Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).
All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:
– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.
Facing East is very important, because magic.
When I first heard of Superbrain Yoga I thought it was going to be a neuroscience-based pseudoscience, with some hand-waving explanations about blood flow or something. This one is actually blatantly spiritual magical nonsense.
This practice is based on the principles of subtle energy and ear acupuncture. Basically, SuperBrain Yoga allows energy from your lower chakras–or energy centers–to move up to the forehead and crown chakras. When this happens, this energy is transformed into subtle energy, which is utilized by the brain to enhance its proper functioning.
It’s Eastern mysticism, however, which is a far-off exotic culture, so that makes it OK.
When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.
The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)
Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.
When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).
The tidal effect answer is incredibly implausible for a number of reasons.
Pop psychology tells us we’re all either left brain dominant or right brain dominant. Really?
Perhaps the most pervasive popular belief that people associate with neuroscience is the idea that we all tend to be either left-brained or right-brained, based on traits like creativity or analytical ability. It’s well known that certain brain functions are localized in various parts of the brain, so it would seem to make sense that some of our individual strengths and weaknesses can be quantified based on brain hemisphere dominance. Quite a few companies even sell products intended to analyze your brain sidedness, promising a variety of personal development benefits. But is this belief — so widely held — good science, terrible science, or some mixture of the two?
Once in college, I took an Honors Colloquium class that was supposed to expose us to a wide variety of ideas and experiences. It was taught by three professors who were presented to us as being the smartest, most well-rounded guys on campus. One of our exercises was to take a test that was supposed to reveal our brain sidedness. The questions were similar to what you might get in a personality test, asking about whether you prefer math or art, privacy or crowds, planning ahead or working on the fly. Some days later we each received our results: a two-axis radar chart, showing a skewed diamond with its left and right corners representing the levels to which we depended on our left brain or right brain, and the top and bottom corners showing the degree to which we depended on our anterior or posterior parts of our brain. It was explained to us that these results could be used to help us self-assess our aptitudes at various skills. Would we be good at sales, leadership, or education? What areas of ourselves could we work on to improve ourselves? What kind of value could we add to an organization with our particular brain map?
Most students had crazily shaped radar charts that showed a strong dependence on one brain area or the other. The horizontal axis had a range of zero to 120 on both sides. We all thought that anyone who had a chart exceeding 100 on either side must be extraordinarily talented according to the popularly believed norms: if you were over 100 on the left you were a math or analytical genius; if you were over 100 on the right you were the next Mozart or Rembrandt. I was very proud that mine was the only one that was symmetrical, 94 on both sides; but after later reflection, I recalled that many of the questions had to do with the classes we were taking. At the time my idea was to double major in computer science and film directing, so I’d given a lot of answers that indicated I was both analytical and creative. I hadn’t had much experience in scientific skepticism at that point, but if I had, I might well have realized that the test was grossly unscientific and relied completely on self-reported answers that might have changed from one day to the next, depending on mood, terminology, context, and many other variables.
Looking at the same test now, I realize that was only the tip of the iceberg. Brain sidedness as a predictor of either preferences or aptitudes is unscientific for a very good reason: it’s virtually entirely wrong.
Let’s go back to that popular public assumption that the left brain is analytic and the right brain is creative, upon which so many of the questions in my Honors Colloquium test focused, and upon which the whole class based the entirety of their analyses of their test results. The natural inference is that people whose left brains are dominant must be good at analytical skills, and people whose right brains are dominant must be good at creative skills. The reverse would also be true: If you are a mathematician or engineer, we might deduce that you are left-brained; and if you’re an artist or poet, that you’re right-brained.
Where did this idea come from?