Last summer I presented a paper at the International Sociological Association (ISA) Forum of Sociology conference (July 10/14) at the magnificent University of Vienna on the topic of memory, aging and technology, as part of an invited panel on ‘Digital Technologies, Ageing and Everyday Life’ organized by ACT members Barbara Marshall and Wendy Martin. The title of my paper was ‘Gaming the Aging Brain: Digital Cognitive Performance in the Shadow of Dementia’. I am grateful to ACT for supporting my conference participation and for funding Kirsten Ellison, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, to work over the past year as a research assistant at Trent University with myself and Barbara Marshall to collect materials from health, lifestyle and pedagogical media about ‘quantified aging’. For my conference paper, Kirsten helped to locate product materials about brain ‘boosting’ foods, vitamins, exercises, and mental ‘workouts’ that illustrate how memory has become technologically quantified in a consumer culture that has transformed the image of the brain into be an exercisable ‘muscle’, akin to other parts of the aging body to be protected and improved.
My research also looks in the wider social background behind aging and memory. There is a long history of mind training around memory pre-dating the modern brain sciences (Katz, 2013, Danziger, 2008), but what is new or at least modern according to Ian Hacking is the emergence of a ‘memoro-politics’ (1994) that became a component of the governance of human minds and risky populations (Ortega & Vidal, 2011). Today, memoro-politics has broadened into a general cognito-politics that reaches out to what Rose and Abi-Rached (2013) call ‘futurity’, or the governance of the future. For example, in the interests of future population health, in 2009 the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) was spending nearly twenty percent of its total budget on brain-related projects (Carey, 2009), while American companies Humana and MetLife have programs to encourage clients to optimize brain health (Thornton, 2013, p. 9). Cognito-politics also underpins a ‘hypercognitive society’ (Post, 2000, p. 249), where public expectations for cognitive performance and ‘mental capital’ (cf. Foresight Report, 2008) align to capitalist standards of productivity, efficiency and speed. These politics and associated brain sciences have become discursive resources for new models of humanity (Rose & Abi-Rached, 2013; Williams, Higgs & Katz, 2012), creating what Fernando Vidal (2009) defines as ‘cerebral subjects’ who learn to express their identity in neuroscientific terms (see Pickersgill & Van Keulen, 2011). And while there are no objectively clear distinctions between states of health, improvement, enhancement, optimization, or wellness within these discourses, they are ubiquitous in the proliferation of ‘neuro’ commodities (e.g., brain-stimulants and exercises), ‘neuro’ knowledges (e.g., neuroethics, neuro-marketing) and other ‘breakthrough’ enterprises at the frontier of cerebral subjectivity. Central to these enterprises is brain plasticity, a poorly understood yet attractive concept that the brain can change itself, which may not be surprising on a synaptic level, but inflated to a neurocultural project, plasticity becomes a measure of the successful aging character as flexible, mobile, and adaptable. Such traits of plasticity are also prominent features of neoliberal and global capitalist ideologies (Pitts-Taylor, 2010; 2016). Vital to this neurocentric image of humanity are the visualization technologies which have popularized brain scan images. While critics caution about the dangers of correlations between brain, function and personhood created by scans, the image of a color-coded brain that ‘lights up’ the mind’s neuronal activities is a favorite neurocultural icon of personhood.
“Our culture has created a new dimension of ageism that equates hypercognitive abilities with successful aging.”
While examining some examples of brain products and programs such as LifeExtension’s Cognitex, BrainStrong’s Memory Support, BrainAge 2, HAPPYNeuron, etc., part of a market forecast to become a $6 billion market by 2020 (Fernandez, 2013), I was not surprised to learn that online brain-game performance or ‘bio-games’ (Millington 2014) fit well within this market because of their metaphorical similarity with physical fitness. For example, Vibrant B is promoted as ‘A Health Club for Your Brain’, boasts ‘Where the Sweat is Figurative, but the Results are Real’ (www.vibrantbrains.com/), expected to attract older consumers. But in reality, even if brain games and products are fun they do not necessarily enhance cognitive fitness or brain plasticity.
Further, brain-training online ecologies not only isolate the brain from the rest of the body but also atomize the individual apart from the social and environmental determinants of real cognitive health. In fact, game benefits are exaggerated as a recent CBC News ‘Marketplace’ report indicated (Griffith-Greene, 2015). The brain-training company Lumosity was fined $2M to settle American federal allegations that it misled consumers about its programs’ positive benefits (The Associated Press, 2016). What is curious to me, therefore, is how the fitness benefits of brain games seem ‘true’ because of the technological rhetoric embedded in the games and products that narrate improvement and progress through score-keeping and profile, testimonials by experts and program coaching, and user self-tracking measurements based on standards invented by the product manufacturers themselves.
The fear of dementia, today elevated into an epidemic, plays a large role in popularizing the brain enterprises and the commercialization of plasticity, especially if their message to aging individuals is to choose either to ‘use it’ or ‘lose it’ when it comes to brain health. As a result, our culture has created a new dimension of ageism that equates hypercognitive abilities with successful aging. Even the Alzheimer Society of Canada advises to “keep your brain active every day” and “that a healthy brain can withstand illness better” (2011); but how can we really know when our brains are ‘active’ or ‘healthy’, let alone keep them that way? The critique of this ageism, therefore, must begin with seeing how the relationship between digital technologies and aging is connected to those cultural regions where the ‘neuro’ is re-calibrating age-related characteristics and reshaping humanity itself for purposes of regulating risk-management and ‘fit’ populations, just as regimes around the ‘bio’ and the ‘psyche’ had done in previous centuries.
(Bibliography on request: SKatz@Trentu.ca).
Stephen Katz, PhD
Department of Sociology and Centre for Aging and Society,