The Kids Who See Blindfolded
Today we're heading to India, where a wave of a new technique in child education appears to be conferring an almost magical superpower upon children: the ability to see blindfolded. They can read books, even reportedly see through solid objects, all while securely blindfolded. Parents all over the country are scrambling to give their children this apparent edge in life, buying expensive classes for their kids to learn this skill. And all indications given to the general public are that it works. The kids have even been featured on television showing off this incredible ability.
The Indian specialists who teach children mind skills that allow them to see blindfolded call their technique "midbrain activation". It is sold in hundreds of clinics throughout the country. Published prices for the classes typically run from about 10,000 to 25,000 rupees, which is a few hundred dollars — no small change in India. Usually such a class is a two-day workshop repeated several times over a few months. One company alone that I looked at advertises clinics in 165 cities throughout India.
The term midbrain activation suggests some actual neurological mechanism. The midbrain is a small part of the brain located at the top of the brain stem. A lot goes on there. Parts of the midbrain play important roles in motor function, and in particular, coordinating your eye movements with your body movements — someone throws you a ball, your midbrain is part of what lets you watch the ball come in and have your hands move up to the right place to catch it. Other parts of the midbrain help with hearing, short-term memory, and pupil constriction.
Yet at least one midbrain activation pitchman on YouTube, a Dr. Pillai, gives a very different explanation of the midbrain, while pointing to a plastic model of a brain hemisphere:
Thus, in order to perform miracles as the yogis do, we must learn to activate that part of the brain ignored by western science: the midbrain. So what does "activating" the midbrain mean, and how is it done? One company in India that opens and trains new clinics offers a PowerPoint presentation that lays out the methodology. Achieving activation, which they say they can successfully do "up to 100%" of the time, gives children the ability to read, bicycle, play chess, and identify colors and pictures with their eyes closed. They will remember what they read for much longer. And to top it off, claims the Powerpoint, they can communicate with one another telepathically. All of these abilities are demonstrated online with videos of blindfolded children doing these things. The list goes on for a long time with more vague claims, like a better personality, better able to solve problems, enhanced curiosity and analytical ability, better work ethic, less stress, loss of fears and inhibitions, etc.
All of this is accomplished with a series of "brain gym exercises"; not the type of video games marketed in western countries as brain gyms, but actual physical exercises. The basic claim is that performing these exercises increases the brain's output of melatonin, which allows one to see in the dark. This gives us at least a couple of science claims that we can check.
Turning to the medical literature, we find that there is a body of research exploring the relationship between exercise and melatonin. Typically we produce melatonin at the end of the day as our body prepares to go to sleep, and it's during this period — when levels are rising or are already high — that exercise appears to have an impact. Light exercise doesn't do much, but heavy exercise while melatonin levels are rising delay its production, which may be why you have trouble falling asleep after evening exercise. Conversely, heavy exercise late at night, when melatonin levels are already high, makes them higher by as much as 50%. So you should have an easier time falling asleep after late night exercise. But at our "brain gym" clinics, when children are exercising during the day when melatonin levels are low, the levels are not affected at all. So much for that claim.
As for whether high melatonin confers the ability to enhance nighttime vision, I found only a very few references, but none in the medical literature. Mostly from alternative wellness websites. As for the idea that it would give an ability to see when blindfolded, or to communicate telepathically, obviously I found nothing at all — except in the Indian midbrain activation community, where it appears to be a relatively well-accepted belief.
Other schools focus on yoga, specifically, nāda-yoga, which uses music and sound. The claim here is that the audio vibrates the brain, and those vibrations are what activates the midbrain. Since "activate" is just a word they're using with no solid definition, it's not really something that can be tested or verified. But enough about the proposed mechanism. The real question is does it work? Can these children actually see that which is not visible?
Indian skeptic Narendra Nayak has long been at the forefront of debunking the blindfold seeing trick — and debunking is really the only word to use here. Unlike some other mysterious phenomena, there is nothing interesting to learn about the trick of seeing while blindfolded. The children are simply looking down through the gap on either side of their nose, the blindfolds having all been affixed in such a way as to permit that. Whenever controls are applied — such as asking the children to read something inside a sealed container, or putting on a blindfold with no gaps to see through — the ability always disappears. Always. To date, not a single "midbrain activated" child has ever passed a controlled test.
Indeed, if you want to see how obvious it is once you know the trick, just watch any of the many YouTube videos of Indian children performing it. Invariably, they tilt their head back to look at something in front of them, or hold the object close under their face in order to see it by looking down past their nose. Nayak often issues and receives challenges. He tells an account of one such challenge in an article on Nirmukta, a skeptical website in India:
I was pleased to read the following comment on his article from a reader named Jasvir, which hasn't been fact-checked so take for what it is, an Internet comment:
If midbrain activation is such an obvious and transparent sham, where does it come from? According to the literature provided by a number of clinics, midbrain activation was developed by the late Japanese author Makoto Shichida, creator of an early learning technique that he calls the Shichida Method. It appears to be virtually unknown outside of Japan, but looks fairly harmless, focusing on relaxation and meditation methods for toddlers under the age of three.
Shichida is almost always referred to as "Professor" Shichida, though he had no known academic affiliation. The midbrain activation literature also describes him as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Interested, I went online to learn more about this. However, I was quickly stumped. Among the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners, his name does not appear. On his own website, however — shichidamethod.com — there is a whole list of his awards. One of them is the "World Peace Award as part of the United Nations Five Corporations Grand Prize for Peace", so I figured the people in India simply translated it wrong — an honest mistake — and I went to the UN websites to learn more about this World Peace Award. Stumped again. There appears to be no such organization, and no mention of it or the award on the web except on Shichida's own website.
Shichida lists seven other awards on his website, with such illustrious names as "Distinguished Service for World Peace Grand Knight Title from the World Intellectual Treasury Association" — and again, as with his not-quite-a-Nobel-Peace-Prize, the web seems to have no references to any of these awards or organizations, except on his own page. Regardless, there appears to be little evident crossover between the Shichida Method and midbrain activation.
And that's really about all there is to say about midbrain activation and reading blindfolded. It's a simple trick intended to fool parents into handing over money. Every parent wants their child to succeed, and in a culture like India where rationalism is hard to come by, such parents make easy marks for scammers. Kudos to the Nayaks of the world who have the energy and the resilience to continue fighting the fakers.
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