A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

The emperor’s new gym

Posted by apgaylard on November 1, 2009

emperorI 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: 

  1. invited to think how our brains were feeling;
  2. asked to concentrate on our hearing; was is clear or muffled?  Was it biased to one side or the other?
  3. 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

thinking_capDisappointingly, 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

Cross_CrawlThe 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 hereSense 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.

“British schools are falling for the pseudoscience of Brain Gym. Why fill kids’ heads with nonsense?” The Guardian, 7th April 2008.

“Brain Gym claims to be withdrawn”, The Times,  5th April 2008.

“Experts dismiss educational claims of Brain Gym programme”, The Guardian, 3rd  April 2008.

 “Exercise the brain without this transparent nonsense”, The Guardian, 25th March 2006.

“Brain Gym exercises do pupils no favours”, The Guardian, 18th March 2006.

 “Keep your pupils stretched and watered”, The Guardian, 13th June 2006.

“Work out your mind”, The Guardian, 12th June 2003.


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.


12 Responses to “The emperor’s new gym”

  1. David Colquhoun said

    Glad to see it is not only university HR emperors who are naked. More on this topic in Times Higher Education http://bit.ly/4DfAcI and at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226
    Some of the comments on THE from HR types show they are incapable of distinguishing sense from nonsense. The only solution to that is to fire them.

    • apgaylard said

      Yes, I’ve lost that smug feeling I used to have. Thanks for the links. I do think that HR does some useful things. Unfortunately it has a tendency to want to be the tail that wags the dog.

  2. jonhw said

    “being able to balance on one leg with your eyes closed” was an indicator of an IQ above one hundred

    Anecdotally, people pushing altie approaches often seem to get away with being monumentally tactless and stupid about disability-related issues. Lots of people struggle with balance for all kinds of reasons, but this obviously does not mean that they are lacking intelligence. I’m not sure why this type of thing is tolerated from ‘alternative’ professionals.

    • apgaylard said

      Thanks for the observation. I would guess that part of the problem is that the altie mindset relies on muddled and careless thinking.

  3. […] The emperor’s new gym « A canna’ change the laws of physics apgaylard.wordpress.com/2009/11/01/the-emperors-new-gym – view page – cached 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… (Read more)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. (Read less) — From the page […]

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by badscienceblogs: The emperor?s new gym: The day they made me do Brain Gym: Brain Buttons, Thinking Cap, Hook Ups and the Cross C.. http://bit.ly/3hZyCI

  5. warhelmet said

    I remember the ads in Marvel comics for Charles Atlas stuff. Does Brain Gym mean that I can kick sand in the face of the thickoes? Especially where I do the bit about having worked in HR and understanding how credulous “proper” HR people were and never quite getting my suggestion that they should be subject to the same sort of VFM discipline for company funded education as the rest. The irony of me asking for funding in astrology was not a joke that was enjoyed or generally understood.

  6. hughcharlesparker said

    A bit off topic, but… two of those photos are mine! That’s my mate Dave doing brain buttons and crossovers. Thanks for your flattering description of our Wikipedia article.

    • apgaylard said

      Yes they are. Thanks again for the really useful Wikipedia article. Please let me know if you would like better or different attribution under the Creative Commons license. Thanks aswell to Dave.

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