Work out your mind

June 12th, 2003 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, brain gym, religion, water | 15 Comments »

Work out your mind

Ben Goldacre
Thursday June 12, 2003
The Guardian

Talk about bad science

· Children are so sweet, so trusting – those pseudoscientists just can’t help but prey on them. A reader writes about his experience at a primary school in northern England. He found they were employing a technique called Brain Gym. It’s from California. “Brain Gym appears to comprise a series of simple hand-eye coordination tasks which allegedly improve learning. Before doing these tasks, children are required to take a swig of water and hold it in their mouths for a few seconds until the teacher tells them they can swallow. When I asked why, the teacher, who had been sent on a Brain Gym course by the school, informed me that the water was partially absorbed through the roof of the children’s mouths and was absorbed by the brain, improving learning.”

In an ideal world, we would be teaching children enough science in school that they were able to stand up to a teacher who was spouting this kind of rubbish. Or perhaps I’m wrong: perhaps the teacher had misunderstood the course. Being a trusting soul I went to their website and had a peek: after all, if education authorities are going to spend my taxes on this stuff, there must be something in it. Here I learned that Brain Gym was a form of “educational kinesiology,” which “focuses on the performance of specific physical activities that activate the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information”. “Focus is the ability to coordinate the back and front areas of the brain…Centering is the ability to coordinate the top and bottom areas of the brain… Brain Gym movements interconnect the brain in these dimensions.” On the off chance that it might not be rubbish I looked it up on the main public research databases. Nothing supported their assertions. Brain Gym do, however, run their own journal, although I’ve got a very strong feeling that it’s probably not peer-reviewed. Hungry for more? “A research report including over 10 years of information collected from field studies and experimental research is available for $25 (plus shipping) through the Foundation office.”

· Fans of Brain Gym aren’t the only ones targeting children: Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm has the distinction of being the only pseudoscience zoo in the UK. If you were hoping for New Agers in cages, you’ll be let down, but if the idea of Christian creationists making their last stand against evolutionary theory – quite literally amongst the horse shit – amuses you, I suggest you start with their website. “To a rational mind there are at least three proofs that a creator exists.”

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

15 Responses

  1. michael moohan said,

    September 17, 2005 at 2:36 pm


    great site – an indispensable antidote to all the pseudo-scientific crap out there.

    My school has already had a visit from the brain gymnasts, one of whom became very irate when questioned about scientific evidence that these exercises produce quantifiable results. Where can I obtain some independent analysis/refutation of their claims for the educational benefits of ‘kinesiology’?

    michael moohan

  2. Mark Carnall said,

    September 20, 2005 at 5:05 pm

    I haven’t had time to read all of your archives but there is a fantastic museum in Portsmouth called Genesis that gives great coverage on Darwin’s ‘evidence’ for creation. It was there 2 years ago I hope it is still there…………

  3. Henry Logan said,

    November 13, 2005 at 12:59 am

    I’ve taken my children to Noah’s ark, without realising quite how insane it was, but never again!
    Signs up by each compound may tell you, for instance, how many of that animal there were on The Ark or how many other species have decended from it in the last 5000 years. In between these are other signs telling us how God disapproves of, for example divorcees – the link being that God cause the flood to kill all the ‘bad people’.
    There’s also an exhibition ‘proving’ that there were dinosaurs on the ark.

  4. john said,

    January 21, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Nice comments on brain gym. i have my children at school do brain gym, but have never heard of this holding water in the mouth….absolute rubbish. I complete the movement exercises for about 5 minutes to break up lessons. It works in getting the kids focussed back on work and they enjoy it. As I explained to the kids these exercises are ‘meant’ to exercise the right and left sides, some think they do , some think they don’t…but it has allowed us to introduce the words ‘placebo effect’ into our language

  5. Nurn said,

    February 20, 2006 at 10:40 pm

    Oh dear, I was stupid enough to buy the brain gym book, and was so embarrassed immediately to find it is just a stupid “self-help” book of nonsense. The longer I live, the more cynical I become. But I don’t think I will ever be fooled again. What a rip off!!!

  6. betsy said,

    March 7, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    But what if it really does help? I mean anything that the kids think might help them could actually help them learn.

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 7, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    what if the kids started to believe the stuff their teachers were telling them about the science behind it? in fact, isn’t that the point of being a teacher? i don’t see why a nice exercise break has to be dressed up in pseudoscience from a teacher.

  8. Ryan said,

    March 25, 2006 at 4:03 am

    Here’s the deal. Since this is just a comment and not an entire article I’d just like to point out a few things.
    1. The brain gym activities make wonderful exercise breaks, but there’s no point in teaching how or why they work to elementary kids. So, while I think it best to not address the how or why to the kids it is important to know the basis of the movements.
    2. The movements were developed off of an observed response to stress – and usually work to stretch or release one of the infantile reflexes, or to combat the situation of the “fight or flight” response that we all possess when it comes to new situations. This research does exist in the realm of psychology-especially human development.
    3. Sometimes teachers get excited when they find something that works, or when they see something that has potential, so they’ll dive right in without understanding any of the background information. I’m disappointed to learn that teachers would pollute science with made up information but I’m not surprised.

  9. orangejo said,

    October 16, 2006 at 10:08 am

    Unbelievable – I am 36 years old and was made to do some of this brain gym!

    I went to a Yr 2 parents evening a couple of weeks ago 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. Did she not read it properly? Or maybe she’s not been opening her jaw wide enough to help her concentrate?

    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. (i’m sure you can do some detective work to work it out..)

    So much of the stuff you cover in Brain Gym, Ben, is fantastic! I’m not remotely a science graduate and probably fit into one of your “humanities” graduate categories but I’m from a family of scientists and am married to a science graudate and I’ve got enough basic common sense to know this stuff, along with all the fish oil stuff, is absolute rubbish!

    I just fail to understand why millions of people are so desperate to believe it.

    And why doesn’t the Guardian ever turn some of your findings into a front-page story? The MRSA stuff was an amazing revelation but unfortunately the only people who saw it were like-minded people who look to your column every week. We need readers to see it on the front and really take stock! (Or even the Mail to see it and possibly think about following it up… er… ok, that’s a bit too hopeful)

  10. amy c said,

    November 8, 2006 at 8:12 am

    Well, before criticising maybe you guys should do some more research.

    I am a psychologist and many years ago I worked with the Doman Delacato method….first hand experience because I also used it on my son.

    BUT NOW I am studying with Goddard Blythe who have been working with dyslexic children for many years confirming the scientific fact that certain movements and excercises improve, re establish, enhance the brains pathways thus helping many learning problems due to an “unorganized brain”

    Check out INPP – Goddard and Blythe also her book ” Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour” and also

    Which of course leaves room for “brain gym”……….what I don’t understand is that with all the harmful drugs that are dealed out continually to children with ADHD and ADD with so many side effects why there is so much “fuss” about brain gym which has no “side effects”. I agree about the water bit….does sound a little far fetched…….but I’ve heard alot of positive comments concerning brain gym…

    …also I would like to point out to someone who posted a negative for brain gym that the excercises are not helpful because ” any kid interrupting his lesson and jumping up and down for a few minutes might feel more awake” But because these excercises actually DO enhance the pathways in the brain…..this is scientific fact known for years by Doman, Delacato, Temple Fay, Levinson., Sally Goddard and Peter Blythe.
    Check them out,

    By the way ORANGEJO, comment num 9 ” common sense” is not enough, how about scientific proof…..why don’t you try it yourself next time you’re mind is blocked on a problem, or maybe one day you’re kid will need it and then you’ll think twice !!!!!!!!

  11. Paxo Stuffs Brain Gym « Education Watch said,

    April 3, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    […] in our schools, it has to be asked what took them so long. Ben Goldacre initially covered it almost five years ago. He followed with columns on 21 February 2006, 18 March 2006, 25 March 2006, 13 June 2006, 16 […]

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  14. Children don’t need Brain Gym to spot nonsense | The Guardian Reader said,

    May 28, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    […] a different censorship story. Brain Gym is a schools programme I’ve been writing on since 2003 . It’s a series of elaborate physical movements with silly pseudoscientific justifications: […]

  15. Children don’t need Brain said,

    September 30, 2011 at 7:57 am

    […] a different censorship story. Brain Gym is a schools programme I’ve been writing on since 2003 . It’s a series of elaborate physical movements with silly pseudoscientific justifications: […]