Saturday March 25, 2006
Nothing prepared me for the outpouring of jaw-dropping stupidity that vomited forth from teachers when I wrote about Brain Gym last week. To recap: Brain Gym is an incredibly popular technique, in at least hundreds of British state schools, promoted all over government websites, and with a scientific explanatory framework that is barkingly out to lunch.
They teach that there is no water in processed food. They teach that rubbing your ribcage will stimulate the carotid arteries beneath and increase blood to the brain and “activate the brain for an increased flow of electromagnetic energy”. But let’s not leave it with a recap. They promote strange physical origami exercises called “hook-ups” where you press your fingers against each other in odd patterns, because these “connect the electrical circuits in the body, containing and thus focusing both attention and disorganised energy”, as they say in the Brain Gym teaching manual.
They teach a funny way of wiggling your ears with your fingers that “stimulates the reticular formation of the brain to tune out distracting, irrelevant sounds and tune into language”. They teach that rocking your head back and forth will get more blood to your frontal lobes “for greater comprehension and rational thinking”. This stuff is bonkers.
I could go on. In fact, I will, because so many teachers have written in to defend it. They teach that a special theatrical yawn will lead to “increased oxidation for efficient relaxed functioning”. Oxidation is what causes rusting. It is not the same as oxygenation, which I suppose is what they’re getting at, and even if they are talking about oxygenation, you don’t need to do a funny yawn to get oxygen into your blood: like most other animals children have a perfectly adequate and utterly fascinating physiological system in place to regulate their blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and I’m sure many children would rather be taught about that, and indeed about the role of electricity in the body, or any of the other things Brain Gym confusedly jumbles up, than this transparent pseudoscientific nonsense.
Now to my mind, this is classic Bad Science, and a perfect parallel to the rubbish peddled by self-appointed “nutrition science” experts. The advice they are offering is sensible: “take an exercise break to help you concentrate” (or “eat some vegetables”, in the case of the food voodooists). But in stark contrast, the science they use to justify this so often seems to be bogus, empty PR, that promotes basic scientific misunderstandings, and most of all is completely superfluous in every sense except the commercial: because the ropey promotional “science” is the cornerstone of their commercial operation, they need it to promote themselves as experts selling a product that is unique and distinct from the obvious, sensible diet and exercise advice that you can’t copyright.
So I attacked the stupid underlying science of Brain Gym – I even said I actively agree with exercise breaks – and in return I got a whole load of angry, abusive emails from teachers defending exercise breaks. It was exactly the same when I took a pop at awful poo lady Dr Gillian McKeith PhD for saying that seeds contain all the nutritional energy necessary to make a fully grown plant, and that eating chlorophyll would oxygenate your blood. It’s simple: vegetables good, McKeith bad.
Many were “disgusted” by my attack on what they felt were helpful exercises. An assistant head, no less, asked: “From what I can gather you have visited no classrooms, interviewed no teachers nor questioned any children, let alone had a conversation with any of a number of specialists in this field?” This confusion is a not a failure of scientific understanding: this is about basic critical reading skills. If you attack bonkers PR science behind sensible advice, are you attacking sensible advice? No. Is it necessary to tell falsehoods about science to get people to follow sensible advice? No. Do I need to visit a classroom to find out if there is water in processed food? No, I don’t.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s an entertaining response from a Brain Gym person at the Times Educational Supplement here: