by David Colarusso - January 27th, 2007
[This post is part of a series examining Brain Gym which can be found here.]
Following up on my January 17th post, I attended a Brain Gym training session yesterday with a fellow teacher, Kate, who ranted about the program last week. Mostly, I wanted to be sure she wasn’t being overly critical. She was not. It was the second of two sessions, each two hours long, and I must say that coming out of the class my overwhelming feeling was one of profound sorrow.
I have a student who is always reading stuff on the internet and asking me the next day, “Did you know that…” Occasionally it’s obscure historical factoids or interesting science nuggets. However, more often, it’s something to do with aliens, Nessie, or some similarly pseudoscientific concern. As his science teacher, I have to answer, “Well the evidence isn’t very good for that.” I feel his disappointment, and for a moment I empathize. However, I maintain that not only is the truth preferable to pleasant fiction, it is often times more awe inspiring, amazing, and yes mysterious. Our fictions are so limited by our imaginations and experience. Yet the cosmos is so vast. Perhaps, most importantly, truth is infinitely more useful in its practical application and predictive power.
Kate attended the training session because of a desire to add to her teaching toolkit. She noticed that here students calmed down after an exercise in which they performed directed physical task, much like those employed by Brain Gym. Her hope was they she would walk away with a collection of exercises that she could use in her classroom. This seems perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, the Brain Gym session couldn’t leave it there.
I don’t question that low-impact directed physical exertion may help improve student focus. However, I find the claim that Brain Gym’s 26 trademarked activities are specially suited to improve academic attainment dubious at best, and as the ones making the claim, it falls upon them to argue the point. Unfortunately, Brain Gym International has backed away from this. Why? According to our Brain Gym instructor “it is difficult to justify in their terms,” where their terms are those set by the scientific community.
This is a common sentiment among pseudoscientists. “If only they would listen,” they cry. “I have the answer to it all.” Setting aside the hubris in this belief, it is important to understand that the methods of science are in fact designed to maximize the community’s ability to listen to and then sort ideas. The requirements for consideration are mostly format and rigor. This struggle is examined at good length in Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. One must first take the time to understand the work already done in a field. The pseudoscientist may retort “Galileo was an outsider,” and this may be true. However, he helped create the framework of modern empirical science by which we now work. Much has changed. Einstein’s revolutionary ideas were not rejected by the practitioners of his time. On the contrary, in a matter of years he was the most celebrated scientist in the world. Good ideas do eventually rise to the top, and skepticisms is our quality assurance.
Tellingly, our instructor explained that instead of going the science route, Brain Gym was focusing on “what worked.” This is great, but without careful study, can we really say that it was the 26 Brain Gym activities? Would any old low-impact directed physical activity have do the trick? Was it the enthusiasm of those instructors willing to try something new?
As I see it, there are at least two main problems with Brain Gym’s use in schools:
- What justifies the expense of specialized trainers and materials for the use of 26 trademarked activities? Why not simply provide generic low-impact directed physical activities? Where’s the evidence that the council should pay for these specific 26, of which we were only shown 10. For the remainder, we’d need to take more classes. Note: Kate and I are looking into the actual taxpayer cost.
- The dissemination of pseudoscientific thinking to students runs counter to the purpose of public education. We are charged with producing independent citizens capable of critical thought. The Brain Gym dogma will make its way to the children through the teachers. “Brain studies show…” We shouldn’t have teachers teaching students the scientific method in one lesson then spouting pseudoscience in the next.
Lest you doubt the nature of Brain Gym’s claims, let me share a few from our course material, reformatted below.
- Placing pressure on the forehead directly above the eyes will: shift emotional stress and promote rational thinking and release memory blocks. These two points are know as the “Positive Points.”
- Gripping one’s shoulder and turning his or her neck back and forth while controlling breathing will: improve attention and comprehension while also improving access to short term and long term memory. This is called the “Owl.”
- Waving one’s hands in the air in mirrored images of each other will: improve the decoding and encoding of written symbols. This is called the “Double Doodle.”
- Moving one’s outstretched arm in a repeated infinity symbol, overturned figure eight, will: improve improve symbol recognition and reading comprehension. This is known as “Giant Lazy Eights.”
- Yawning while massaging the cheeks: “relaxes the eyes by stimulating lubrication” and it “helps motor control of vocalisation and reading aloud.” This is known as the “Energy Yawn.”
Here is a larger list of Brain Gym activities. It is, however, not from Brain Gym directly as is made clear in this warning found at the top of the page:
Warning!!! Brain Gym is protected by copyright laws! If you want to teach it to your students you first have to ask Mr. and Mrs. Dennison for permission!!! Also, it is very risky for unexperienced people to apply this techniques without a preliminary training which can be done only in the authorized centres. If you want extra information you can visit the official Brain Gym web site. (One click!) These pages are intended only as to furnish some general information on this subject.
It strikes me as suspicious that we are warned of danger should we try these on our own. This would seem to suggest that improper movement might adversely effect our students’ learning or development. Perhaps there’s more than one reason to tell Johnny to settle down and sit in his chair.