Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Brain Gym

Feature on BBC Newsnight this evening about Brain Gym.

According to the website of Brain Gym International of Ventura, California

Brain Gym is a program of physical movements that enhance learning and performance in ALL areas.

and

Brain Gym develops the brain's neural pathways the way nature does – through movement.

The Newsnight package followed a typical dialectic progression.
  • Thesis. Brain Gym is popular in UK primary schools. Here is a Brain Gym workout in one school. Here are some teachers and pupils and other interested parties enthusing about it
  • Antithesis. Brain Gym is regarded with scepticism or scorn by scientists. Brain Gym cannot possibly work in the way that its proponents claim. While exercise may indeed be beneficial, it is entirely wrong to teach children such pseudoscientific rubbish.
  • Synthesis. Jeremy Paxman speaks on a faulty satellite link to the founder of Brain Gym. Paxman challenges, founder waffles: game, set and match to Newsnight. Surprise, surprise.

Many scientific breakthroughs were not fully understood by their founders. If you want to throw out psychoanalysis as pseudoscience just because some of the things Freud said were rubbish (see Karl Popper), then you'd better not look too closely at some of the things Galileo and Newton said (see Paul Feyerabend). So we might look tolerantly at the fact that the Brain Gym people have some rather strange explanations for why Brain Gym works. (Compare NLP, another California export.) Surely the important question is whether Brain Gym actually works.

But it seems there isn't much scientific evidence of that either. There are two obvious points.

Firstly, any gentle exercise is probably beneficial. When teachers and pupils do the exercise together, this probably has social benefits (enhancing the relationship) as well.

Secondly, any change tends to produce a short-term improvement - this is known as the Hawthorne Effect, from an analysis of a series of experiments at the Western Electric factory in Hawthorne, Illinois.

So does this mean we shouldn't have to send lots of money to Brain Gym International? Is taxpayer's money (my money) being wasted?

But what the Brain Gym people have done is create a narrative, and it is this narrative that generates the enthusiasm, the motivation, the commitment, and therefore the benefits. Don't let's judge whether the Brain Gym people are talking Truth or Rubbish, let's judge them on the Effects they produce.

Come on, if it wasn't for the fancy name and the weird pseudoscience, if it was just called Daily Exercise, nobody would bother doing it, or they'd do it under protest. It is the fancy name and the weird pseudoscience that produce the real benefits. Isn't it?

Wikipedia: Brain Gym, NLP
Teaching and Learning Research Programme: Neuroscience and Education (pdf)
Guardian: Brain Gym exercises do pupils no favours, Exercise the brain without this transparent nonsense, Keep your pupils stretched and watered

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