Squabbles In Class

March 25th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brain gym | 166 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday March 25, 2006
The Guardian

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.

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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.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@goldacre.net

There’s an entertaining response from a Brain Gym person at the Times Educational Supplement here:


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166 Responses

  1. Hatter said,

    April 4, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    CB I’d say it is quite common to perform some repetitive physical activity when trying to figure out a problem. Some people pace, some throw a tennis ball against the wall, others play with their pens, etc.

  2. Hatter said,

    April 4, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Heavy metal and punk made me a genius. Then I got hooked on easy listening and it has been downhill from there.

  3. Hatter said,

    April 4, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Children don’t need to be told to drink fluids. They’ll do just fine having a drink only during the official breaks. If you’re worried they might need something to drink before the next official break you can keep a jug of water on hand and let them know it is there if they require it, but you still do not have to instruct them when to drink for fear they might dry out and blow away.

    A pint and a half of beer is not a binge. Drinking until you are physically incapable of ingesting any further alcohol, now that is a binge. A drinking binge has been conveniently defined in such a way as to turn almost every alcohol user into a binge drinker and fabricate an epidemic.

    Sports drinks and fruit juices are not going to rot your teeth. Unless you don’t swallow. Children’s teeth might be slightly more susceptible, but when it comes to baby teeth they’re hardly worth fussing about, and protecting their permanent teeth requires nothing more than having them brush their teeth before going to bed.

    I’ve read conflicting things about the dehydrating properties of caffeine. I

    You don’t notice your thirst while playing a sport because you’re focussed on the activity at hand. You’ll certainly notice it at half-time. When running I actively suppress it until I reach a refreshment point.

  4. Melissa said,

    April 4, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    “Sports drinks and fruit juices are not going to rot your teeth. Unless you don’t swallow. Children’s teeth might be slightly more susceptible”

    Personally I’m more worried about childhood obesity than tooth decay.

  5. AJH said,

    April 4, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    “Although it doesn’t really bother me if one more person thinks I’m nuts, please read comment #126 Alan Harrison ”

    noted. And I’ve now read more of your posts both here and in another place (TES) and you must be careful to quote your quotes. Regards.

    Still, “neurological flow” anyone?

  6. BT said,

    April 5, 2006 at 7:06 pm

    Re thirst and overhydrating (following on from what Hatter said in 156):
    There’s an Australian pseudo-science-buster called Karl Kruszelnicki (aka Dr Karl). (Among other things, he’s a regular guest on the national youth broadcaster, JJJ, so you can read more about him here: www.abc.net.au/triplej/people/dr_karl.htm. You can also listen from wherever you are, as they stream live AND provide timeshiftable downloads/streams of a lot of their programs, including his guest slot. People call up and he tries to answer their questions – this sometimes actually results in a little not-quite-right-science, but he always says if he isn’t sure, and asks for contributions – and/or does some research in the following week himself.)
    Over the past couple of years, he’s done some investigation into overhydrating. It’s actually quite easy to do. The usual suggestion of “8 glasses a day” is really something of a maximum – if you simply drink when you’re thirsty, you’re generally going to be ok.
    It should also be noted that there was a very famous ecstasy death in Australia back in 1994 – a 16 yr old girl (Anna Wood) died because she drank too much water. I was just a bit younger at the time, and it was one of those big “this could happen to you stories”, so I remember it pretty well! Apparently, she’d been told that you had to make sure you drank lots of water when on ecstasy, and she overhydrated and died. Yes, your thirst reflex is a little wonky on ecstasy, this is why most people will pipe up with the advice given to Anna Wood (especially if you’re going to be sweating a lot!), but it can work both ways (unfortunately). I think there was a similar case in the UK a couple of years ago.
    Finally (I think this is from Dr Karl originally, but apologies if it’s not) – in recent years, there have apparently been more long-distance runners collapsing during/after races as a result of over-hydration than with dehydration. This is precisely because everyone is oh-so-aware of the potential problems with dehydration, and there is a lot of overcompensation going on (especially among the ranks of fun-runners – ie those without proper coaches etc – not sure if the same applies to the pros).

  7. JQH said,

    April 10, 2006 at 10:10 am

    stever (posting 148)

    Thanks for that link. Heath is unbelievable – he is now admitting that there are a “few minor errors” in the Brain Gym teachers’ manual but fails to explain why they were put there in the first place or why BG trainers make such use of these errors in their sales patter.

    He hides behind vague references to neuroscience research but fails to say which research shows that BrainGym produces better results than ordinary exercise breaks. I even left a posting requesting this info last week but it hasn’t appeared yet. You’d think he would have it to hand wouldn’t you?

    Incidently, have you noticed how huffy he gets about criticism? As one of the other posters said, it looks like he wants believers not enquirers. That, and BrainGym’s claims to secret knowledge that only their approved instructors can pass on makes it seem more like a cult.



  8. JQH said,

    May 8, 2006 at 9:20 am

    Just had another look at the TES website. Heath still hasn’t come up with the evidence that Brain Gym works any better than ordinary excercise.

    We can draw our own conclusions from this.

  9. barb said,

    July 27, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    Consider, once again, the following paragraph written by a “luminary” of Brain Gym and appearing in post 122:

    “I have seen miraculous improvement in both children and adults who have used Brain Gym. In fact, three children with whom I’ve worked have gone from blindness to sight. One child began to walk independently at age five and, now seven and a half, has never returned to his wheelchair. A nine year old boy diagnosed as autistic who previously used two words to express himself began using functional speech after just three months of using Brain Gym. One five-year-old boy who was having intense and frequent seizures (about three times a week) decreased his seizure activity to twice a month, and the intensity was also significantly diminished.”

    So what we have from a licensed Brain Gym Instructor, someone who advertises herself as an international authority and world-wide consultant, is the claim that Brain Gym exercises help blind children see, crippled children walk, and autistic children speak. Of course, when asked to supply scientific documentation for these incredible claims, she has nothing to offer beyond her own observation and anecdotes. In short, she says these things happens; therefore, we are supposed to believe her. So too are the parents of blind, crippled, and autistic children. As one who counsels parents of children with disabilities, I am hard-pressed to think of anything more unprofessional, ill-advised, and potentially destructive.

    Readers should also know that the same Brain Gym luminary referred to above is also a practitioner and advocate of the Gentle Winds Project, a group in Maine who advocate wearing healing devices to cure a wide range of human ailments. They tell us that these devices (charts one hangs on the wall and objects that resemble hockey pucks) have been received from the spirit world and therefore exactly how they work cannot be understood by anyone currently on earth. The State of Maine has sued them, and one can only hope they will be put out of business.

    Those who wish to extol the benefits of Brain Gym are certainly free to continue doing so. One would hope, however, that sometime, during a lucid moment, they would recognize the possibility of looking like, sounding like, and walking like a duck.

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 17, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    lots of people have asked about DDAT and DORE, here is a useful article I was sent:

    If you trawl around the Dore sites you will find some appalling stuff
    written by that potential Nobel prizewinner, Toyah Wilcox. There is also
    guff about Leo Sayer. Here is a 2004 article from the Times Ed. How are you
    getting on?
    A remedy without rigour?

    Karen Gold
    Published: 02 July 2004

    A new approach to dyslexia is gaining credibility worldwide, but some
    academics believe it is based on false premises. Karen Gold reports
    Here is a paper that is just about to be given to the British Dyslexia
    Association,” said an email sent to the TES news desk. The message, from
    David Reynolds, Exeter university professor and author of the paper,
    continued: “It suggests that a cure for dyslexia may have been found, and I
    am absolutely certain of my data.”

    That paper and others by Professor Reynolds have helped to boost a
    multi-million pound expansion of a new treatment for dyslexia. It is an
    approach that was unheard of five years ago but is now sweeping across
    Britain, the United States and Australia. But it is also being pursued by
    academics who question what, if any, curative effect it has.

    The expansion of dyslexia, dyspraxia attention deficit treatment (DDAT)
    dates from its appraisal by broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald on prime-time
    ITV1 in 2002. Sir Trevor called it a “revolutionary breakthrough in the
    treatment of dyslexia”.

    But that view was not shared by the Independent Television Commission, which
    said the claims were “not sustainable”, a judgment it repeated about a later
    item on DDAT on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy.

    Some 275,000 viewers asked for more details about DDAT after the ITV1
    broadcast. DDAT websites claim it was a turning point in the treatment’s
    reputation. They also emphasise and reproduce Professor Reynolds’

    “independent studiesI (which) show remarkable progress in reading,
    comprehension, writing, social skills, self-esteem and co-ordination”.

    DDAT is based on the hypothesis that the cause of dyslexia is a fault in the
    area of the brain which controls balance and muscle movement: the
    cerebellum. It suggests that by stimulating the cerebellum with exercises,
    new neural connections will be formed and the brain will perform better in
    all activities, including reading and writing.

    The theoretical jump from deficit to treatment is a controversial one and
    the only way to test it is on those with dyslexia. But it is not a new jump:
    other exercise-based programmes have claimed success for some years in the
    UK, the US and Sweden.

    Professor Reynolds claims to have proven DDAT’s success in a single
    experiment, described in four papers spread over two years.

    The experiment took place at Balsall Common primary school in Solihull in
    2001. The school’s weakest readers – 35 pupils from Years 3, 4 and 5 – were
    given a well-known dyslexia “risk test” designed by Rod Nicolson, professor
    of psychology at Sheffield university.

    Professor Nicolson, who for several years has been a paid consultant for
    DDAT’s founder, the millionaire Wynford Dore, worked with Professor Reynolds
    on the analysis of the Balsall Common results. Professor Reynolds, formerly
    a paid director of another Dore company, told The TES that he now has “no
    financial connection of any kind with Wynford Dore”.

    Initially, half of the 35 Balsall Common pupils received the DDAT treatment,
    in which exercises are done at home in twice-daily, 10-minute sessions using
    equipment that includes a balance board and beanbags.

    Six months later, the other half of the pupils did the same. The risk rating
    for each child was retested every six months over the following 18 months.
    Reading and annual national curriculum test results were also compared.

    Professors Reynolds and Nicolson say the results were very encouraging. Not
    only did children’s bead-threading and balance skills improve (not
    surprising, since they had practised those skills) but their literacy
    skills, which were not being directly exercised, also improved.

    The papers said children’s dyslexia risk fell substantially, particularly
    for those whose risk was higher originally. They also claimed that pupils’

    reading skills improved in the dyslexia test, that their reading progress
    accelerated to near-normal and that their standardised and national
    curriculum tests in reading, writing and comprehension showed big

    Professor Nicolson called the results “highly encouraging”. They might, said
    Professor Reynolds, “bring us very close to a cure”.

    But critics challenge the experimental basis of DDAT and say it is flawed.

    In an acrimonious exchange of papers, mostly published in the British
    Dyslexia Association’s journal Dyslexia, most of Britain’s foremost
    academics have argued that the Balsall Common results prove nothing at all.

    They argue that the design and analysis of the experiment were so
    unscientific that the findings are unreliable.

    Professor John Rack, head of research and assessment at the Dyslexia
    Institute, says: “I don’t think they are seeking to disprove a hypothesis.

    They seem to me to be just seeking further evidence to prove what they
    already believe.”

    DDAT’s critics make the following points:

    * The Balsall Common children were not dyslexic. Their scores on the
    Nicolson “risk test” ranged from “mild” and “moderate” to “severe”. Some
    lagged only a few months behind their expected reading ages; some were even
    ahead of them. In this case, some academics argue that these pupils cannot
    reliably be used to test a treatment for dyslexia.

    * The experiment was not a “fair test”. No one checked whether all the
    children did the exercises in the same way. There was no control group being
    given an alternative or placebo treatment to make sure that improvements in
    the treated group were not simply due to maturation, getting extra help at
    school or being given special attention and encouragement.

    * While 35 pupils began the experiment, as children left the school the
    number fell to 29. By the time of the final test results on which claims of
    success hang, the number of pupils had dropped to 22. Even 35 would not be a
    reliable number, says Carol Fitz-gibbon, emeritus professor at Durham
    university. She says the sample group was “disgracefully small”.

    * For such robust claims to be justified, children would need to be tested
    before and after the experiment – with the same test and by a tester unknown
    to them. Teachers are notorious for giving pupils the benefit of the doubt.

    Most of the “proof” of pupils’ improvement in the Reynolds papers is based
    on standardised reading-test scores marked and administered by Balsall
    Common teachers. The scores were taken from what the papers called Sats but
    which were in fact optional tests published by the Qualifications and
    Curriculum Authority and which inevitably varied from year to year.

    But Professor Nicolson argues that these criticisms are unfair. He says:

    “People have misinterpreted what was said. They were saying it should have
    been a clinical-type trial, whereas we were clear it wasn’t a clinical-type
    trial. It was a value-added study.”

    Professor Reynolds believes the dyslexia establishment has ignored real
    results. “All treatments involve some kind of expectancy effect,” he says.

    “But if you look at the Balsall Common Sats results and the reading test,
    the treatment seems to offer more.

    “Even in 2002/3, where no treatment is happening, these children still carry
    on improving more than their peers.”

    Other academics argue that strict laws control the testing of any drug
    claiming to be a cure before it is allowed on the market. That protocol
    includes replication: one experiment with one set of results is not enough.

    Several bodies, including the Dyslexia Institute, have recommended that the
    exercises in DDAT be shared so that they can be tested objectively in a
    clinical-type trial with proper sample quality and control groups.

    Professor Rack says: “What we need is a controlled study, then we could give
    some sensible advice to teachers and parents,” He and others say that when
    they have asked for details of its exercises, DDAT has refused to release
    them on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”.

    Meanwhile more and more parents are lobbying local education authorities to
    pay for DDAT treatment, says Professor Margaret Snowling of York university.

    She believes that many parents are desperate and are being offered false

    “Dyslexia is hard to treat,” she says. “It’s a real struggle. I find it
    unbelievable that anyone thinks this is something which can be generalised
    to children who have very serious disorders.”


    Since the first DDAT clinic opened in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, in 2000,
    seven more have been launched in the UK – in Fulham, Cardiff, Southampton,
    Edinburgh, Sheffield, Manchester and Bedford.

    There are five centres in the US and two in Australia, and more are expected
    to follow in Canada and New Zealand this year.

    Some 17,000 adults and children have been treated so far, 90 per cent of
    them successfully, according to DDAT. Each pays fees of around £1,500.

    DDAT’s founder is Wynford Dore, a millionaire businessman who left school at
    14 and whose dyslexic daughter attempted suicide. None of the companies –
    British, American or Australian – has made a profit, says Mr Dore. He adds:
    “I have poured millions into this. This is not a money-making business. I am
    desperate to stop another generation suffering as my daughter did.”

    Mr Dore refused to provide details of his firms’ turnover to The TES. Proof
    of DDAT’s efficacy comes not only from the Reynolds and Nicolson research,
    which he says is “totally independent”, but also from “lots of studies”.

    He adds: “Many confidential, independent studies by local education
    authorities are going on. We have an army of wonderful medical researchers
    working on this.”

    He believes pique is behind the dyslexia establishment’s criticism. “The
    fact that some professors don’t like this research doesn’t make it
    unscientific,” he says. “I have pleaded with the Dyslexia Institute and the
    British Dyslexia Association to do research. I have never put restrictions
    on them. We are getting amazing results that will stand up to any scrutiny.”

  11. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 30, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    they just keep coming:

    Hi Ben

    Unbelievable – I was made to do brain gym!

    I went to a Yr 2 parents evening last week at my daughter’s school and the teachers made us all to stand up and do some brain gym!

    Apparently, if you put your fingers on your jawbones and open them really wide, it makes your brain more ready to learn!

    Then, we had to point our hands right in front of us, and move our arms across to the other side of our body – this, apparently, helps to connect the two parts of your brain together and make you more able to concentrate and learn better.

    I can’t believe the school is peddling this sort of dodgy stuff. The head is even a science graduate. When I took your original article to the deputy head last March, she said: “Well.. he’s not exactly disagreeing with it!” and simply filed it away. What more can I do to stop my daughter being brain-washed like this? Is there anything you can do to put this into the news pages so it will be seen more? I’m a parent governor and should be able to do something but I know I am up against a load of alternative health anti-MMR Gillian McKeith-loving Daily Mail-reading parents and staff!

    As much as I would love to name and shame the school, I better not. But I will tell you that it’s in South-East London.

    Keep up the good work.

  12. Isla said,

    October 17, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve just been to a session at my local primary school entitled ‘Helping Your Children Learn’. Lets learn about this fantastic new tool in schools – Brain Gym… a session of touching your nose and ears and the same time then took place which then followed by the Durham fish oils ‘trial’ . Oh, and lots of Powerpoint pictures of ‘a brain cell’.

    Waste of time! Never mind the tea and biscuit was nice.

  13. loki said,

    December 26, 2006 at 2:28 am

    Hi everyone. Discovered the conversations regarding Brain Gym today.

    I’m a Science teacher in Australia and I use Brain Gym in my classes.

    Now, now……before you all get overly excited, you need to remember that, first and foremost, Brain Gym claims to be “Edu-K” or kinesiology applied to education.

    And that’s exactly what it is! K-I-N-E-S-I-O-L-O-G-Y. Kinesiologists claim that their interest is in the scientific study of human movement. I don’t think there is anything really scientific about it. Alot of the Brain Gym babble refers to strange little snippets of information that do not seem to be backed up by any research, as you’ve all been pointing out.

    I use brain gym with my students because I have found that it:
    * allows them to settle at the start of the lesson (3 minutes of PACE)
    * gives them something to do in the transition between activities
    * provides students with a focus point before having to listen for an extended period of time (attention spans being what they are these days)
    * does seem to shift kids to the “learning time” mindset, rather than “play time” mindset.

    I don’t go into any real discussion of the purpose of the activities or how they are purported to work. If students ask, I tell them that “some people think………but I haven’t seen any real evidence of that.”

    Most students enjoy the movements, especially 12, 13 and 14 year olds. Older kids often refuse to participate – and that’s fine too.

    It is absolutely insane to present the Brain Gym movements as gospel or well-researched whole-brain learning truth. Unfortunately, this is what’s happening. Teachers are attending courses (between 1 and 4 days), being blown away by what they learn and taking this information back to schools, acting as though they are now learning and neuroscience experts.

    I was impressed with my brain gym course facilitator. She presented none of the nonsense that I’ve heard others have been saying. It was just straight down the line.

    What I have found is that my students are better able to focus on the learning experiences I have prepared for them AFTER engaging in the brain gym movements and/or pace. And if that helps them with their learning, I don’t really care about the lack of information coming from Brain Gym. The reason they can’t pass it on is obvious – they don’t really have it.

    Don’t take it for more than it is (even though it claims to be more). It’s a series of movements which will help some individuals, at some stages in their lives, to focus their minds on some things that others feel are important.

    Nothing more. Nothing less.

  14. Calibre said,

    February 15, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    “a lack of water in the body can be the root cause of many painful degenerative diseases”

    Human body – about seventy percent water, no?

    Human body, lacking water… pile of dust, bone, &c, no?

    Gotta be painful. Should be a charity for that. Help the Dusties.

  15. Subaru said,

    July 14, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Does anyone know anything about the Arrowsmith program developed by Barbara Arrowsmith Young? It’s supposed to be based on the theory of neuroplasticity to retrain the brain and get rid of learning disabilities. Anyone want to get their “science” teeth into it?

  16. mpn said,

    October 5, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Spot on about brain gym, just one of the plethora of ridiculous initiatives we teachers have to put up with. Unfortunately brain gym is a product of an educational system driven by short term political goals that prioritises the delivery of initiatives and the meeting of targets over the development of open and enquiring minds, and is consequently in thrall to miracle cures and faddish quick fix solutions.
    It should come as no surprise that such a system can only operate effectively through the devaluation of teaching as a profession. The current system has bullied and disrespected teachers into becoming deliverers of whatever initiative is flavour of the month and is openly hostile towards the idea that qualities such as independence of mind and healthy scepticism are desirable in teachers. Who are we to hold an opinion on any of the initiatives we have to implement, we’re only teachers? The government/OFSTED/academics who haven’t been near a classroom in years obviously know far better than us.
    My point is that the system creates the environment whereby shady practices such as brain gym can flourish and remain unquestioned. Even more widespread and pernicious than brain gym is the proliferation of the theory that children learn according to seemingly “genetically” pre-determined learning styles. That’s everywhere in education at the moment and is in desperate need of some bad science treatment.