On Camera: The Brain Fitness Program



It’s happened to all us. We’re flipping through the channels when suddenly appears a pretty middle-aged woman telling us how important donating to public television is. It’s addicting to watch. You see what gifts they have to offer and smile at their comments about the quality program you’re currently enjoying.As “The Brain Fitness Program” aired on WGBH over the weekend, they were especially witty: “It helps me remember names and phone numbers…. One number I do remember is the number at the bottom of your screen.”

For this fundraiser, however, it seems PBS sold out. “The Brain Fitness Program,” explaining the science of neuroplasticity, was actually a “documercial” – a documentary selling a product. The show explained how our brain learns and forms new memories and how all us can bring about positive and negative plasticity. What causes negative plasticity? Aging of course. What causes positive plasticity? Paying hundreds of dollars to play six computer games sold by Posit Science.

The main neuroscience expert in the show was Dr. Michael Merzenich, the chief scientific officer for Posit Science and a businessman. It’s like having Ronald McDonald give expert advice on how hamburgers are good for you. Most of the science was sound, as dull as it was presented. Things began to get spun, however, when phrases such as “harnessing the power of positive plasticity” were thrown about, not to mention the bias. Some scientists may not agree playing computer games retains mental agility or there is even a “brain age.”

Most bothersome was how the donation gifts were also commercials in disguise.Here’s the breakdown:

$50 – Brain Fitness Home Primer – “Cognitive tests you can take in your home. Designed to be administered by friends or family members”

$90 – The Brain That Changed Itself by Dr. Norman Doige, also on the company’s payroll.

$120 – The Brain Fitness Program DVD with Bonus Material (45 minutes of interviews!)

$365 – All of the above plus the The Brain Fitness Gym. CD ROM with 40 1-hour sessions.

What happened to the tote bags? So the public television viewer spends the least amount for the free gift of The Brain Fitness Home Primer. They take the test and find, to their surprise, their brain age isn’t that high. It is then recommended they buy the full program for $400 or more.

The business of mental aging has been growing over the past decade. With video games for adults to keep the brain sharp and crossword puzzles touted as the first defense against dementia it makes sense for PBS to partner with Posit Science, their viewers are mostly older people concerned about their mental agility. But it’s important to also mention the jury is still out on how big a difference a card-match computer game a day will have in preventing the inevitable senior moment.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 27, 2008

7 Responses to “On Camera: The Brain Fitness Program”

  1. Casey Johns Says:

    Thanks for this review. I could not find a by-line. Is Joseph Caputo the author?

    Would any of your writers care to expand on these schemes to sell overpriced software of questionable value?

    Your review caught my attention, because overpriced and ineffective computer software is being touted for a number of purposes, besides “brain fitness.”

    Lately, I have been looking for software to help in learning foreign languages. Unfortunately, I can find no software that comes close to even supplemental help. Strangely, the titles that claim to be capable of teaching fluency, with no additional instruction or references, are eerily similar to the brain fitness software.

    Worse, reviews on the internet and in paper publications praise and recommend these questionable software titles, at the rate of hundred to one, over those reviews who point out the flaws of the software. Awards are bestowed by computer experts, who know little or nothing about foreign languages or brain function.

    Your review got to the point, not revealed on the PBS show, that Dr. Michael Merzenich was touting, in the original sense of the word.

    However, you did not mention that evidence points in direction that physical exercise will improve brain function of older people, who tend to become very inactive. Sitting in front of a computer is probably counter productive.

    You did not mention that some software is priced more reasonably than others. Dr. Merzenich’s pricing lies at the high end, very similar to the pricing of the foreign language teaching software. (Have they been doing market research?)

    You mentioned only briefly that there does not seem to be any scientific research that shows that these software products are of benefit. Worse, the web sites (like the PBS show) offer circuitous equivocation, that hints that the software is endorsed by medical doctors and public health authorities. A long parade of experts talk about recent scientific discoveries on brain function, but do not directly connect that information to the touted software. Yes, research papers are available, especially at Dr. Merzenich’s many websites. However, these papers are like the PBS show, where no connection is shown between an impressive body of scientific research and the claimed effectiveness of the software.

    A similar situation has developed with computer software that promises to teach foreign languages. These products follow a similar pattern to the brain training software. It just so happens that whatever a computer can do with monitor, mouse, microphone, and sound card, within the storage limitations of a CD-ROM–well, that is exactly the type of exercises that the student needs to do. The teaching method is modified to fit the technology. Further, it is alleged that research has been done to verify that the method is of value. In one egregious case, a software title is claimed to be “the fastest way to learn a language.”

    Anonymous testimonials are offered, from people who appear to be satisfied customers. However, no names nor any background information is given. These satisfied customers might be paid actors; the documentary does not say one way or the other.

    It might help, if consumers were educated about the placebo effect and the Hawthorne effect, among other things that cloud one’s thinking concerning cause and effect.

    Unfortunately, the new technology of personal computers has unleashed a new wave of products, playing on fears, and offering software that cures what ails you, or teaches what your child needs to learn.

    Have any of your writers investigated this? I can provide more details.

  2. Glenn Halliday Says:

    I greatly appreciate the review as providing a different way of looking at the “brain fitness by computer” subject. We were listening to OPB’s (Oregon’s PBS outlet) brain fitness program just now, and I commented to my wife that this new approach by OPB bothered me. They comment on their role of educating the public but are limiting the real education (assuming some truth to the program) to those who contribute freely to OPB.
    That is bad enough, but the thought that the program is really a documercial never occurred to me, until my Wife found your message.
    I have been a real believer in PBS, most of our TV viewing is PBS, but this new approach is just not in keeping with the old PBS nor is it in line with the purpose for which PBS was established and publicly subsidized.
    I believe our Congressmen should be made aware of this aspect of PBS.

  3. Terry Trotto Says:

    Excellent article with lots of useful information. My fitness program is made up mainly of high intense interval training. I discover that I am most productive I exercise inside the morning.

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