23 novembre 2008

Brain exercises are 'waste of time'

Paul Kelbie
The Observer

Professor says that nobody should be fooled by 'dangerous' myths about boosting creativity.

Brain exercises, such as those taught to thousands of schoolchildren or advertised on television to adults as a way to prevent dementia, are a waste of time and money, a neuroscientist has claimed.

An award-winning Scottish professor says measures such as breathing through the left nostril, drinking water to increase oxygen supply to the brain, drinking red wine to fend off dementia or listening to classical music to boost performance are little more than myths. Sergio Della Sala has done more than 20 years' research on the brain.

The Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh will next month attempt to expose many of the most common myths in a speech at the university's inaugural Christmas Lecture, when he will become the first recipient of the Tam Dalyell Prize for Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science.

'There are all kinds of myths that surround the brain. Some are passed on in good faith, some are funny and have been made up by pranksters, while others are designed with commercial reasons in mind - these are the most dangerous,' said Della Sala.

He is especially critical of exercises taught to children, which he claims have no bearing on how the brain works and won't improve students' performance.

'Despite how ridiculous many of these exercises are, this is no laughing matter,' argued Della Sala. 'Some of the exercises are so simplistic you wonder whether we have lost our capacity for critical thinking when it comes to education. One of the exercises involves asking kids to breathe through the left nostril so that the air goes up into the right hemisphere and stimulates the right side of the brain to make the kid more creative,' he said.

'A tiny problem in this thinking is that air goes down to the lungs rather than up to the brain. So I think it is safe to say that you can't stimulate the right side of your brain by breathing through your nostril. Besides the idea that the right side of the brain is the creative side is utter nonsense.'

While the brain does have two hemispheres that do different things, the professor said there was no scientific reason to believe that one side is more creative than the other.

He said another popular misconception that had become accepted as fact was that the drinking of water stimulates the brain by allowing it to absorb more oxygen.

'Luckily enough, water never goes up into the brain because if it did we would die,' said Della Sala. 'As for classical music making you cleverer, there is no evidence, and yet it has become a fact in the minds of people.' The professor says his aim is to encourage the public to hold up false statements to proper scrutiny.

'There are advertisements for games which claim they can make your brain perform like a younger person's or you can prevent dementia by gulping down gallons of red wine. Unfortunately these quick fixes just aren't true.

'Another typical myth is that we only use 10 per cent of our brains. Logically that means we can afford to lose the other 90 per cent, but if that was true people who suffer a stroke or head injury wouldn't have any problems. We send teachers on courses to find out how to teach preposterous exercises to children based on flim-flam evidence at a cost of thousands of pounds.

'A lot of these myths take a little bit of science to the extreme, so that the logic disappears. Sometimes this happens in good faith, sometimes it's for fun, and sometimes it's because people make money. Neuroscience has become a popular way for people to make wild irrational claims, and I'm looking to have a go back at these lies.'