Mental exercise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am

Children in many schools in Britain and the US start the day with exercises, but not the usual kind. They might, for example, practise balancing and co-ordination manoeuvres or the 'cross crawl' - moving with their left hands on their right knees. And if they roll their heads and yawn theatrically, it has nothing to do with being tired. Welcome to 'Brain Gym'.

Brain Gym, a set of exercises based on neuroscientific theory and designed to increase brain function and alertness, has caught on fast. A plethora of educational programmes have appeared on the market claiming to be based on the 'functioning of the brain' and using scientific jargon to back their claims.

Brain Gym advocates argue that certain types of physical activity aid learning and that pressing 'brain buttons' on the body can 'improve blood flow to the brain'.

Other methods include accelerated learning programmes, some based on 'activating' the left or right sides of the brain, and neurolinguistic programming, which suggests that ways of organising information can help knowledge absorption.

Teachers use a variety of methods but there is still no explanation for what causes the 'aha!' moment, when teaching that seems to be having little impact on young minds suddenly falls into place.

Neuroscientists, meanwhile, have been seeking the teaching Holy Grail - an explanation of what makes learning 'sink in'. It is only recently that the two have started collaborating.

'There is a belief shared by researchers in both fields that neuroscience is relevant to education and needs to be explored,' said Paul Howard-Jones, of the University of Bristol, and co-ordinator of the Neuroscience and Education Network.

'More pressingly, popular ideas about the brain have flourished without check, and are impacting on teaching and learning already,' he said.

Knowing when certain parts of the brain are activated and under what conditions - using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electroencephalograms (EEG) - is useful to 'map' and better understand learning.

Neuroscience has already contributed to a change in educational thinking by revealing the surprising extent to which the brain is still developing in adolescence and young adulthood.

Although the collaboration between teachers and scientists is still in its early days, there have been some successes, with education drawing directly on neuroscience, including neurofeedback, the monitoring of one's brain activity with scalp-sensors attached to a computer.

Modern neurofeedback technology already allows robots and wheelchairs to be controlled by thought processes. Now university students are being taught to consciously control brainwave activity to increase responsiveness. The technique has been used experimentally with music and dance students with positive results.

'One particular neurofeedback protocol had quite a beneficial effect on the quality of students' [music] performances,' said Aaron Williamon of the Royal College of Music in London.

'Furthermore, the students who showed the greatest improvement were those who had learned neurofeedback protocol most successfully.'

More research is needed to understand why this is, but Dr Williamon added that the real challenge was to find the best way to integrate such ways of learning into the curriculum.

Researchers are also studying the use of neuroscience to improve creative thinking among drama students using stimuli that increase brain activities associated with creative effort.

The results were presented recently at conferences in Germany, Holland and Finland, the countries furthest ahead in testing the claims made by advocates of 'brain-based learning'.

'In the future, neuroscience promises to positively influence the policy, practice and experience of education in a number of important areas,' Professor Howard-Jones, who has been working with drama students, said.

Brain Gym practitioner Buffy McClelland has begun to co-operate with neuroscientists at Oxford University to examine what is happening in the brain.

'Brain Gym is a very specific set of movements and balance exercises which help students to be more positive about learning,' Ms McClelland said, adding she believed 20 minutes of movement a day could help increase the reading age of a child by a year. 'But we would like to get scientifically controlled evidence,' she said.

Unlike some commercial learning products that claim to be derived from neuroscience: 'Brain Gym is a purely pragmatic and empirical technique that has grown out of work in the mid-1960s looking at movement and learning.'

Academics have already noticed a greater openness by the education establishment towards examining the neuroscientific bases of learning.

Recently, education theorists and neuroscientists at the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, based at London University's postgraduate Institute of Education, reviewed existing brain-based commercial learning products in light of existing scientific knowledge.

The review described as 'wasted effort' accelerated learning programmes based on 'learning style preferences', which advocate that presenting material best suited to an individual's learning style - visual, auditory or kinaesthetic - can aid learning.

The report also said there was no reliable evidence that dividing pupils into 'left-brained' and 'right-brained' was helpful for teaching and learning as 'no part of the brain is ever normally inactive'.

'Furthermore, performance in most everyday tasks, including learning tasks, requires both [brain] hemispheres to work in a sophisticated parallel fashion,' the report said.

So what of Brain Gym? 'The pseudo-scientific terms that are used to explain how this works, let alone the concepts that they express, are unrecognisable within the domain of neuroscience,' the report said. 'Brain buttons', which 're-establish brain organisation required for reading and writing', clearly do not exist, it said.

Yet it noted that short sessions of Brain Gym exercise had indeed been shown to improve response times. 'Such strategies, if they are effective, may work because exercise can improve alertness,' the report suggested.

Until the science of the mind is better understood, the jury is still out.

Institute of Education, University of London: 'Neuroscience and Education, Issues and Opportunities. A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme' (2007).