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David Anthony Colarusso - Sadly not Havoc Dinosaur
Intermittent musings on the law, science, education, technology, design, and life. Also, I build things: furniture, software, reasoned arguments... To learn more about that, click a persona below for my eponymous website.

Accounting for Brain Gym

by David Colarusso - May 23rd, 2007

A few months ago a colleague told me about Brain Gym. She had been to the first of two training sessions. So I tagged along for the second, were I was told tracing a figure eight in the air would improve my students’ reading comprehension. Brain Gym is a trademarked set of exercises “designed” to promote learning skills in students. At its heart is the idea that directed low-impact physical activity can help foster focus and improve student attention. This is probably true. Working with eleven year olds, I have found getting them up and moving is an important part of the day, without which attention suffers. Brain Gym, however, is in the business of selling this idea, and they push the claim that their activities can do more: improve spelling, memory, reading comprehension…. After a little digging, we’ve established a lower limit on how much money is being wasted by Scottish schools on this pseudoscientific snake oil. Over the past five years, it’s been at least £127,579.45, and the real number is likely a couple of times larger. Below I’ll discuss how we arrived at this number, and I’ll even suggest a free alternative to help prevent future loss.

Brain Gym is your standard pseudoscience. Stringing together words like neurology and cognitive research, they charge outrageous fees and perpetuate poor habits of mind. What’s so bad is that these fees are paid by our taxes and those poor habits are disseminated to our children. If you want a quick primer on why Brain Gym is pseudoscience, check out my postings Brain Gym makes me sad, and Craving the Placebo Effect, a Business Model? Also, Ben Goldacre has been making similar noises over at Bad Science since long before I even knew about Brain Gym.

Our funding numbers come from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests we submitted to each of Scotland’s 32 authorities and seven teacher training institutions. We asked how much money and time was being spent on training sessions like the one we had attended. You can find a description of the requests here, and a spreadsheet of our results here. The £127,579.45 mentioned above is clearly an underreporting. Simply look at the number of cells labeled “unknown.” Many councils didn’t keep sufficiently detailed records to answer our questions. Apparently, they don’t itemize expenses or they simply didn’t have the information available.

We also ran into cases where our FOI’s wording didn’t help things. Some councils didn’t bother connecting “third party instructors and trainers” with Brain Gym and simply looked for payments to the Educational Kinesiology UK Foundation. This was a lack of foresight on our part because the foundation doesn’t provide the trainers. They train the trainers, and so they aren’t paid directly by the schools. We should have included a list of companies which peddle Brain Gym’s wares. We also could have done a better job of explicitly requesting a reporting format.

Some councils calculated that it would cost them more than £600 to process our request. Under FOI, this meant they could ask us to help cover the cost. We decided not to follow up with these councils, one, because we are poor teachers, and two, because our goal wasn’t to have the councils do a lot of work. We simply wanted to shed some light on the issue.

Regrettably, Brain Gym has international reach with instructors in 35 countries. According to their website:

For more than 30 years and in over 80 countries, we have been helping children, adults, and seniors to:

  • Learn ANYTHING faster and more easily
  • Perform better at sports
  • Be more focused and organized
  • Start and finish projects with ease
  • Overcome learning challenges
  • Reach new levels of excellence

Impressive, too bad they find these claims “difficult to justify” under the terms set by science. That’s a quote from my instructor, not an added emphasis. The nerve center behind this all is Brain Gym International, based in California, USA. Judging from the fact that the UK has its own foundation, however, there are probably dozens of companies operating in their home countries as part of this “movement,” each with their own revenue stream. The US company alone has been pulling in between a quarter million and $400,000 a year for the past three years. We know this because they are registered as a non-profit, and under US law they must make this information public. Here are their 990s (tax forms) for 2005, 2004, and 2003. However, given that they primarily sell literature and train the trainers, we have to assume the Brain Gym economy is reasonably larger. Imagine, what Brain Gym makes selling literature and training trainers. According to their website, there are hundreds of active trainers world-wide, each of them attempting to recoup the cost of their training and make a living. Assuming a reasonable success rate, that’s a lot of money being spent on Brain Gym.

So what can you do? Many teachers apparently swear by Brain Gym, but that doesn’t mean Brain Gym’s worth the cost in money and intellectual dishonesty. Without controlled experiments, we can’t separate Brain Gym’s effect from that of any low-impact directed physical exercise. I, for one, tried playing Simon Says with my students, and it worked like a charm. My colleague originally attended the Brain Gym workshop hoping to take away a few simple tricks she could use in the classroom. So to that end, we have created a YouTube group, Educational Kinesiology?. We encourage you to post your own tricks of the trade, low-impact directed activities which experience has shown to be helpful. Don’t tell us it will improve students’ spelling, make them faster readers, or cure cancer. Simply share things for others to tryout. Of course, you can also tell your schools “No more Brain Gym.”

Entry Filed under: General Observations, Skepticism


8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nabarun bhattacharya  |  September 16th, 2007 at 5:41 am

    we are interested for taking franchiseeship of your brain gym product.kindly inform me the details in my email id,

  • 2. Derek Robertson  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    I carried out a small scale research project recently that used Nintendo DS machines and a game called Dr Kawashima;s Brain Training. I thought that the game could do what Brain Gym claims to do so I compared and contrasted the two approaches. Have a look to see what we found:
    http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/consolarium
    Cheers

  • 3. SOG knives&hellip  |  July 17th, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    SOG knives

    Interesting ideas… I wonder how the Hollywood media would portray this?

  • 4. Easy Spending Cuts Benj&hellip  |  June 30th, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    [...] example, take Brain Gym, a crank pseudoscience effort reported to cost the taxpayer around 130,000 in Scotland [...]

  • 5. Liz  |  May 29th, 2010 at 2:27 am

    I came across your blog while hurriedly looking for something… I want to return to read your entire premise, but in the event that i do not i would like to comment.

    I enrolled my daughter in Brain Gym for 6 months on the 5 year quest to find the cause of her problems. One symptom was trouble reading. The Brain Gym work did make a difference.

    Eventually, we stumbled upon someone that understood what was wrong. After 5 years of doctors, tutors, special education, and on, a reading specialist did the initial evaluation and came out saying “I can give her help but it won’t do any good until she gets her eyes fixed.”

    She suggested that I contact a Developmental Behavioral Optometrist. Someone who works with how the eyes function doing a task, as in scanning, skimming. This is opposed to someone that tests whether she can focus her eyes on a chart long enough to tell them the correct letter.

    A year of eye therapy later, at 11 years old she was able to start working on reading. The interesting thing is that some of the “home work” she took home from the therapist to work on was xeroxed from a BRAIN GYM book. It does explain that THERE IS AT LEAST SOME PART OF BRAIN GYM THAT HAS VALUE.

    I saw the value when she was involved in Brain Gym and my impression that it helped was confirmed when her therapist was using their techniques in working with my daughters eyes.

    I also wanted to comment that in researching Brain Gym and deciding whether I wanted to enroll her in it, I visited a parents meeting at a very low income school that was shouting Brain Gym’s praises. The program was insanely successful. The presentation described many instances and situations that showed how much it helped.

    So… in the right situation, Brain Gym does have merits and yields results. I look forward to returning and looking at your analysis in detail.

  • 6. Children don’t need&hellip  |  May 28th, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    [...] the Brain Gym Teacher’s Manual “do not contain water.” You pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for Brain Gym, and it’s still done in hundreds of state schools across the [...]

  • 7. Children don’t need&hellip  |  September 30th, 2011 at 2:57 am

    [...] the Brain Gym Teacher’s Manual – “do not contain water.” You pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for Brain Gym, and it’s still done in hundreds of state schools across the [...]

  • 8. Sadly Uneducated  |  July 6th, 2013 at 1:51 am

    I find it interesting how much you have to say on a topic based on so little research. You clearly don’t really understand it at all. Had you approached with more openness, or even possibly experienced it for yourself for its therapeutic possibilities, your students may have benefited.

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