Sunday, 7 October 2012

Brain bullshit

I've written about Learning styles and more recently Neuro-linguistic programming, and with the latter, felt that I had really reached the limit of silliness in ELT.  But low and behold, just as a I stagger, punch drunk away from my computer a new contender arrives.
If you're a fan of Ben Goldacre, then you'll have heard of BrainGym.  To recap, BrainGym is a series of exercises that kids do in schools around the UK and the US.  You might do these exercises in the middle of a class or at the start and it would look at bit like this.  The UK sense about science has criticised BrainGym claiming it "undermines science".  The exercises on their own would be fine, but they are wrapped up in bizarre pseudo scientific explanations such as that humans have "brain buttons" and rubbing them (micro-interventions) will supply the brain with oxygenated blood.  Or that BrainGym can help with connecting the electrical circuits in the body.  They also make all manner of specious claims, from the sublime (Working with computers will lead to dehydration) to the ridiculous (processed food contains no water). 
I thought having been debunked thoroughly, the EFL world was safe, but no, it seems that no idea is too ludicrous for us.  As I searched for articles on the very odd NLP, I came across a teacher talking abut how he uses BrainGym in his TEFL classes.  And he is not alone, Phillip Kerr talks about his DOS having used BrainGym in the classroom.   I'm sure these are very nice, well-meaning people, -but it does matter what we expose our students to. 
Let's be clear about this BrainGym, doesn't "work", it can't work unless we can substantially alter human physiology.  Doing the BrainGym exercises in class may have benefits for students, but they are not for the reasons BrainGym suggests. In fact, having students stand and and move their bodies would probably improve their ability to concentrate, after all, there is evidence that sitting for long periods might not be very good for us,  but standing up and moving is not BrainGym.  BrainGym is an expensive program built on nonsense. Rubbing your "brain buttons" does not increase blood flow to the brain and if you tell your students this you are lying to them.  Now, while I think teachers often get a lot of undeserved flack, shouldn't they be...erm...telling students the truth?
Unsurprisingly BrainGym seems inexorably linked to that other great lark, multiple intelligences and it's not surprising to see people promoting it are also "master practitioners of NLP".  I'm all for teachers trying new things and heavens knows EFL is a broad church but surely we have to demand a minimum level of accountability and ask that teachers have a little bit of healthy scepticism when it comes to choosing what to bring into the classroom.  By all means, do exercises in the classroom, it'll probably be good for students, but don't call it BrainGym.


  1. I have to whole heartedly agree with everything you have written here. Brain gym is just another load of marketing bullocks designed to make a lot of money, and the people behind it should quite honestly be ashamed of themselves. On their website they charge 30 dollars for a poster showing 8 'BrainGym' exercises, one of which is drinking water. That's the price of an entire textbook. Shameful.

    Keep up the good work my friend,


  2. Thanks Alex and thanks for the heads up about the spam filter...I'll try to sort that out.