We live in an age of great public fascination with minds and brains; books about brain plasticity, for instance, regularly make the bestseller lists.
This fascination is not merely the product of our thirst for knowledge; it’s driven by fears and hopes – fears of our ageing population’s imminent mental decline and hopes for its prevention. And hopes for brain improvement or enhancement spawned by the dizzying speed of developments in neuroscience.
A new three-part series to be screened on the ABC from tonight caters to this fascination, and to these hopes and fears. In Redesign my Brain, advertising company executive and media personality Todd Sampson is both the host and the guinea pig.
Over the show’s three episodes, Sampson tests whether it is possible to enhance his mind, using exercises designed by scientists.
Few of us are performing at optimal levels, and as we get older we experience a decline in mental performance (not only in memory, but also in reaction speed and peripheral vision). The exercises in the show are designed to improve performance, moving those who do them closer to the optimal level.
Training the brain
Episode one focuses on cognition: reaction times, attention, peripheral vision and memory. Psychologists and neuroscientists have a number of standard tests for measuring capacities in these domains, some of which Sampson undergoes.
For instance, he performs a Stroop task, which tests an aspect of cognitive control.
The task sounds simple: all you have to do is name the colours in which words are written. But it’s harder than you might think because the colours are often “incongruent” - the word “red” might be written in green font, for instance.
Our automatic response to the meaning of the words interferes with trying to name the colour, and performance slows down.
Sampson undergoes this and other tests, and then practices exercises designed to improve his responses. Most of these exercises are designed by scientists using recent psychological knowledge, but one is based on a memorisation technique that dates back to ancient times and one consists nothing more scientific than learning to juggle.
His initial performance is reasonably good, but just a few weeks of training for one hour a day results in dramatic improvement and the capacity to perform apparently extraordinary feats. For instance, Sampson successfully memorises the order of a whole deck of (shuffled) cards.
The second episode focuses on creativity. This time Sampson focuses on enhancing innovative “divergent thinking” – the capacity to come up with left-field ideas – as well as lateral thinking.
The third episode focuses on stress and facing fears; Sampson uses biofeedback (in which instruments are used to measure biological responses such as heart rate, and the person attempts to change the readings), visualising his fears and practising remaining calm.
The right skills?
The improvement Sampson shows over the episodes is impressive. Throughout, though, I was left with a nagging worry.
Sampson talks about turbocharging his thinking (one of the scientists describes him after training as a “substantially smarter Todd”), but it’s not clear that the skills he has enhanced are actually all that useful.
Is a much better score at the attentional blink task – in which the capacity to detect rapidly presented symbols is measured – really useful for anything (other than certain kinds of sports, say)?
Is the ability to categorise symbols extremely rapidly useful for anything?
The skills enhanced seems useful for some everyday tasks – driving comes to mind – but what we care most about is genuine intelligence, and combating age-related decline.
The program doesn’t really give us any reason to think that the turbocharging is going to be useful in these regards.
Similarly, it’s not obvious that enhancing lateral and divergent thinking actually leads to an increase in the kinds of creativity we value (the capacity to come up with valuable new ideas or to create art).
There are a number of brain training games on the market that purport to improve cognition using the kinds of principles this program explores; there’s big money in playing on fears of dementia.
But whether these games improve performance in the kinds of ways we value or merely improve performance at brain-training games remains controversial. Although a recent paper in Nature provided some evidence that some of the skills trained in one specially designed game generalise to other skills, and combat age-related decline.
It’s a pity the program doesn’t explore these issues; instead taking a slightly credulous view of some results that deserve greater scrutiny. If nothing else, though, it’s an entertaining look at some issues on the cutting edge of brain science.