools for the same reason voodoo shouldn’t be practiced in schools. Even if no one gets hurt, even if it’s just a colossal waste of time and money, facts ought to be valued in schools.

Where money is made, new ventures crop up to reap the rewards. I’ll take a quick look at one of them, and wrap it up, in Part III.