Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

False Legitimacy and Pseudoscience in Learning and Brain Power
November 2, 2010, 5:05 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Brain training has been a popular racket for both the gaming industry and pseudoscientists alike. It cashes in on peoples’ fear of depleting faculties, or the chance for people to take their brain power to a greater level. Nintendo has sold over 17 million units of its Dr Kawashima brain training titles world-wide since their release in 2005 (Nintendo, 2009). While the Brain Gym training program is in use in more than 87 countries (Brain Gym, 2009). These two programs will form the basis of this study, which aims to understand why people have placed so much faith in these platforms for increasing their brain power despite a lack of empirical evidence of their effectiveness. The study will address particular instances where consumers have fallen prey to their own heuristics and cognitions in making a valid assessment of the legitimacy of these programs. To assess this correctly several different aspects will be regarded. First, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Age will be used as a case study of how irresponsible marketing can create an illusion of the legitimacy of pseudoscience. Then Brain Gym will be studied to determine the authenticity of its claims in aiding learning and brain functioning. Finally, the 6 leads of opinion change will be applied the two programs to determine how consumers can be roped in by this pseudoscience.

Legitimate and objective evidence should be held in greater esteem, as people often fall victim to their own beliefs and expectations about the world. This can be harmful as it causes them to disregard conflicting information, even if it dismisses their initial expectations (Gilovich, 1991). By dismissing this information, it will lead to the reinforcement of faulty data as fact and can lead to unhealthy or outright ludicrous decisions. Plous (1993), a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, explains that we will actively search for information that will support an expectation which we have and ignore contradictory information, resulting in a confirmation bias.

This knowledge is important to apply to brain power programs because they relate directly with people’s mental health and well being, and improper or misconstrued information about these programs can be dangerous and reduce research for better alternatives. Brain training games, specifically Brain Age – developed by Nintendo and Dr Kawashima – aims to stimulate your brain by giving it a workout (Nintendo, 2007a). This workout includes using the software on the Nintendo DS hand-held console daily. It provides puzzles such as counting, math problems, memory, and drawing, and tracks your progress over time. Brain Gym is a program that was developed by the Education Kinesiology Foundation, and it uses 26 physical movements that apparently help with learning problems, and create new pathways in the brain (Brain Gym, 2009a). These movements are based on the first years of an infant’s life, when they are learning to coordinate movements. The problem with both of these programs is that they are based on no legitimate evidence that they actually do the things they are purported to achieve, as will be discovered throughout this paper.

In a peer reviewed study conducted by Nacke, Nacke and Lindley (2009), they address the effectiveness of brain training games on the aging population. They found that brain training games, regardless of the age of the user, are more effective when done with pen and paper than with the Nintendo DS. Another peer reviewed study, in Nature (Owen et al., 2010), addressed the growing concern over the lack of evidence for programs that sought to improve cognitive functioning via computer games. 11,430 participants were involved in a six week study that aimed to determine whether these games can improve the general level of cognitive functioning. The results indicated that while the participants did get better at the particular tasks for each mini-game, there was no transfer of this skill onto general levels of cognitive functioning. The New Scientist biomedical news editor, Thompson (2010), has also gone on record to claim that no trial has ever shown concrete proof that these types of brain training games have ever worked in the way they are marketed. So why do people continue to buy these games, and do they honestly believe they increase their brain power?

The Brain Age website (Nintendo, 2007b), advertises the game as the workout that your brain needs. It uses exercise as a premise for legitimising the game, that is, just like the gym is for exercising your body, the Brain Age game is for exercising your brain – all it takes is a few minutes a day to increase your brain power! The game is based on the work by a Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, which Nintendo proudly boasts as much as possible, seemingly to legitimise the game by preying on people’s perceptions. This approach uses hot cognition in the way that it heightens a person emotional response to the game by making them focus on the ‘legitimacy of pseudoscience’ through the use of a doctor and allusions to a fitness regime. To properly understand how people can believe in this false-authenticity it is important to look at a typical review done on the game by a gaming magazine; the main sources of information to refer to when buying the software. In a review by Harris (2006), on the multimedia review website IGN, the author claims that Brain Age is the equivalent of a fitness club. He goes on to say that, “the science isn’t entirely accurate”, but then begins to refer to the actual technology of the Nintendo DS and its touch screen, and nothing to do with the science behind the actual anticipated outcomes from the game. Harris also seems to unknowingly sell the game using hot cognition, like persuading readers that their mind will sweat from using the game, just like a regular work out. The article makes no scientific references to the legitimacy of the science behind the daily workout and rather focuses on the positive aspects of its user friendliness or nice interface, which in turn affects judgement with the use of irrelevant information.

When a user actually plays the game, they are supposed to use it every day and play the same games over and over so the user can see how much ‘smarter’ they have become. What is actually happening could be a learning effect. By playing the same games over time, it allows the user to learn how to play the game better, rather than actually increasing their cognitive ability or intelligence. When the player then refers to the graphs that tracks their progress, they see how their skill level has increased over time, which they then attribute to an increase in their intelligence. This relays an expectation that they have about the program from the attempted legitimisation of the games scientific credibility done by Nintendo, and the game reviewers, who ignore the key issue of whether or not it actually increases brain power.

The other major contributor to the field of increasing brain power is the Brain Gym. It was founded by Paul Dennison, who based it on his earlier books (Brain Gym, 2009b). The purpose of his earlier work was to develop more effective ways for disabled children and adults to learn. This earlier work was combined with his knowledge acquired as a marathon runner, in vision training, and in acupressure. His wife Gail also influenced the inception of Brain Gym with her background in dance, vision training, and acupressure. The pair claim that the program works by repeating particular movements which causes the brain to optimise its storage and retrieval of information (Brain Gym, 2009c). It also creates strengthened or new pathways between different parts of the brain and the nervous system using 26 different movements. So they believe that someone whose brain is not interconnected properly will benefit significantly from this program.

Despite the evidence showing a lack of support for the program, 87 countries around the world still use Brain Gym in some of their schools’ curriculum (Brain Gym, 2009a). Goswami (2006), director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education, directly attacked the claims of the Brain Gym program as ‘neuromyths’ and that the only reason why they were being used in schools across the United Kingdom was due to the sales tactics employed at information seminars for teachers.

A segment on the British Broadcasting Corporations Newsnight program (Ghosh, 2008) interviewed teachers and scientists about the effectiveness of Brain Gym. The teachers just regurgitated the same claims that the seminars had informed them of, and supposedly believed in the effectiveness of the program. However, Professor Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist at Oxford university, believed that the movements, such as pressing your hands beneath the clavicle while rubbing your stomach – which is supposed to increase blood flow to the brain and aid its electromagnetic activity, is utterly nonsense. He likens it to pressing your hand on the wall of your house to change the central heating system, and that by ignoring better alternative education programs, they are actually harming the children. Paul Howard Jones of Bristol University agrees that it is possible that it may improve response times, however there is no evidence that it changes brain wiring. The children, when asked how it works, respond just like the teachers by regurgitating the claims from the Brain Gym founders, such as: “It works by increasing blood flow to the brain”. This demonstrates that the children and teachers have strong expectations for the program to work, and that despite a lack of evidence that grades or education levels have increased since it has been used, they seem to pick and choose what they want acknowledge. The problem with an open-ended expectation like this is that they have no concrete operational definitions, and it allows the teachers and children the opportunity to ignore the lack of evidence because it does trigger the initial belief (Gilovich, 1991). On the other hand, the children’s and teacher’s belief will be triggered when they observe instances that support their expectations, such as an increase in grades. They then attribute this increase to the effectiveness of Brain Gym.

Another fault with the interpretation of the legitimacy of Brain Gym seems to stem from the teachers’ and founders’ focus on the positive aspects of the program. Teachers that hold the expectation that the program works will only choose to look at the information in the positive squares (see table 1).

Using Brain Gym/No increase in brain power (-)


Using Brain Gym/Increase brain power (+)
Not using Brain Gym/No increase in brain power (+) Not using Brain Gym/Increase in brain power (-)


Table 1. Representation of outcomes from using Brain Gym

In fact they are ignoring two key alternative explanations for any increase in aptitude as a result from undertaking Brain Gym. The first is the self-fulfilling prophecy effect, where the teachers will tell the kids how effective this will be on their brain power, and as a result the students will then begin to think they are becoming smarter and so will focus harder on their work so that they do not fall behind the other students who are also getting smarter, and also so they do not disappoint themselves and their teachers. Another explanation from Goldacre (2003), a medical doctor and journalist, was that just having the exercise and regular breaks involved with Brain Gym, was more effective than the pseudoscience behind it in aiding children in learning.

In considering why people would believe that these pseudoscientific programs can boost brain power, it is important to address the 6 leads of opinion change. First, they actually believe that they can increase their brain power by using these programs. Second, they consider their opinion on the effectiveness of these programs to be legitimate. We can see this in Brain Age by the attempted authenticity Nintendo lends to the program, and the selective bias of the teachers and students who use Brain Gym. Third, the data is misleading in both instances because they both pass themselves off as having legitimate scientific backing for their programs, yet upon further examination they fail the empirical tests. Fourth, the data that stems from current research on the effectiveness of the programs is often ignored or dismissed by the program coordinators and users. Fifth, the only evidence that would really affect the beliefs of the users is perhaps greater public awareness of the benefit of scientific rigour in addressing pseudoscience, and denouncement of such programs  by government funded education authorities. And finally, they may not even feel it is worth finding out  about conflicting evidence if they enjoy the games and see no harm in playing them. However the ramifications of attitudes like this will leave them unaware of how they could be spending their time on more beneficial alternatives to actually increasing their brain power.


Brain Gym. (2009a). What is “Brain Gym”? Retrieved October 3, 2010, from http://www.braingym.org/about

Brain Gym. (2009b). History. Retrieved October 3, 2010, from http://www.braingym.org/history

Brain Gym. (2009b). FAQ. Retrieved October 3, 2010, from http://www.braingym.org/faq

Ghosh, P. (Writer). (2008, April 2). Newsnight [Television broadcast]. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Macmillan.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature, 7 (5), 406-413.

Goldacre, B. (2003). Work out your mind. Retrieved October 4, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2003/jun/12/badscience.science

Nacke, L. E., Nacke, A., & Lindley, C. A. (2009). Brain training for silver gamers: effects of age and game form on effectiveness, efficiency, self-assessment, and gameplay experience. CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 12 (5), 493-499.

Nintendo. (2007a). What is Brain Age? Retrieved October 2, 2010, from http://www.brainage.com/launch/what.jsp

Nintendo. (2007b). Brain Age: Home. Retrieved October 2, 2010, from http://www.brainage.com/launch/index.jsp

Nintendo. (2009). Financial Results Briefing for Fiscal Year Ended March 2009. Retrieved October 2, 2010, from http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2009/090508e.pdf

Plous, S. (1993). The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Thompson, H. (2010, October 4). Mental muscle: six ways to boost your brain. New Scientist, 2780, 28-33.


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