Does Brain Gym Make You Smarter?

Pseudo-science and the psychology of jargon

Posted Jul 02, 2012

Who doesn’t want to get smarter? Who wouldn’t love to have a better memory, more creativity and a faster learning curve?

The Brain Gym Company claims to have found a number of ways people can attain all these goals.  But their wacky mixture of pseudo-science and balderdash—as engagingly described in Ben Goldacre’s entertaining book Bad Science—is more a function of bamboozlement through jargon than of any real proof that the program works. 

Take this hilarious logic:

                (1) The brain needs oxygen to function

                (2) Blood carries oxygen to the brain

                (3) Blood is mainly made of water

                (4) The mouth is near the brain, thus

                (5) Holding water in your mouth will improve brain function!

Too ridiculous of an argument to sell Brain Gym programs?  Unfortunately, not.  Because obscuring their illogic is a panoply of pseudo-scientific words: Their techniques, for instance, lead to “increased oxidation for efficient relaxed functioning.” 

The Brain Gym folks clearly realize how impressed people are by oxidation! 

Goldacre explains how this baloney jargon works, describing an experiment showing that when people read the description of a research finding—one purportedly on a recent neuroscience result—they are more impressed when the description includes an irrelevant but nevertheless jargon-filled sentence. 

Concerned as I am about medical decision making, I couldn’t help but compare Brain Gym to some of the stories I tell in my forthcoming Critical Decisions book (which I promise to mention no more than every third post or so), stories detailing the jargon-filled verbiage gushing out of physicians’ mouths as they earnestly try to educate patients about their health-care choices.  Doctors aren’t trying to bamboozle patients with this language of course.  But the end effect is much the same.  By the time patients hear all this jargon, many are so impressed by their physician’s knowledge, regardless of whether the jargon is relevant to the decision at hand, that they accept whatever treatment the doctor recommends. 

I wonder if patients can overcome this problem with a little more oxidation?