It’s an alluring promise: play some games and get smarter. That’s the idea behind brain training, which has piggybacked off neuroscience to become its own little commercial field. Groups like LearningRx and Lumosity — you may have seen ads for the latter — offer regimes of online games meant to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention and speed.
Brain training was the subject of last week’s CNS Public Talk, given by University of Maryland professor and working memory researcher Susanne Jaeggi. Jaeggi became a media go-to on the topic after publishing a paper in 2008 suggesting that memory training can boost general intelligence, that hard-to-pin-down quality long associated with IQ scores. Unfortunately, I missed Jaeggi’s lecture. But I’ve been prompted by her appearance at Penn to look into brain training from both the academic and commercial sides. What I’ve begun to find is that the two sides sometimes get way too blurred, an outcome not all that surprising for a topic with so much popular appeal.
Brain training’s made waves in the press, and it’s not hard to see why. Most people I know, myself included, experience internal wars between our aspirational and lazy impulses. We like to get better at things, but what we really love is to see results after putting in the least work possible. On its surface, brain training answers both desires: it’s packaged as a way we can make ourselves smarter in half-hour long chunks a few times a week. It’s a time commitment that amounts to keeping up with a couple new TV shows, and an experience that amounts to playing basic computer games.
Slap the “neuroscience-supported” label on there and you’ve got a gold mine: a new approach to self-help, legitimized by the oft-misunderstood authority that is “science.”
OK, at this point I might be sounding too cynical. Yes, my inner curmudgeon balks at the idea of intelligence or smarts being stripped down to technical terms like “working memory,” at the neglect of traits like creativity and depth of thought. But on a basic level, I’m all for tools that can make lives better. It’d be great if brain training could genuinely help individuals with cognitive problems, young students, or really just anyone improve at everyday facets of thinking like juggling many pieces of information. Better still if these improvements translate to other aspects of thinking — say, problem solving and communicating — that may reflect broader intelligence.
And beyond the potential benefits, there is reason to at least study brain training in relation to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change. After all, some nosing through the work of training supporters like Jaeggi shows that the relevant research doesn’t come from hacks.
My thing is, though, the most encouraging (if still controversial) work here has been behavioral. When it comes to endorsing these specific training methods, the support from neuroscience is largely indirect or speculative. So as I explore my trial Lumosity account — where I can’t do much, since I won’t pay — it’s hard not to sigh when the site references “neurogenesis” to explain how these games will better my brain.
Isn’t it enough to tell me that if I keep playing the offered memory games, I might stop leaving my keys everywhere? Do these sites have to make dubious claims like they’re literally spurring the growth of new neurons in my brain? A more academic perspective says no: the most recent training-related paper on Jaeggi’s site concludes that more research is needed to say anything about how working memory training actually affects the brain.
So maybe the claims on sites like Lumosity should change. Brain training’s not so much “neuroscience-approved” — it’s got some behavioral support that’s still being interpreted. Any support from neuroscience is very much under construction.
It’s not often that you get to hear a lecture from a scientist who’s braved death threats just to do his work. But Penn was treated to that unique perspective this past Thursday, when Colin Blakemore delivered this month’s installment of the CNS talk series. Living up to his reputation as one of science’s most influential communicators, Blakemore reviewed the controversial history of animal research and considered what this history says about science’s relationship with the public. He also pointed out lessons for the future of animal testing — what people on both sides of this issue should have learned by now, with years of nastiness behind them.
A physiologist and pioneer in cognitive neuroscience, Blakemore became a famed advocate for animal research sort of by accident. In the ’60s and ’70s he conducted research on cortical plasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize its functions. His test subjects? Kittens, which most of us know as pets, adornments for Hallmark cards and the stars of fawning videos on YouTube. The experiments involved sewing up these little guys’ eyelids, in ways that proved informative for human vision and contributed to major breakthroughs in our understanding of plasticity. These academic achievements aside, it’s not shocking that the hostility kicked up soon after, in response to Blakemore’s use of precious creatures but also to his frank defense of animal research.
What might be shocking is the intensity of the backlash. Blakemore and his family received bomb threats and letters concealing razor blades, and he has been personally assaulted by masked aggressors. All this drove Blakemore to secure police protection for his children for over a decade. Clearly he doesn’t agree with these tactics, or with the opinion that animal testing is just plain wrong. But Blakemore does believe the testing should be openly discussed. In particular, he said, we’ve got to ask: How should scientists and ethicists assess animal experiments? What levels of scientific and medical progress can justify their use? How do we deal with animal suffering? What alternatives have we not yet considered?
These questions overlap with issues of public opinion, as it is often individuals outside science who raise the most pointed (if sometimes ill-informed) critiques. On this note, Blakemore called upon scientists to figure out the most effective ways to engage with the public. This is no easy task, given the many contradictions in the public opinion surveys Blakemore reviewed. At least in Britain, people trust scientists much more than they trust the media, and yet they find themselves relying on the media for most of their information about science. Moreover, while they report being impressed by findings from science, they are often suspicious of its motives. Thus part of the challenge lies in educating people without imposing, or even seeming to impose, an aggressive agenda.
There has been progress: death threats and grave digging by animal rights extremists appear to have ceased. These days, Blakemore is more apt to be caught off guard by protest signs like one he spotted with the declaration, “Vegetarians for animal research.” If that slogan is a sign of the times, then views on animal research have gained some nuance. But of course, in the world of science and ethics, there’s always more work to be done.