Last summer I presented a paper at the International Sociological Association (ISA) Forum of Sociology conference at the magnificent University of Vienna on the topic of memory, ageing and technology, as part of an invited panel on ‘Digital Technologies, Ageing and Everyday Life’ organized by my colleagues Barbara Marshall and Wendy Martin as members of the SSHRC Ageing, Communication, and Technologies (ACT) research project, which also supported my conference participation. The title of my paper was ‘Gaming the Aging Brain: Digital Cognitive Performance in the Shadow of Dementia’. I am very grateful to Kirsten Ellison, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, for her research assistance in locating product materials about brain ‘boosting’ foods, vitamins, exercises, and mental ‘workouts’. The conference paper was a summary of recent critiques of brain ‘health’ products and programs such as LifeExtension’s Cognitex, BrainStrong’s Memory Support, BrainAge 2, HAPPYNeuron, etc., which have become a very lucrative market. I was not surprised to learn that online brain-game performance fits well within this market because of their metaphorical similarity with physical fitness. For example, Vibrant B is promoted as ‘A Health Club for Your Brain’, boasts ‘Where the Sweat is Figurative, but the Results are Real’ (www.vibrantbrains.com), expected to attract older consumers.
But in reality, even if brain games and products are fun they do not necessarily enhance cognitive fitness or brain plasticity. Further, brain-training online ecologies not only isolate the brain from the rest of the body but also atomize the individual apart from the social and environmental determinants of real cognitive health. In fact, game benefits are exaggerated as a recent CBC News ‘Marketplace’ (2015) report indicated while the brain-training company Lumosity was fined $2M to settle American federal allegations that it misled consumers about its programs’ positive benefits. What has been curious to me, however, is how the fitness benefits of brain games seem ‘true’ because of the technological rhetoric embedded in the games and products that narrate progressive ‘improvement’ or ‘enhancement’ through score-keeping and profiles, testimonials by experts and program coaching, and user self-tracking measurements based on standards invented by the product manufacturers themselves. Undoubtedly the fear of dementia, elevated into an epidemic, also plays a large role in popularizing the brain enterprises and the commercialization of plasticity, especially if their message to aging individuals is to choose either to ‘use it’ or ‘lose it’ when it comes to brain health. As a result, our culture has created a new dimension of ageism that equates hyper-cognitive abilities with successful aging. Even the Alzheimer Society of Canada advises to “keep your brain active every day” and “that a healthy brain can withstand illness better”; but how can we really know when our brains are ‘active’ or ‘healthy’, let alone keep them that way?
Some of the ideas in this blog have been elaborated by Barbara L. Marshall and myself in the article, ‘How Old Am I?’, Digital Culture & Society, 2016, 2(1), pp 145-52 (special issue on ‘Quantified Selves and Statistical Bodies’) and in a newly submitted article entitled, ‘Tracked and Fit: Fitbits, Brain Games and the Quantification of Aging’, Journal of Aging Studies (special issue ‘Aging, Body and Society: Critical Perspectives, Future Challenges).
For further suggested reading see:
Millington, B. (2012). Use it or lose it: Ageing and the politics of brain training. Leisure Studies, 31(4), pp 429-46.
Pitts-Taylor, V. (2016). The Brains Body: Neuroscience and corporeal politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Rose, N., & Abi-Rached, J. M. (2013). Neuro: The new brain sciences and the management of the mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Thornton, D. J. (2011). Brain culture: Neuroscience and popular media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Brilliant! As usual, what I would expect from Stephen Katz (who’s really a
“national treasure” for Canada)
I would only add that the Stanford University consensus group did an
analysis of brain games and similar interventions a couple years ago
and found them to be almost entirely “not proven.” In this piece, I
particularly appreciated noting the marketplace dimension of this
phenomenon (“Follow the money!”) and also what Stephen Post has
called our “hyper-cognitive society.” As a 72-year old (next week!)
long involved in gerontology, I frequently get questions from friends
and others about how to prevent Alzheimer’s. I always give the same
response: eat right (e.g., Michael Pollan), get exercise and a good night’s
sleep, and stay connected (with people, new things, etc.) But the
trolls in the marketplace don’t want to hear that. Thank you, Stephen,
for blowing the whistle on this field!