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

How We Can Do Better—Brain Health in the Context of Communities

Advancing a broader understanding of brain health requires us to go beyond the dominant reductionism of the current brain fitness commercial marketplace and ask how our most proximate relationships and local communities can play a role in cognitive and psychosocial wellness. After all, once we accept that humans are not merely atomistic brains with normative standards of output, but rather intricate, interconnected beings with psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual dimensions whose brains are impacted by a multitude of insults over the course of our lives, it follows that our "brain health" activities should mirror the complexity of our nature rather than be dictated by the reductionism of the marketplace (Whitehouse, 2010). One wonders, for instance, whether the scarce time and money resources spent on commercial brain fitness technology might be better invested in more dynamic activities, such as going on a walk in a park with friends, visiting a museum, volunteering in one's community, taking an adult education class, and so on. Such activities are sufficiently "neurobic" (and potentially aerobic) but also enable one to establish meaningful relationships within the protective social networks of local communities while both enjoying and adding something of value in their neighborhoods.

Of course, measuring the effects of these complex activities is much more difficult than the classic method of swallowing a pill and comparing it to a similar-looking inactive product (i.e., placebo). Testing a brain fitness video game or computer program is also much easier than testing a complex social intervention, and intellectual property can be more easily assigned per pill or software program than a project undertaken in a shared community space. Hence, RCTs are aptly referred to as the "gold standard" since only those with "gold" and with the promise of making more gold through commercial interests can afford to carry them out. Consequently, pharmaceutical companies can carry out multiple studies and choose to publish and promote only those that demonstrate that their product is valuable. In an era that overvalues certain forms of evidence such as RCTs, a lack of evidence for dynamic community-based activities such as those mentioned above is often interpreted as lack of efficacy.

Despite the challenges associated with evaluating these community-based interventions, when one considers the extant data (Buettner, 2009; Poulain et al., 2004) on longevity and well-being, those societies that produce the most centenarians feature some combination of the following attributes: strong families and community affiliations; an overriding sense of purpose, engagement, and contribution in the population; structures to manage and relieve stress; accessible and walkable living areas; low incidence of smoking; opportunities for daily ambulation and natural movement (e.g., walking, gardening, play); humane treatment of the elderly; low meat, plant-based diet with legumes, etc. It is not clear where brain fitness technology might fit on this list, if assessed. However, these findings would suggest that, despite the neoliberal emphasis on self-improvement through individual consumption—a message that pervades modern capitalist cultures and drives the brain fitness industry—cognitive well-being must increasingly be viewed as a public health or even a "local community" issue. It is, of course, unfair to imply that self-improvement activities are intrinsically bad; however, there is value in considering how such activities might be balanced and integrated with more social collaborative approaches.


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