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reader comments: Brain Gym

27 Feb 2014
Dear Mr Carroll:
What a pity that you are such a skeptic. Science isn't the only explanation for how things work. I have worked with hundreds of children of all ages, who have experienced learning difficulties.
The Brain Gym exercises have helped them enormously to function more successfully in the classroom. My experience in the classroom as a teacher of a number of subjects spans now over 50 years. More than enough time to judge if a programme works. Believe me, I am not a gullible person and I like to explore all avenues of possible success before I try something new. While I have a great deal of respect for Science, I am still open-minded enough to realise that there just might be other ways of doing things which work. With all the exciting revelations about neuroplasticity, we can only wonder about what is possible.

Ann W.

reply: You are right. Science isn't the only explanation for how things work, but it's better than any other method humans have come up with in our attempt to understand ourselves and the universe we live in. Science can even explain why most of us are drawn to magical thinking rather than critical thinking. Our species has evolved to be excellent at seeing patterns and making causal connections. Science has developed methods to determine whether the patterns we see are real or illusory. Many people, for example, see vaccines as causing autism because they see a pattern: signs of autism were observed after a vaccination. Their instincts fill them with certainty about the connection between vaccinations and autism. They find others who think the same way and support them. They agree with whoever confirms their biases and they disagree with those who don't. Scientific study of the data regarding vaccinations and autism, however, have found no evidence of a causal connection.

Yes, it's true, science can't explain everything, but it can explain why so many people prefer intuition and the subjective feeling of certainty when they are contradicted by the scientific evidence. Many people are certain that global warming is a hoax because they are experiencing a very cold winter. They are certain that the severity of the droughts in Brazil, California, and Australia, as well as the rising temperature and acidity of the oceans and the melting of polar ice and glaciers, are just part of a natural cycle. As a nurse once told me and anyone else who was within listening distance: it's all due to the natural cycles of the Sun. He could cite a scientific article that proved his belief. He was exuding confidence and certainty in his announcement. The scientific evidence indicates otherwise, however. Do the climate-change deniers consider that they might be wrong? Do they admit that intuition and subjective feeling may not be the best evidence for such complex issues as global climate? No. Instead they claim that the vast majority of climate scientists are involved in some sort of conspiracy to mislead the public. This is very human, but also very stupid. Science can't explain everything, but it is much more likely to have a sound understanding of such things as vaccines and climate than average citizens relying on commonsense, feeling certain, and confirmation bias.

I would keep in mind the allure of magical thinking and the power of critical thinking before singing the praises of Brain Gym and neuroplasticity. Why? As I point out in the entry on Brain Gym, neither the theoretical speculations nor the practical claims for the program can pass scientific muster. The brain theory it is based on is completely bogus and the exercises, while fun, haven't been validated by science, though they have been validated by numerous testimonials from teachers such as yourself. What is the basis for the teachers' support of the program? Their experience....in your case, 50 years of experience. You just know it works. You've seen the results. The fact that your intuitions do not match the science leads you and many other teachers, apparently, to conclude that there is something wrong with the science. You are like the chiropractors who would not give up their belief in applied kinesiology (AK)--which the founders of Brain Gym praise unreservedly--when it failed a double-blind randomized test whose protocols they had agreed to. One of the chiropractors responded to the failure of AK to work as advertised with the smug dismissal: "You see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!" Those chiropractors, too, are sure there are other ways of doing things that work besides those that haven't been discredited by scientific examination. They follow their gut feelings and their experience. They know it works. They've seen it work. It is a testament to the power of magical thinking that they are unable to see when it doesn't work that they have been deluding themselves. 

Regarding neuroplasticity: I have recently addressed this concept in response to another reader, so I won't repeat myself here.

Brain Gym


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