Marketplace of Memory

What the Brain Fitness Technology Industry Says About Us and How We Can Do Better

Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc; Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD


Gerontologist. 2011;51(5):590-596. 

In This Article

The Brain Fitness Industry: Products, Values, and Ideologies

Broadly speaking, the "brain fitness" technology industry has been estimated to represent a $300 million marketplace and is projected (perhaps optimistically) to achieve between $2 and $8 billion in worldwide revenue by 2015 as the baby boomer generation—to which many products are explicitly marketed—move into their 60s (Fernandez, 2010). Market size estimates vary depending on what types of products are included and whether one includes professional services or just products for lay persons. Whereas pharmaceutical and "smart drug" markets offer biological products to enhance brain function, this emerging marketplace features legions of digital products including video games and computer software, mobile phone apps, and other products proclaiming to instrumentally maintain or enhance the memory, concentration, visual and spatial skills, verbal recall, and executive functions of individual users. A neologism forged by the marketplace—"neurobics"—evinces the belief that this new generation of strenuous games, puzzles, and brainteasers can encourage the growth of synapses and dendrites and enhance cognitive health just as aerobic workouts improve pulmonary health and increase cardiovascular health (Ellin, 1999; Kelly, 2006).

Indeed, in exploring the advertising language in this marketplace, one notices the word "neuro" used in protean ways. Most commonly, it serves as a prefix for terms such as "neuro-enhancing" or "neuro-boosting" that focus consumer attention on how products tangibly benefit the function of a single organ—the brain. Concepts such as "neuro-plasticity" (the brain's capacity to rewire itself throughout life by creating neural connections in response to mental activity) and "cognitive-" or "neural-reserve" (the brain's built up resilience to age-related pathological changes), give the impression of scientific certainty that products are capable of physically impacting the brain at the molecular level. Frequently, products are said to be "clinically proven" to improve cognitive performance in users of all ages, whereas other marketing campaigns boast that their products are "designed by neuroscientists" or endorsed by medical professionals (such as the Japanese physician Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who gives his imprimatur to the best-selling Nintendo's Brain Age games). Occasionally, more lofty claims will surface, such as the promise that brain fitness technology can affect the brain to the point of preventing, slowing, or reversing dementia.

This iterative marketing language contributes to a certain "fetishization" of the brain that renders the 3-pound organ in our heads both an object of alterity and veneration. Rather than being understood as one of many vulnerable organs within an intricate biological system, the brain is perceived as a separate privileged entity that healthy individuals must constantly stimulate, rewire, rebuild, nurture, and attend to if they are to maintain soundness of mind and selfhood. Despite well-established connections between the health of other organs (such as the heart and vascular system) and cognitive wellness, the very concept of "brain fitness" isolates the brain, regarding it as an organ possessing health standards clearly delineated from the rest of one's body. Indeed, some of the most popular products are designed to explicitly measure how "big" or how "old" one's brain really is, instantiating standards of productivity for normative mental output that can be met through committed use of the product. Mass marketing slogans such as "Give your brain the workout it needs!" (Nintendo Brain Age) and "Flex your brain the fun way!" (Big Brain Academy) allude to the rather demanding relationship these technological products forge between consumers and their brains. Posit Science, a leading software company, even suggests to potential consumers that, in return for playing brain fitness games, "Your brain will thank you"—a slogan that bifurcates "self" and "brain" while imputing equal agency to both.

In placing a preponderance of focus on improving the brain and its functions, the objects of the brain fitness industry clearly embody Western values of rationality, cognition, memory, and quick thinking, as well as a positivist faith in the ability of science and technology to deliver innovations that contribute to human well-being. These products are also informed by principles of liberalism, the political philosophy that attaches paramount moral value to the individual while valorizing ideals of liberty and freedom. The tenets of liberalism hold that individuals have an intrinsic inclination toward self-sufficiency and separateness and that protecting this basic truth should be of primary importance rather than larger community needs. Whereas pre-capitalist philosophy emphasized wholeness and completeness of communities, neoliberal political systems flourishing in capitalist countries of the 21st century foster the concept of the atomistic individual within the marketplace who makes himself whole (i.e., the self-made man; Arblaster, 1984).

Modern brain fitness technology products have been physically shaped by the neoliberal ideologies of the marketplace. Although some products may feature and encourage multi-person functionality, many are sold in single units and marketed for individual consumption on personal computers, individual video game consoles, PDA-like devices, or mobile phones. Although some long-term care facilities and other organizations such as hospitals and schools have purchased multiple copies of programs and are beginning to foster interaction through peer collaboration and some emerging web-based products are designed to encouraged social networking, brain fitness products themselves have dictated that brain healthy activities generally occur during private sedentary moments in the seclusion of one's home rather than in the context of group interaction. As discussed above, the brain is most often treated as a symbiotic source of selfhood for the atomized consumer: an organ that must be constantly maintained and improved through personal labor if one is to reap the benefit of continued soundness of mind. The prevailing meaning conveyed by marketing departments is that when one uses products in a disciplined manner, consumers can enhance their neural pathways, thereby perfecting themselves from the molecular level outwards and slowing or preventing the encroachment of neurodegeneration.


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