The emperor’s new gym
Posted by apgaylard on November 1, 2009
I have recently returned from an excellent holiday in sunny Spain. Predictably, my first Monday back at work was a bit of a trial. It was a training day to support the implementation of a new performance management system. Not the most enjoyable part of my working life, but fair enough.
However, after an excellent introduction from our CEO, the trial began in earnest when the following two words were projected onto a screen at the front of the auditorium:
Before moving into the course proper, our brains apparently needed some fine-tuning from a well-known piece of quackery* that seems endemic in British schools. It couples funny exercises and water drinking with bogus physiological explanations to provide a trade marked product that is claimed to enhance the learning ability of children, particularly those with learning and developmental disorders.
For what it is, it is an expensive intervention; and has no proven worth (Hyatt, 2007).
I had rather naïvely thought that this sort of nonsense was something that we in the hard-pressed and hard-nosed private sector would be immune from. But no, it was explained to the group that these exercises, developed by a neuroscientist (it wasn’t) had been proven to improve the performance of businessmen (they haven’t).
We started off with a “calibration exercise”. This was intended to help us “measure” the improvements that the Brain Gym™ exercises would undoubtedly bring. The “calibration” had three parts, we were:
- invited to think how our brains were feeling;
- asked to concentrate on our hearing; was is clear or muffled? Was it biased to one side or the other?
- encouraged to see, when standing, how far we could move our hands down our legs and ankles – though we were told not to stretch.
Having established our “baseline” we were taken through some exercises aimed at our brains, our hearing and bodily flexibility.
Brains have buttons, apparently …
The first exercise was the notorious “Brain Buttons”. It is claimed that this exercise helps “switch on” the brain (hence the name, I guess) by improving blood flow to the brain. This in turn would improve our ability to concentrate, read, write, etc.
We were asked to place our index fingers and thumbs into the indentations below the collar bone on each side of the sternum, and press lightly using a pulsing action. While we were doing this we were asked to place our other hands over our belly-buttons and gently press.
This cannot, of course, improve the supply of blood to the brain: It is unmitigated nonsense.
This did not stop our instructor from telling us with supreme confidence that this exercise would improve the performance of our brains. He suggested that when we went back to the “calibration” exercise we would no doubt feel that our brains were in better order. Of course, this crude piece of suggestion is a good way of setting us up for a good dose of the placebo effect.
Hook me up
Next we did “Hook Ups”. We were asked to cross our right wrists over our left wrists and link up the fingers so that our right wrists were on top; then, bending the elbows out, turn our fingers towards our bodies until they rested in the centre of our chests.
It was asserted that this would get us using our whole brains. Of course, as the majority of the people in the room were “right brained” engineering types who could all do with using our “left brain” more!
He told us that if we looked at our fingers and tried to move the ones that were now on the “wrong side” we might struggle; our poor brains not being able to cope with controlling something that now appeared to have moved across our centreline.
Perhaps my group was exceptional, but no one found this even slightly difficult.
The ear is a door to improved thinking
Disappointingly, the “Thinking Cap” was not a magic hat; just a bit of ear massage. We were asked to gently pull our ears backwards and unroll them with our fingers. Starting from the top of the ear, we were then told to massage them, working our way down to the ear lobe.
We were told that it would improve our hearing, making it clearer and more focussed: more nonsense, more suggestion, hoping to elicit the placebo effect.
The bum-shuffle compensation
The session ended with the “Cross Crawl”; something to help those of us who didn’t learn to crawl properly as children, the bum-shufflers. Apparently, this is bad, missing the crawling stage as infants would have compromised us in some inexplicable way.
We were asked to stand, put our right hands across our bodies, moving them towards our left knees as we raised them. This was repeated for our left hands and right knees, making us perform a silly static march.
The instructor thought that this exercise, among other things, would also help us with our balance. This was important because “being able to balance on one leg with your eyes closed” was an indicator of an IQ above one hundred. To be honest, given that this was a training course for an overwhelmingly graduate population working in management or senior technical roles, I would be surprised if anyone in the room had a sub-one-hundred IQ anyway!
The proof of the pudding…
We then went back to the “calibration” exercises. “How does everyone’s brain feel?” shouted the instructor. A couple of people out of the hundred there made some affirming noises. Similarly, a few people claimed, when asked, to be hearing a bit better.
This was nothing more than the power of suggestion at work: an authority figure telling you to expect to feel better after doing something and then asking if you are. Not really surprising that a few people thought they were. I was surprised that the response rate was as low as two percent; the instructor seemed to be as well. Perhaps the size of the group was inhibiting the power of the placebo effect; or at least the willingness of people to share their perceptions.
Finally, we went back to trying to touch our toes. Unsurprisingly, second time around, most people found they could move their hands a bit further down their legs. Was this the power of suggestion again, or the inevitable consequence of having been “warmed up” by the first stretch? There is no way I could be sure, but both are plausible explanations – unlike the official Brain Gym™ wibble. This focussed on the exercises having stimulated the cerebrospinal fluid pumps in our bodies.
Why does this matter?
If taking an occasional break from work to do a little bit of gentle exercise and drink some water can help you re-focus, why worry if it comes with some pseudoscientific baggage?
Well, I don’t think that it’s good to promote bogus explanations for how our bodies work to anyone. I also think that it is not appropriate to promote such sloppy thinking within an organisation that aspires to be data-driven, applying engineering and science to develop its products.
Finally, I have a more prosaic concern. In these straightened economic times, should we be wasting money on this? Given the scrutiny that sensible purchases attract at the moment, the answer to this has to be a resounding no!
It’s sad that doing sensible things like taking a short break, coupled with a little light exercise and drinking a bit of water have to be dressed up in the emperors’ transparent and expensive garments.
I try to make sure that what I write is both accurate and fair. If you think that I have got anything wrong please let me know. If you are right I will happily change what I have written.
*This quackery has been covered extensively by Ben Goldacre both at badscience.net and in his excellent book, Bad Science. The coverage by the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight in April 2008 is also salutary; this can be found on YouTube here and here. Sense about Science has also produced an excellent briefing document. Wikipedia also carries an excellent article.
The problems with the Brain Gym™ concept have also been covered in the press.
Hyatt, KJ. Brain gym(r): Building stronger brains or wishful thinking? Remedial and Special Education, 28(2):117–124, April 2007. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280020201
5th November 2009. Images for “Brain Buttons” and “Hook Ups” linked back to Wikimedia Commons.
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