BBC Newsnight mine the Brain Gym comedy mountain

April 3rd, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brain gym | 41 Comments »

Newsnight do Brain Gym, and Paxman interviews the man who invented it.

It’s comedy gold.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5rH7kDcFpc [/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjRhYP5faTU[/youtube]

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Incomprehensibly the school involved were really excited that they were going to be on telly:

Acresfield Community Primary School

BBC Newsnight Brain Gym® screening

During this week and next, Newsnight are presenting a series, over ten days, linked to the Iraq war. The screening of the item linked to Brain Gym® is not expected during this time.

I think that the Newsnight audience will have increased, as a result of our waiting to see our school on television. Unfortunately, I have not been informed as yet of when the item will be televised. If I do hear before we finish for Easter next Thursday, I will inform you.

You heard it here first, starting in 2003. Remember that when you hear more stuff here.


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41 Responses



  1. ACH said,

    April 3, 2008 at 11:35 am

    According to the programme, the Brain Gym improved the kids’ behaviour. Yet, ironically there is also an appeal to parents on the same page of that website:

    “Once again some of our youngest children have repeatedly been using the shrubberies as an extension of the playground. It has resulted in many, many bulbs and other plants being broken and trampled underfoot, so much so that some parts of the shrubberies have been destroyed and hundreds of bulbs/corms are not having a chance to flower.”

  2. sam_chew75 said,

    April 3, 2008 at 11:58 am

    It’s on the front page of the BBC website now, just the report itself – in the placed reserved for stories about stupid things, like people getting shot while being attacked by alligators and stuff like that.

    Link for just the report is

    tinyurl.com/yskn6h

  3. dbhb said,

    April 3, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Great stuff indeed but I have never laughed so hard as I did when- in the *following* segment, on comedians and making fun of Mohammed- the prerecorded report in question has now been replaced by a placeholder screen saying “For rights reasons we cannot show this report”. You couldn’t write that stuff.

  4. riggaz said,

    April 3, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    That would be hilarious if it weren’t so depressing. The kid near the end describing how Brain Gym gives him the answers to his maths test is just frightening.

    There’s a direct link to the Brain Gym feature here:
    www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/player/nol/newsid_7320000/newsid_7327600?redirect=7327684.stm&news=1&bbwm=1&nbram=1&nbwm=1&bbram=1

  5. HowardW said,

    April 3, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Really quite disturbing stuff, particularly the section with the small group of kids giving “their” thoughts on Brain Gym. Like it “balancing the left and right hemispheres” and “increasing blood flow in the brain”. Quite original and impressive thoughts for such young kids, so maybe there is something in it…?

    Am I right that when Louise the Brain Gym pusher, sorry consultant, discusses the benefits of the energy yawn, she says it “improves languaging”? (around 20:57)

    Aparently it doesn’t then.

    Howard

  6. Bad Robot said,

    April 3, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I was equally alarmed by the children’s acceptance of “cod science” at such a young age. Will they all grow up and become new age practitioners? Is the acceptance of BG by the overworked teaching staff a symptom of the pressure put on them HM gov to test, test and retest children from preschool age and upwards?

  7. schrodingerspig said,

    April 3, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    As per the section Howard mentions above, it’s interesting to note the head teachers reaction on camera to her students use of the pseudobabble.

    The report on youtube.

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5rH7kDcFpc

    And interview afterwards with Paul Dennison

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjRhYP5faTU

  8. rd said,

    April 3, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Hee hee! I’ve just watched it again – hadn’t noticed before that the music under the description of some exercises from the manual about halfway through the segment is an arrangement of ‘If I Only had a Brain’ from the Wizard of Oz. Subtle editorial comment?

  9. cynicalSimon said,

    April 3, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Sorry, my screen is small and my eyesight bad. Was that Paxo or was it Chris Morris?

    I can happily imagine there are many benefits to the regime, but it’s dismaying that people are making money out of this tosh.

    More importantly, I hope the football scouts have spotted the kid with the sweet left foot (6:20). It’s a relief to know the next David Beckham has a realigned mind and body.

    Must go, I need to reconnect my right and left hemispheres!

  10. RS said,

    April 3, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    It is a pity that Paxman seems to know so little science that he is unable to properly push the Brain Gym guru on the scientific claims – he seemed rather hesitant and uncertain talking about both the electrical bodies and water in processed food (particularly the claim that pure water was better utlised whatever that meant).

    As for stupid 15yr olds going to Cambridge – it is sort of an occupational hazard for them to be both full of themselves and quite wrong – we probably oughtn’t to mock them too much, I imagine a lot of us were the same at that age.

  11. Jo said,

    April 3, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    Also on the school’s website… I thought this was funny, referring to a new member of staff:

    “It is amazing to think that she has been with us for less than four weeks, as it seems far longer.”

    :-D

  12. Lafayette said,

    April 4, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Oh, I’m sure Paul Dennison was just nervous. He’s probably not used to being on television, and he was also about a mile up.

    Must dash now; I need to massage my superior olive.

  13. LittleMonkey said,

    April 4, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Basically the kids are quieter after a bit of exercise/massage or have higher moral after a little game which they can’t lose or get wrong!

    And they pay consultants for this? that’s a sweet gig if your conscience can take it ;)

  14. Jeesh42 said,

    April 4, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Very sensible comment by someone on the Newsnight forum: “Maybe it’s time we had the educational equivalent of NICE to evaluate programmes like this.”

  15. wilsonj said,

    April 5, 2008 at 12:50 am

    I see the school receives additional funding from the LEA for a speech and language centre. The centre will be for pupils with communication difficulties, such as one of the children in the film. The head teacher seemed to think that brain gym was appropriate and beneficial special educational provision for that child. Brain gym seems unlikely to impair the learning of the children in general. However, if it takes time and resources away from effective approaches for children with communication difficulties, such as speech and language therapy, that would be worrying.

  16. muscleman said,

    April 5, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    I can see the government being keen on Brain Gym, after all with the criminal dearth of both decent playing fields/facilities and structured exercise time in schools this is a nice little band aid for the under exercised youth of today.

    At their age I walked to and from school, had playing fields which meant we could play soccer, rugby, softball, cricket, tennis, netball, basketball etc, etc and was allowed to roam about on foot and on my bike for miles away from home.

    Maybe if kids today had the facilities and opportunites and freedoms I had they wouldn’t need pseudo scientific band aids. it is little wonder they can’t sit still and concentrate in class, it’s all that pent up energy.

  17. ferguskane said,

    April 6, 2008 at 1:22 am

    RS. Agreed about Paxman, he seems so sure of himself on university challenge, when he’s got the answers on a card. Nice to see he can be a stupid as the rest of us.

    All the pseudoscience aside, the calming group exercises and such like actually seem like a good idea. Indeed, they are one of the things I liked when I visited Chinese schools. (Sorry, in the current climate, I should say, the evil repressive Chinese schools).

  18. Susan said,

    April 6, 2008 at 10:43 am

    www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article3671213.ece

    Brain Gym claims to be withdrawn

    The creators of an educational exercise programme used in hundreds of schools in England have agreed to withdraw unsubstantiated scientific claims in their teaching materials.

    The Brain Gym programme, which uses 26 teacher-led physical exercises to help to promote learning, was at the centre of controversy this week after respected scientific organisations complained to local authorities about the company’s training manual.

    Paul Dennison, a Californian educator who created the programme, admitted that many claims in his teacher’s guide were based on his “hunches” and were not proper science.

  19. ACH said,

    April 6, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    So, is he going to refund all the money to the gullible head teachers and education authorities who have paid loadsamoney to his guru consulatants for their “training”

  20. arctral said,

    April 6, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    I know HowardW has already made this point above, but it really does bear repeating: the “qualified” instructor says that the relaxation of the “5 cranial nerves” improves “languaging”. What the hell is that?! I can’t believe what ears just audiologised into my brainium.

  21. emordino said,

    April 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Holy good god, that is some proper Village of the Damned shit at the start of the first video.

  22. Louby said,

    April 7, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Oh my god. I have just discovered this site after watching the Newsnight article on Brain Gym on the BBC website and googling to see if anyone else has a problem with it. I am so grateful to find this!! I ‘lost’ my mother to Brain Gym about 10 years ago. When I say ‘lost’, I mean it literally. She was an amazing teacher, then got into all this crap, and it’s taken over her entire life – she’s barely recognisable.

    It makes me furious to think it’s being used in schools – it’s tantamount to brainwashing. I feel really sorry for the teachers in the posts above who have been penalised for speaking their minds about it! One of the most irritating things about Brain Gym is the way its practitioners refute any other ways of thinking or evidence that their ‘science’ is flawed, and assume we non-believers are ignorant – I’ve even been told that my mind is ‘closed’ but I’ll ‘see the light’ one day. Ahem. Echoes of a religious cult, methinks?

    I think the posts above are correct – it’s a way of breaking up lessons with a little physical activity, which of course will refocus attention. But it’s little more than that and to see kids performing these ridiculous exercises on the Newsnight article and proffering reasons why it works (quite blatently fed by the teacher) makes my blood boil!

  23. Kess said,

    April 7, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Paxman certainly earned his pennies with this report. I don’t think Paul Dennison knew what hit him – I guess US reporters and interviewers are a bit less aggressive!

  24. Dave Gould said,

    April 9, 2008 at 5:05 am

    Since there’s so much sneering here, I’m going to act as Devil’s Advocate.

    Pseudoscience has always been in schools, whether it’s 45 min lesson cycles, Ritalin or phonics.

    Pseudoscience doesn’t mean that something doesn’t work.

    Placebos for ADHD work 30+% of the time. How much of a difference do you think a placebo Brain Gym would make to a class? And would it still make that much of a difference if the teachers and pupils weren’t told things like “it hooks up your brain hemispheres”?

    Do you really want to tell kids that their working placebos don’t work?

    Would you tell a dying patient that their working placebo doesn’t work?

    Yes, Brain Gym seems to have been oversold but
    a) to deny schools access to it would be equally wrong
    b) it might actually work.

  25. Dr* T said,

    April 9, 2008 at 9:07 am

    Dave Gould – I appreciate your ‘devil’s advocate’ clause, but I’m afraid the argument doesn’t stand up at all.

    Filling kid’s heads with bullshit and pretending it is fact is immoral (see also religion). Giving kids a break to stretch, take a drink, pretend to be a monkey is fun and silly and good for the group without pretending it helps ‘languaging’ (*shivers*).

    Taking my tax dollars to pay some numbskull to teach this rubbish is also immoral when they could be getting new textbooks, facilities, staff etc etc

  26. sidcumberland said,

    April 9, 2008 at 10:12 am

    I have to pick Dave Gould up on the idea that phonics is pseudo-science. I’ve been a teacher all my life, and have seen fads come and go. I can assure you that using phonics is the best way to teach young children to read. Here in Essex we use Jonathan Solity’s Early Reading Program, developed over ten years with Essex schools. ERP is based on sound psychological principles and research evidence. That’s why it works.

    re Brain Gym – I’m with the bulk of the responses here. Evidence based practice is what we need.

    “To deny schools access to it would be equally wrong” – No, it wouldn’t.

  27. robison said,

    April 9, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theory nutter(cue sounding like a conspiracy theory nutter), these exercises and the tragic attempt at a theory behind them reminded me of Ron L Hubbard’s ‘touch assists’. This guy isn’t connected to Scientology in any way is he?

  28. Martin said,

    April 10, 2008 at 1:32 am

    Dave, you mention that you are a health professional, and so not a teacher. Teachers know that taking short breaks in classes and getting kids to move around helps break up the lesson into manageable chunks for which young children can concentrate for. This only usually happens at primary school, as children are expected to be able to manage their concentration as they get older. The fact that Brain Gym is being used for older children is therefore alarming.

    I don’t know of any studies that have been performed into what form of exercise produces the best results – if anyone else knows of any I’ve a couple of friends who are teachers who would welcome the ammunition! But I’m also unaware of any studies into the effectiveness of Brain Gym, so until they can claim that their methods are superior I don’t need to substantiate my claim. I have a greater quantity of ancedotal evidence than they do.

    As to not teaching children to question science until 15-16, I’m afraid that I shall have to swear here. WTF! Children choose which GCSEs they do when they are 14. I started getting a good scientific education at 10, partly because I had some great, dedicated scientific teachers even at middle school, where one teacher was expected to teach everything from science to English. If children don’t learn to question what they are taught they’ll grow up believing anything anyone in authority says to them.

    Oh.

  29. sidcumberland said,

    April 10, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Dave Gould – I’m a little worried by your implication that the difference between science and pseudoscience is whether you could find evidence to support it.

    There is piles of evidence from Solity’s research, as you will know if you had googled. If you didn’t google, where did you look?

  30. JQH said,

    April 11, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Dave Gould:

    What relevence does a palliative placebo given to a terminally ill patient have to do with Brain Gym? By attempting to conflate the two issuesyou are implying that people who oppose Brain Gym would be heartless enough to tell a terminally ill patient that their medication doesn’t work.

    I’m sure that there is a posh Latin name for this kind of obfuscatory argument but I’ll put it in Anglo-Saxon:

    It’s fucking bollocks mate!

  31. Raify said,

    April 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    What’s this, advertising in the Guardian?

  32. Jamie Horder said,

    April 11, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    I think not – that looks like an advert for one of those cognitive training things, where you do mental exercises in the hope that you’ll improve with practice and therefore become smarter / get a better memory etc. It may or may not work, but it’s several orders of magnitude less silly than Brain Gym, since it does involve actually using your brain, rather than pushing your “brain buttons.”

  33. Dave Gould said,

    April 13, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Martin: I didn’t say under 15s shouldn’t question science!

    It’s important to remember here that science doesn’t back your view of Brain Gym any more than it backs the advocates’.

    Pseudoscience can lead people to make significantly bad choices but nobody seems to be denying that the placebo benefits alone of Brain Gym might be worthwhile – especially if the pseudoscience was left out.

    And we seem to agree that all children should be taught to see through pseudoscience. It will lead to the same battle of spin we see in politics today – but I think, overall, people will be much better informed.

    FWIW, I’m a hypnotherapist/coach.

    sidcumberland: I wouldn’t worry about your inferences since in this case they were entirely inaccurate.
    Solity’s research doesn’t seem to be freely available on the internet. Did any of it exclude experimenter bias?

    JQH: It’s proof that it’s sometimes OK to deceive people.

  34. Dave Gould said,

    April 13, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    sidcumberland: The word “probably” indicates otherwise.

    I ask again – did any of Solity’s research exclude experimenter bias?

    It’s not hard to see that a group of teachers would get better results teaching what they are enthusiastic about.

    Again, this doesn’t mean that phonics isn’t the best single method for getting children through the early stages of reading. Of course, an entirely different method is required to teach them how to spell.

  35. JQH said,

    April 14, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Dave Gould:

    I think that science does back the detractors of Brain Gym despite your comment to Martin;
    anatomists have failed to find “brain buttons”, water is not absorbed through the roof of the mouth, nodding your head does not tip blood into the frontal lobes of the brain, massaging your jaw does not improve one’s ability to use language etc etc.

    You think it’s ok to deceive people sometimes. Is it ok to deceive people in order to shovel large quantities of tax-payers cash into your bank account?

    BTW, are you a Brain Gym coach?

  36. Dave Gould said,

    April 16, 2008 at 6:02 am

    JQH: “brain buttons” are actually K-27s, the last points on the kidney meridians. Acupuncturists have known about them for 22+ centuries.
    I’d agree that the jury is still out on acupuncture but results are promising.

    Never heard the water one. I’m inclined to agree with you there.

    I’d be surprised if tipping your head forward didn’t tip blood towards the frontal lobes. Just tested this, perhaps more likely to give you a migraine than anything else.

    Massaging your jaw might improve one’s ability to use language – who has tested it?

    If someone deceives you into buying a Brain Gym programme, there is plenty of recourse in law for that. I’m guessing most teachers are actually pleased with the results and this is why Brain Gym is spreading so quickly.

    No, I neither teach nor use Brain Gym.

  37. jude said,

    May 11, 2008 at 12:01 am

    As a teacher I would be happy to break up a long double lesson with a physical activity – however I wouldn’t dream of telling them I am doing anything other than giving them break from writing and perhaps waking them from the torpor they are apt to slip into.

    I’m not about to try and persuade my pupils we are stimulating “brain buttons”. I’m meant to be teaching them to recognise bad science not promoting it.

  38. PaulG said,

    January 6, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Just came across this blog entry…

    themilligan.wordpress.com/2009/01/04/brain-gym/

    A UK that recounts a whole day of professional development devoted to this rubbish.

    Makes for interesting reading.

  39. mpn said,

    October 5, 2009 at 8:06 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.

  40. gothgirl said,

    October 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Have just been reading the Brain Gym website, and they have a file on their ssite posted as ‘Response to Critisism.’ However, it is more circular bullshit, with no bibliography to the scant references they provide and the ‘more than a hundred anecdotal, qualitative, and quantitative studies and reports.’ It seems to end with a rather succinct;
    It works because we say it does. We don’t have to proove it. If you don’t like it, ask someone who cares.

    Nice.

  41. Brain Jim said,

    April 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I am fed up with people misspelling my name. It’s Brain JIM, okay?

    As for whether my method works, trials have shown up to eighty percent more! Yes, that’s almost three times as much, or even more in metric! Sometimes the results are so good that I have to give them three exclamation marks!!!

    In my first trial a child was asked for a number seven. She didn’t have one. We doctors said we’d settle for whatever she’d got, but she could only get up to three. Then we gave her Brain Jim’s special Bloink to excite the anticipation contraflow in her interprandial duplex. All 100% of her were then able to reach a seven without further difficulty, and 100% of her went as high as twenty-three. The numbers speak for themselves.

    Pi is a number that speaks for itself, and many of our trials have pi in them. They also have e and i, which proves it.

    Now I am going to psychically sue you. There. Done it. Let that be a lesson to you.

    Brain Jim