Exploding the myths
Brain Gym - that popular exercise routine for rebalancing your brain - is coming under sustained fire. Latest to take aim is one of the most senior scientists in the country, the neurologist Professor Colin Blakemore.
On BBC's Newsnight last week, he described one of its central notions as "just nonsense" and said Brain Gym was dressing up classroom exercises with "this dogma ... of pseudo science" that would leave young people and teachers with damaging "misperceptions".
A leading UK advocate of Brain Gym, who appeared in the exercise programme, acknowledged that the explanations of how it worked were "pseudo-scientific" but said it worked well enough to be worth using.
And that is the problem with Brain Gym. While the scientific basis for its exercises might be highly questionable, not just its promoters but many teachers say it works. If Brain Gym collapses in a storm of ridicule, I fear that teachers might draw the wrong conclusion.
What is Brain Gym? It grew out of claims in the 1960s that some simple exercises, focused on co-ordinating perceptual and movement skills, could repattern the brain. More specifically, that these could help overcome learning difficulties arising from an imbalance in left-right hemispheric dominance. Research in the 1970s and 1980s failed to confirm the theory, and evaluation of the practice has never produced convincing evidence for its effectiveness.
One study by Reynolds et al. claimed as recently as 2003, in the well-established journal Dyslexia, that co-ordination exercises improved reading skills but the quality of the research and its findings were immediately contested in no less than nine articles, and the editor published an apologetic response.
Despite never having persuaded the scientific community, Brain Gym has flourished. Why? Well, it is partly the attraction of neuroscience (see Weisberg et al. below). We know from surveys that teachers are desperate to learn more about the brain. But there is another factor that reflects admirable cunning rather than gullibility on teachers' part.
Schools are increasingly aware of the need for children to exercise, to maintain fitness, develop healthy exercise habits and ward off the growing threat of obesity, even in childhood. However, the squeeze on curriculum time makes this difficult to achieve - how can literacy and numeracy be reduced for the sake of star jumps? Into this dilemma steps Brain Gym, the exercise that claims to support specific areas of learning and can be included as part of literacy. A little Brain Gym, as I have observed in schools, can easily slip into some more aerobic and valuable exercise.
But now schools are learning from neuroscientists that we don't, as Brain Gym claims, have "brain buttons" that change blood flow to the brain (a "particularly amusing" idea, says Professor Blakemore - rather like pressing on the wall next to the pipes to regulate your central heating system.) Thanks to a systematic failure to keep teachers informed about the brain as part of their training and development, they are being vilified for their stupidity in The Guardian's Bad Science column and "named and shamed" on the website of Ben Goldacre, the psychiatrist who writes it. (Yes, if you have the words Brain Gym on your school website, you'll be there).
So should children now stop exercising and return to their desks? The answer is: absolutely not. Exercise does improve learning, and a new understanding of its role in cognition is emerging from (you guessed it) neuroscience. A review drawing together results from 44 studies concluded that levels of physical activity are correlated to many categories of cognitive performance in school-age children, including IQ and achievement, and mathematical and verbal testing. And increasing the amount of time directed towards health-based activities such as physical education has never been shown to impinge on academic performance.
Physical fitness is associated with blood flow in frontoparietal areas, regions that play a key role in higher-order and mathematical reasoning processes. Even short periods of exercise have been shown to improve learning in the short term and long term, if they are intense.
A recent study of healthy adults revealed a 20 per cent increase in the speed of recall for words they learnt immediately following two three-minute sprints, compared to sedentary or moderate exercise conditions. These participants also showed increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for the neural processes that support learning.
In studies with animals, exercise has been shown to increase the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved with the consolidation of memory.
It is no longer hard to find scientific justification for including exercise as part of academic curriculum time; it's just that Brain Gym doesn't look energetic enough to have much effect on learning. Less packaged, aerobic exercise is likely to be much more effective. So hang up your "hook ups", but don't throw away short exercise breaks during lessons: physical activity does support learning.
Paul Howard-Jones is a senior lecturer in education and co-ordinator of the Centre for Psychology and Learning in Context (CPLiC) at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.
Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., Gray, J. (2008). The seductive lure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477
Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., Framer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65
Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F. C., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., et al. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87, 597-609.