By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2005.
For three decades, educators, therapists, and movement facilitators have been utilizing a powerfully simple tool to break through cognitive barriers. Its success in restoring optimal learning potential through movement relies on creating a truly integrated mind/body dynamic. The process is called Brain Gym, a sort of gymnastics for the brain, and it’s changing how young minds learn.
This uncomplicated program has created effective change in people from more than 80 countries, throughout thousands of public and private schools, and in the realms of business, art, and sports. Utilizing the gentle Brain Gym movements has shown improved blood flow, better oxygenation, healthier physiology, heightened focus, more discreet listening skills, as well as positive shifts in balance, memory, vision, self-expression, attitude, attention, creative problem-solving, and organization.
Anecdotal accounts of Brain Gym’s capabilities show it has been used to improve a fifth-grader’s reading level, heighten a business executive’s acumen, bring about balance in the physically challenged, and dramatically change the language skills of a child struggling to express himself.
In addition to restoring natural communication in the brain/body system, lengthening muscles, relaxing the eyes, and stimulating both hemispheres of the brain, a primary goal of Brain Gym is to simply put the pieces back in order as a way to facilitate learning.
Finding New Paths
Developed by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., and his wife Gail, in the early 1970s, Brain Gym came about originally as a means to help children identified as learning disabled. After years of working with these youngsters as director of California’s Valley Remedial Group Learning Centers, Dennison synthesized his work with research coming out of the fields of education, personal development, and developmental vision. The cognitive successes he began seeing with the children continued to fuel his work, just as they brought educators flocking to his door for training and eager parents calling to schedule Brain Gym sessions for themselves.
Dennison supporters say he wasn’t looking to build what’s now become a worldwide organization; he just wanted to share the positive results of the work. It was word of mouth that became the lifeblood of this growing entity.
So what is Brain Gym exactly? In the simplest of terms, it’s a series of movements designed to create coherence between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, a process that then integrates learning into the physiology.1
When we’re under stress, we revert primarily to using just one side of our brain, cutting our learning potential essentially in half. “Brain Gym stimulates the nerves of the brain to integrate the brain’s activities for whole brain functioning,” says Sher Smith, a registered nurse and polarity therapy educator from Richmond Hill, Ontario. “When the nerves of the brain and nervous system are stimulated with these integrative movements, learning becomes easier, faster, and more in-depth.”2
To give some visual expression to the Brain Gym concept, let’s look at one of the simpler movements for reintegrating the brain. The cross crawl is really the epitome of Brain Gym in how it works to bring both hemispheres of the brain together. This cross-lateral movement has us walking in place while touching the right elbow to the left knee, and then the left elbow to the right knee.
In her book, Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., says the cross crawl “facilitates balanced nerve activation across the corpus callosum.”3 When done regularly, she says, “more nerve networks form and myelinate in the corpus callosum, thus making communication between the two hemispheres faster and more integrated for high-level reasoning.”
When done correctly, and at a very slow pace, the cross crawl activates the vestibular system and the frontal lobes.4 “The more fine muscle involvement, the more frontal lobe involvement in conjunction with the basal ganglion of the limbic brain and the cerebellum of the brain stem,” Hannaford says, adding that this is the movement she utilizes when she has writer’s block, while others find it helpful before undertaking sport or dance.
Brain buttons is another popular Brain Gym activity, helping to wake the mind, especially after a long day of work or study. By placing one hand over the belly button and then rubbing the fingers of the other between the first and second rib, directly under the clavicle, blood flow is stimulated to the brain. Hannaford says placing a hand on the navel brings attention to the gravitational center of the body. “This action alerts the vestibular system, which stimulates the reticular activating system to wake up the brain for incoming sensory input.”
The connection Brain Gym seeks goes beyond just the right and left brain hemispheres. It also strives to find coordination between the front and back areas of the brain, a process that facilitates focus. In a learning model, focus is imperative for interpretation, comprehension, and the ability to find meaning within the details.5
Additionally, Brain Gym works to coordinate the top and bottom of the brain, a centering process related to grounding, organization, expressing emotions, and rationality.6
When these three areas of connection are successfully achieved through the utilization of Brain Gym movements, we can learn through all our senses, with less stress, greater retention, and heightened creativity. What results is complete integration of the mind and body — as nature intended.
Why It Works
The hows and whys of what makes Brain Gym work are not as complicated as they may seem. It’s really about understanding what nature has given us instinctually and using it well.
“Movement awakens and activates many of our mental capacities,” Hannaford explains. “Movement integrates and anchors new information and experience into our neural networks.”7 In fact, she says, it’s movement that teaches us from birth how to interact with the world. “Movement within the womb gives us our first sense of the world and the beginning knowledge and experiences of the laws of gravity. We build on that movement to shape our vision, to explore the shape and form of our environment, and to interact with the people and forces around us.”8
When babies are born, their movement is random. As they develop, their movements become organized. Nature has designed it so that the movements babies want to do naturally stimulate their brains. When something stops this natural process, a variety of cognitive difficulties can arise — everything from speech problems to attention deficit disorder.
One example of that can be seen in babies who bypass crawling, or are not allowed to crawl enough. “We have known for years that children who miss the vitally important crawling stage may exhibit learning difficulties later on,” Hannaford says. “Crawling, a cross-lateral movement, activates development of the corpus callosum (the nerve pathways between the two hemispheres of the cerebrum). This gets both sides of the body working together, including the arms, legs, eyes (binocular vision), and the ears (binaural hearing).”9
Hannaford says this is just one of the reasons why movement is so important in the development of children. “It is essential to the learning process to allow children to explore every aspect of movement and balance in their environment, whether walking on a curb, climbing a tree, or jumping on the furniture.”10 Brain Gym facilitates that process and gives us the tools to reconnect with those sensations.
Unfortunately, the fact that movement and learning are elements of an integrative process has not always sat well with the scientific community, even today. When German physicians Eduard Hitzig and Gustav Fritsch discovered in 1864 that the cerebral cortex, known as the domain of higher thinking, was also responsible for movement,11 the controversy began. The belief was that movement was an element of much lesser importance than high reason, just as in the realm of education, recess, or physical education is considered subservient to reading or math.
“When we think about thinking,” Hannaford writes, “... we tend to regard it as a kind of disembodied process, as if the body’s role in that process were to carry the brain from place to place so it can do the important work of thinking ...We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: Learning, thought, creativity, and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Sensations, movements, emotions, and brain integrative functions are grounded in the body. The human qualities we associate with the mind can never exist separate from the body.”12
In addition to improved reading abilities, higher retention, and more refined listening skills, the results of Brain Gym are even more impressive when talking about severe, traumatic issues affecting children. Take, for example, Hannaford’s work with 10-year-old Amy who presented with a bad limp and erratic, monosyllabic, nonsensical speech, all the result of physical abuse she suffered at 6 weeks old. She could neither read, write, nor communicate, and was put in a classroom with other “emotionally handicapped” children.
After two months of working with Amy, Hannaford received a phone call from the girl’s mother conveying their pediatrician’s amazement at the child’s ability to now speak in sentences. “Because I was so close to Amy, I simply hadn’t noticed the shift,” Hannaford writes.
A few more months into practicing Brain Gym, Amy’s limp had diminished considerably, and by the end of the school year, Hannaford says the child was reading close to grade level, writing imaginative stories, and communicating effectively with everyone.
When a tragic train explosion occurred outside of Moscow in 1989, psychologist Svetlana Masgutova turned to Brain Gym to help the surviving children. “She used every professional tool she had with these badly burned children, including art therapy,” Hannaford says. “The pictures they drew were of charred, one-eyed monsters and burning horses ... After three months, over half of the children had died. The rest were symptomatically depressed, continuing to draw horrifying pictures in their art therapy sessions.”
Within weeks of implementing Brain Gym into the childrens’ therapy, their drawings began to change. “Bright colors emerged along with rainbows, butterflies, and children running through the meadows,” Hannaford says. “All of the children exhibited positive perspectives and were healing.”13
For Rose Harrow, finding Brain Gym was a transformative journey led by her massage clients. “I found it by accident,” Harrow says, today a senior member of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation, the parent organization of Brain Gym. As a massage therapist in the early 1980s, she began to notice a significant number of her clients were “feeling stuck.” Many of them worked for a successful investment firm and were considered the best of the best. “Yet, they weren’t able to make change in their lives based solely on cognitive understanding of their situation,” she says.
Even though many of these clients had previously explored various forms of mind/body therapy, Harrow says it was as if their “boots were nailed to the floor.” They felt they couldn’t change jobs, leave a bad marriage, or go talk to the boss about a raise. When Harrow was massaging these clients, they would inevitably undo her work in a matter of minutes. “They would start talking about their job and their muscles would turn to rocks before my very eyes. It really demonstrated the mind/body connection.”
At the same time, Harrow was searching for her own answers. “I was in a transitional stage in my life, feeling similarly stuck, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.” Harrow says, like her clients, she also knew something needed to change in her life, but she didn’t know what it was or how to make it happen.
When Harrow came across Brain Gym, she knew immediately it was the answer for not only her clients’ issues, but her own as well. “When I experienced Brain Gym, I felt my brain wake up in a way I’ve never felt before,” she explains. “The lightbulb went on, and I realized this is who I really am. I felt access to my own abilities in a new way.”
Harrow says not everyone has such a dramatic “ah ha” moment with Brain Gym; typically the process is more gradual. But when that lightbulb does shine so quickly for someone experiencing Brain Gym for the first time, it’s an exciting thing to see.
Now 20 years into teaching Brain Gym to others in this country and around the world, Harrow says one of her favorite stories is of a little boy who was having nothing but trouble in school. In his first Brain Gym session with Harrow, a big smile suddenly warmed the boy’s face as he said, “My brain’s never done that before. Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!”
Even though Harrow isn’t offering bodywork anymore, she stays connected with this clientele in a different way. “I have a number of bodyworkers and psychotherapists who send their clients to me because Brain Gym makes the bodywork and therapy easier,” she says. “It facilitates the work. Because people are able to think more clearly, feel more clearly, and are not so blocked and overwhelmed, the therapy process can work.”
Owls and Elephants
Of the 26 movements that make up Brain Gym, many were created out of Dennison’s “knowledge of the relationship of movement to perception and the impact this has on fine motor and academic skills.”14 The rest were born out of his training as a marathon runner and his study of vision training, Jin Shin Jitsu, and applied kinesiology.
From the owl to the elephant to brain buttons, all of the Brain Gym movements are simple enough for a child and gentle enough for the elderly. One of the amazing things about Brain Gym, Harrow says, is that it’s respectful of each individual. “You can do 2 to 3 minutes of Brain Gym for a 5-year-old or a 90-minute session with an adult.” That flexibility allows the program to follow the needs of the client, an essential part of the Brain Gym protocol.
When teachers utilize Brain Gym in the classroom, they often introduce it at the beginning of the day and just after recess. Others ask students to undertake a few minutes of Brain Gym as they switch from subject to subject, better preparing the brain for a new set of learning tasks. Hannaford says she does Brain Gym before undertaking any activity that requires total integration.
While Brain Gym has immediate effects, it’s also cumulative in nature, further strengthening the integrated balance with each round of movements.
“You don’t have to have something wrong with you to benefit from Brain Gym,” Harrow explains. “It’s for everybody who wants to enhance their performance.” So, while Brain Gym was originally designed with children in mind, and highly utilized in elementary education settings, the mental exercise is really for everyone.
“I have taught Brain Gym to technically good musicians who found they could finally feel and express the passion in the music they played,” Hannaford writes. “Visual artists I have taught were stunned by the depth of expression they could achieve in their work.”15 And athletes of all type and degree of proficiency have sought out Brain Gym to improve their play and focus. “We have professional performers doing Brain Gym, because they just want to move to the next level,” Harrow says. “They want that edge, that excellence.”
In its more common application in the classroom, Brain Gym is turning little brains on all across the globe, minute by minute. “Movement stimulates the connections in the brain and reduces stress,” Harrow says. “It’s what they need the most to be ready to learn.” And even more than that, she says, “Brain Gym helps you have access to what your brain is capable of. It unlocks potential and restores the natural joy of learning.”