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.