For some of my readers I devote an inordinate amount of blogspace to that particular species of magical thinking known as religious faith, particularly its more nefarious manifestations. Well, as much as I’d hate to disappoint those readers, that’s a situation that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. But there are other kinds of magical thinking that should demand our attention, especially where they threaten to weasel their way onto school curricula. Enter “Brain Gym,” a.k.a. “Educational Kinesiology,” the brain-child (boom-boom) of education specialist Dr Paul Dennison and his wife Gail E. Dennison, and based on the proposition that “neural mechanisms can be influenced by specific physical exercises” (Neuroscience and Education). The programme is described on the Brain Gym website FAQ thusly:
Educational Kinesiology (or Edu-K) is the study and application of natural movement experiences to facilitate learning. It focuses on the performance of specific physical activities that activate the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information. Edu-K is a process for re-educating the mind/body system for accomplishing any skill or function with greater ease and efficiency. [. . .] BRAIN GYM is the registered trademark for an Educational Kinesiology and is the introductory level Edu-K program.
These movements, which include “The Owl,” “The Elephant,” and the “Alphabet 8s” (but not “The Monkey” or “The Beatle”)
were developed from Dr. Dennison’s knowledge of the relationship of movement to perception, and the impact of these on fine motor and academic skills. Others were learned during his training as a marathon runner, his study of vision training, his study of Jin Shin Jitsu (a form of acupressure), and his study of Applied Kinesiology (taught to the public as the Touch for Health synthesis).
Brain Gym is widely used in British state schools, promising “rapid and often dramatic improvements in: concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination, and more.” On its British website it claims “improvements in exam results” among its benefits.
Whether more attention needs to be paid to the physical dimension of learning is arguable. But it seems the problem with Brain Gym is that it is scientifically bankrupt:
Two leading scientific societies and a charity that promotes scientific understanding [the British Neuroscience Association, the Physiological Society and Sense About Science] have written to every local education authority in the the UK to warn that a programme of exercises being promoted to help child learning relies on “pseudoscientific explanations” and a “bizarre understanding” of how the body works. [. . .] “According to the calls we have received and to the material in the Teacher’s Guide to Brain Gym, children are, for example, being taught special exercises to ‘connect the circuits of the brain’ and ‘unblock’ neural pathways,” the scientists wrote. They believe that promoting these bogus explanations of how the brain operates undermines science teaching in schools.
Other critics charge it with using terms and concepts alien to neuroscience:
For example, there is a claim that, if children provide pressure on their ‘brain buttons’, they can help re-establish the brain organisation required for reading and writing. ‘Brain buttons’ are described as indentations between the 1st and 2nd ribs directly under the collar bone to the right and left of the breastbone. Other exercises include the Cross-crawl, promoted on the basis of activating left/right, top/bottom and back/front areas of the brain simultaneously, and varieties of ‘Hook-up’ for calming and stressrelieving effects.
Brain Gym apparently also advances the thesis that “All liquids [other than water] are processed in the body as food, and do not serve the body’s water needs … Processed foods do not contain water.” Now (and to return the focus of its blog temporarily to its usual target) we’ve already witnessed the eagerness of the UK government (via its faith school initiatives) to sacrifice the integrity of its public education system on the altar of religious faith, echoing trends in the United States and (to a far lesser degree) in Australia, and with the result that Genesis (the book, not the band) is hammering on the doors of science classrooms. But now it seems like <i>anything</i> can get past the vetting process. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has an extensive entry on Brain Gym, but you simply can’t go past Charlie Brooker’s hilarious rant on The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” blog, which supplies this week’s “quote of the week:
Lots of people clearly think Brain Gym is worthwhile, or they wouldn’t be prepared to pay through the nose for it. If you’re one of them, here’s an exciting new kinesiological exercise that should dramatically increase your self-awareness – and I’m giving it away free of charge. Ready? OK. Curl the fingers of your right hand inward, meeting the thumb to form a circle. Jerk it rhythmically up and down in front of your face. Repeat for six hours. Then piss off.