Is Brain Training the New Diet Pill?

Want to improve your Brain? Read Jean-Paul Sartre

#tldr By preying on the deeply rooted angst of not being good enough, clever marketing have made us forget the cognitive benefits of reading books, sharing a discussion with someone, learning by doing, attending a free community class, taking a walk to think deeply about something of interest, and other free alternatives readily available to anyone at any time.

Human enhancement has, and keeps fascinating, the world over. From muscle building, to penis enlargement, we have shown ourselves to be highly susceptive to the allure of pushing limits and the mysterious appeal of “What if”.

What if I was stronger, better, thinner.. smarter?

The last few years the consumer market has been flooded by companies offering so-called neuroscience proven products with claims of facilitating learning and meditation or increasing one’s focus and memory. Qualities and abilities often advertised in such a way as to make you think you may be lacking them. You may even recall how much you lacked focus at the gym that day. Or perhaps how that last exam would’ve been so much easier if only you had a better memory. Fortunately, the key to better lives can be at the tip of your hand; only $249.99.

Like the Neapolitan ice-cream you’ll typically find marketed solutions come in three flavors:

  1. Games designed to elicit certain cognitive skills
  2. Neurofeedback
  3. Electrical stimulation (whether it be peripheral nerve or transcranial)

All three stemming from fascinating goals related to understanding the mechanisms underlying cognition by observing how we can manipulate it. All three subject to the limitation of the tools at our disposal (i.e. neuroimaging measurements, standardized test, self-reported feeling). In descending order of objectivity and ascending order of interpretability.

As a student researcher I have been closely working on methods used by these approaches (specifically neurofeedback) and have been following the literature closely. While I have qualms regarding the veracity of some of the claims made by the companies (a skeptic perspective increasingly shared by the FDA and scientists alike), this post ponders on a different question:

What is it that we crave so much that requires the immediacy promised by those companies?

One can imagine it stems from a yearning for a better humanity; if everyone had access to technology that made them smarter, surely that would be a great thing. Unfortunately, the previous idea (and similar discourse) doesn’t take into account the social, cultural and technological landscape of our time. Technology, like wealth, doesn’t trickle down to the poorer region of the world when left on its own. Should brain enhancements become real and mainstream, it risks enhancing the social inequality and divide between different regions of the world and classes of society.

This isn’t a new perspective or a new debate by any means but one that has escaped public discussion for the most part. If this idea sounds foreign to you I recommend the movie Gattaca. For argument’s sake let’s assume the previous humanitarian argument remains a potentially naive and sadly implausible perspective. So what drives this enthusiasm and fascination for supposedly and largely superficial vision of a better human? I would offer the following alternative:

We’re simply observing the 2.0 manifesto of an anxiety vis-à-vis the unrealistic standards of our cultures and the pressure of our work environment.

It’s a rather unsavory perspective I’ll give you that, but let’s consider it for a moment and dive into the idea a bit more.

In my attempt to explain, let’s look back in time and draw a parallel with the diet pill. Its history is a tragic loop of failed attempts (at least from a consumer perspective). The very first diet pills were made available during the patent medicine period of the late 1800s. Desperately trying to circumvent the time-tested metabolic pathways of energy consumption, its original attempts have seen many iterations with varying level of successes. Closer to our time you can find a serotonin-norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor (Sibutramine) aiming to decrease the subject’s appetite. It has, unfortunately, been withdrawn from the US and Canadian markets in 2010 due to cardiovascular concerns (stated to be more dangerous than the conditions it is used for).

These days, should you find yourself in a position needing drastic weight loss, you may be facing two options: undergo a serious surgical procedure (depending on the condition this may well be desirable) or the strong recommendation of a strict protein-based diet with exercise and a healthy dose of discipline. Calorie in — calorie out.

The parallel I see is two fold:

  1. Both attempts have the similar goal of improving one self.
  2. Both use science and technology to bypass the otherwise obvious and free solutions of exercise and practice.
By preying on the deeply rooted angst of not being good enough, clever marketing have made us forget the cognitive benefits of reading books, sharing a discussion with someone, learning by doing, attending a free community class, taking a walk to think deeply about something of interest, and other free alternatives readily available to anyone at any time.

Capitalism wasn’t built on the idea of a population wanting free things.

The science of neuroplasticity, cognitive rehabilitation, neurofeedback, and neuronal oscillation are here to stay as active and fascinating field of studies. As a species, we should keep investing our time and effort in our pursuit to understand their mechanisms, processes and limits. As a consumer, we may have better use for our time and money than to invest in companies subject to no accountability or oversight.

Whether brain-enhancement is at a stage where it may be used with reasonable effectiveness and gain is a complex question worthy of more than just a binary answer. For a well rounded perspective on the matter it is important to remind ourselves that the scientific community offers varying opinions. Like anything it is shaped by our own expertise, biases, goals and temperament, yet it’s fair to say we still don’t have a consensus on the matter. Add to this cocktail the proliferation of numerous small-scale studies (see here for a rebutal) and the professional pressure of a publication-based science and we obtain a difficult riddle, hard for anyone to decipher.

Wisdom invites us be cautious.