The class was practising Brain Gym, a system of gentle exercise that provides a break to periods of written work, gets the blood flowing and brings the class together in emotional and physical synchrony. We encourage the teachers to use this system as there is no question that these Brain Gym breaks are valuable - and they are great fun too!
But the originators of Brain Gym have had to deal with a fair degree of criticism in recent years. They have made unsubstantiated claims that their movements and manipulations of the body (e.g. pressing ‘brain buttons’ in the tummy) stimulate the brain and enhance learning and have been taken to task by brain researchers as there is no evidence for such claims.
People are hugely interested in the brain and want to know how discoveries in neuroscience can be applied to education. This keenness has lead to misunderstandings and the birth of modern ‘neuromyths’ about the brain.
For example, a widely-believed neuromyth is that the left and right brain hemispheres have separate, distinct cognitive functions, and that people can be characterised as left- or right-brain thinkers. We all know that left brain thinkers are logical and right-brain types are more creative, don’t we? But it is not that simple. It’s true that there is some hemispheric specialisation; for example, some aspects of face recognition are focused in the right hemisphere, while many aspects of language processing are left-lateralised. However, there are huge numbers of cross-hemispheric connections in the brain and every cognitive task so far explored with neuroimaging shows close coordination between the left and right hemispheres.
OK, but surely it is true that there are ‘male brains’ and ‘female brains’, isn’t it? Well, no. Cambridge’s Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, Borat’s brother!) argues that, in general, men are better at understanding logical systems (better systemisers) and women better at communication and understanding others (better empathisers). But Baron-Cohen’s use of the terms ‘male and female brains’ to reflect differences in thinking styles has been taken wrongly to imply radical brain differences between men and women. Research has revealed some gender differences between male and female brains (e.g. male brains have larger temporal lobes while females have larger anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices, on average) but the results of experiments designed to investigate gender differences in the brain are ambiguous, and there is little agreement about their significance. In short, male and female brains are more alike than they are different.
There are many other neuromyths in circulation, for example that individuals have specific learning styles and multiple intelligences, that only 10% of the brain is in use at any time and even that the brain will shrink if five to sixes glasses of water are not drunk daily!
Our hunger for information about the brain is being fed by educational products claiming to be based on brain science. Unfortunately, few parents or teachers have the scientific skills necessary to evaluate such packages critically so, all too often, effective marketing and the faddish nature of modern society allow them to get a foothold in homes and schools.
In summary, if, like Brain Gym, it is wholesome and your child enjoys it, let her engage with it. But don’t believe all that’s written on the tin, especially if the marketing blurb includes ‘brain’ or ‘neuro’!