In 2016, Lumos Labs – creators of the popular brain training service Lumosity – settled against charges laid by the FTC, who concluded that the company unjustly ‘preyed on consumers fears …[but] simply did not have the science to back up its ads’. In addition to a substantial fine, the judgment stipulated that – except in light of any rigorously derived scientific findings – Lumos Labs
‘… are permanently restrained and enjoined from making any representation, expressly or by implication [that their product] … improves performance in school, at work … delays or protects against age-related decline in memory or other cognitive function, including mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease…. [or] reduces cognitive impairment caused by health conditions, including Turner syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, or side effects of chemotherapy.’
However, by the time of the settlement, Lumosity’s message was already out. Lumosity boasts ‘85 million registered users worldwide from 182 countries’ and their seductive advertisements were seen by many millions more. Over three billion mini-games have been played on their platform, which – combined with personal data gleaned from their users – makes for an incredibly valuable data set. Lumosity kindled sparks of hope within those who suffered, or feared suffering from the above conditions, or who simply sought to better themselves for contemporary demands. In this way, the brain has become a site of both promise and peril. Today, ever more ethical injunctions are levied through calls for ‘participatory biocitizenship’, the supposed ‘empowerment of the individual, at any age, to self-monitor and self-manage health and wellness’.
However, this regime of self-care is not sold through oppressive demands, but the consumer-friendly promise of fun (especially when it can be displayed to others). These entanglements of hope, fear, duty, and pleasure coalesce into aspirations of ‘virtuous play’. Late capitalist modes of prosumption leverage our desires for realizing ideal selves through conspicuous consumption practices, proving ourselves as healthful, industrious, and always pleasure-seeking. Self-tracking technologies ably capture this turn to virtuous play, combining joyful game playing with diligent lifelogging. Brain training proves exemplary here, for through the potent combination of pop neuroscience, self-help rhetoric, normative role expectations, and haptic stimulation, we labour to enhance our cognitive capacities.
Of course, ‘brain training’ in the typical form of tablet and smartphone-based games constitutes a rather mild intervention, relative to other neurotechnologies adopted for personal enhancement. Consider, for example, EEG-based devices enticing consumers with neuro-mapping and (cognitive) arousal-based life-logging, or gamification and smart-home integration (see Melissa Littlefield’s new book for more on EEG devices). Some concept videos for such applications are saccharine sweet:
While others could have used a little less brotopia exuberance:
Elsewhere, we can find virtuous play in the uptake of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), sometimes used in clinical settings, but increasingly also by amateur ‘neurohacking’ enthusiasts.
However, while the consumer-friendly brain training offered by companies like Lumosity pales in its relative intensity, its widespread appeal threatens to inscribe narrow ethical prescriptions of self-care (while also smoothing paths toward those more invasive measures). In other words, the actual efficacy of current brain training methods may matter far less than the discursive grooves they carve.
For example, ‘brain training’ rhetoric commonly leverages aspirations of virtuosity as relief from contemporary anxiety and vulnerability. Yet, by simultaneously stoking these very anxieties, they ratchet up expectations of being dutifully productive and pleasure-seeking subjects. Also, limited affordances entail that the subject is disaggregated into only those functional capacities deemed value-bearing and measurable. The risk here is reinforcing hyper-reflexive but shallow practices of self-care.
Moreover, popular rhetoric around ‘neuroplasticity’ construes the brain as an untapped well of potential, infinitely open to targeted enhancement for ideal neoliberal subjects who are ‘dynamic, multi-polar and adaptive to circumstance’. This enhancement ethos has also emerged in response to the collective dread felt towards neurodegenerative diseases, where responsible, enterprising subjects seek ways to ensure cognitive longevity.
Our neuroplastic potentials are also regularly invoked, holding promise that we can truly realize our latent capacities to be more productive, fulfil role obligations, ward off neurodegeneration, and shore up our reserves of human capital. This is the contemporary burden of endless ‘virtuosity’, where subjects must constantly work upon their value-bearing capacities to be (temporarily) relieved of insecurity, risk, and vulnerability.
These hopes, fears, and obligations are soothed and stoked through the virtuous play of brain training. This market operates under the premise that through expertly designed activities – commonly packaged as short games – cognitive capacities may be enhanced in ways that generalize to everyday life. Proponents have sought to ground consumer-friendly brain training in scientific rigour, but efficacy remains hotly contested.
More broadly, brain training constitutes part of the growing ‘brain-industrial complex’, driven in part by ‘soft’ commercialization trends. These commercial claims encourage ‘endless projects of self-optimization in which individuals are responsible for continuously working on their own brains to produce themselves as better parents, workers, and citizens’.
The rhetoric of brain training reflects moral hazards that often accompany commercialization, with ‘inflated claims as to the translational potential of research findings’ resulting in tenuous practical applications. Brain training also reflects how smoothly self-tracking has been incorporated into obligations of healthfulness, leveraging a ‘notion of ethical incompleteness’. Hence, while most consumer-friendly ‘brain training’ products are of low intensity, even here abound ethical appeals that ‘divides, imposes burdens, and thrives upon the anxieties and disappointments generated by its own promises’. Coupling self-tracking with gamification thus enables joyous pleasure and ethical measure. Care for oneself ‘is now shot-through with the promise of uninhibited amusement’ so that we can ‘amuse ourselves to life’. This judicious leisure keeps mortality at bay and morality upheld.
Using Lumosity as a peg upon which to hang the concept of virtuous play, we can unpack how popular brain training and related self-tracking practices lean on contemporary aspirations and anxieties. Firstly, Lumosity is designed to be routine yet fun, undertaken through short, aesthetically pleasing video games, usually played on personal computers, tablets, or smartphone devices. These games purport to target, assess, and – with training – enhance cognitive capacities. Many of these games draw upon classic experimental designs, and Lumosity has sought to further establish credibility through their ‘Lumos Labs’ – where ‘In-house scientists refine and improve the product’ – and their ‘Human Cognition Project’.
Admittedly, it may be tempting to dismiss products like Lumosity as pseudoscience packaged in exaggerative marketing, not worthy of our attention. But such dismissals neglect how we are typically constituted as subjects, for it is
‘… at this vulgar, pragmatic, quotidian and minor level that one can see the languages and techniques being invented that will reshape understandings of the subjects and objects of government, and hence reshape the very presuppositions upon which government rests.’
Therefore, with this need to better understand prevailing rationales of neuro-enhancement, observe here how Lumosity pitched itself to consumers in 2014:
Several appeals emerge here: equating brain training with other forms of ‘fitness’; the offer of focusing on what is ‘important to you’; scientific rigour; progress measured by comparison against the cohort; and the promise of fun. Finally, there is an earnest petition of potential, for with Lumosity you will ‘discover what your brain can do’.
The brain training industry has thrived within this context of egalitarian self-enterprise, offering aspiring virtuosos ‘the key to self-empowered aging’. Such seductive rationales are highlighted by Sharp Brains, ‘an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience’. They claim
‘When we conducted in-depth focus groups and interviews with [lay subject] respondents, the main question many had was not what has perfect science behind it, but what has better science than the other things people are doing – solving crossword puzzle number one million and one, taking ‘brain supplements,’ or doing nothing at all until depression or dementia hits home.’
The implication – conveniently endorsed by Sharp Brains – is that although efficacy remains unproven, this does not absolve individual responsibility. Rather, we must do something to care for our brains, lest we be seen as defeatist and indolent, sullenly waiting for depression or dementia to ‘hit home’. Such sentiments have certainly been fostered by slickly-packaged commercial appeals.
In 2012, Lumosity launched a highly successful ‘Why I Play’ campaign, designed to normalize brain training. The campaign was active for several years, reaching a massive global audience through an enticing emphasis on aspiration and emulation. Each ‘Why I Play’ commercial adhered to a shared template: an actor portraying a happy Lumosity user stresses the imperative need to enhance their cognition, while also noting the pleasures of brain training. All the actors are, of course, impossibly attractive, and the perfect embodiment of the late capitalist subject. They serve as avatars of virtuosity, with unending drives for both self-improvement and pleasure.
This simultaneously disciplined, pleasurable, intimate, and yet distant framing of ‘discovering what your brain can do’ creates a peculiar ethic-fetish of brainhood. Advocates proclaim that ‘I am happier with my brain’ or ‘my brain feels great’. The users also praise ‘the science behind the games’, and highlight hopes to maintain cognitive capacities as they age. These commercials lean directly on burdensome expectations placed upon labouring subjects today.
Another variant of the ‘Why I Play’ campaign, upping the ethical stakes, even implies that brain training may be obligatory for those who aspire to be the kindest persons they can be:
Similarly, a mother expresses relief that ‘it’s not just random games, it’s all based on neuroscience’, reassuring her that ‘every brain in the house gets a little better every day’. Training one’s brain – and the brains of dependents – is framed as an admirable practice for those who seek to be a source of joy, comfort, and care for others.
Upon commencing their ‘brain training journey’ members are asked probing questions around when they feel most productive, their sleeping patterns, general mood, exercise habits, age, and more. A competitive regimen is also stoked, with users asked ‘What percentage of Lumosity members do you outrank? … Come back weekly to see how many people you’ve surpassed.’ Such encouragement is then reflected in precise rankings of users in their various cognitive capacities. Lumosity also enables integration of data from Fitbit devices, further entrenching associations between brain fitness and aerobic fitness.
After completing a prescribed number of training sessions the user will receive a ‘Performance Report’. This report includes comparisons with other users according to occupation group, implying which line of work their particular brain may best be suited. Users can also consult their ‘Brain Profile’, divided into five functions of ‘Attention’, ‘Flexibility’, ‘Speed’, ‘Problem Solving’, and ‘Memory’. These five measures generate the user’s entire ‘Brain Profile’, while the ‘Performance Index’ ensures that ‘users know where they fall with respect to their own performance using a single number’. Nothing else can be accommodated, and everything must be reducible to a single figure. Our wondrous cognitive assembly collapses into a narrow ‘profile’ of functions, percentages, and indices, all framed through buzzwords and mantras of corporate-speak.
So, while it remains contentious whether such practices materially ‘train’ a brain, these regimes certainly contribute to entraining and championing a particular kind of subject. Yet the range of qualities measurable is clearly restricted by prevailing capabilities, including how these qualities are themselves refashioned to fit available affordances. Nevertheless, perhaps some comfort is found in giving in to the promise of fun and giving oneself over to expertise. In their capacious allowance for both pleasure and duty, these games serve as tolerable acts of confession. However, this fetish-ethic may, in time, become a burdensome labour, adding supposed precision around ‘brainhood’ that reflects only current idealisations.
The fetish-ethic of cognitive enhancement is particularly evident in the insistence on ‘active ageing’. Brain training products are often directly marketed to persons in the ‘Third Age’ (those who are perhaps retired, but not yet dependent upon others). The commercial exploitation of the Third Age has commonly been tied to strategies that bemoan passive acceptance of ‘natural’ ageing, and instead urge practices designed to lengthen this twilight of life.
Lumosity’s ‘Why I Play’ campaign, for instance, expressly endorses active ageing. One actor states ‘There’s a lot going on in here [pointing to head], and I want to keep it that way’, while another actor speaks directly to Third Age virtuosity.
Here, the extended Third Age is embodied in a handsome and (improbably) young retiree; a privileged silver fox carrying a clearly aspirational message. In this manner Lumosity presents brain training as the rational consumer choice through avatars of success, worthy of emulation. Such rationales are persuasive means in shifting the burden of healthfulness onto the consuming subject. A new actuarialism is emergent, managing population-level risks through the pleasurable consumption of self-care.
However, virtuous play also requires justifying the use of time. For today’s perpetually harried subject, this is achieved by blurring distinctions between labour and leisure. In this way, recreation can be tied to self-perfection, equipping the user against neoliberal demands without sacrificing participation in the experiential economy. This strategy of ‘instrumentalizing pleasure as a means of legitimizing it’ is especially evident in the way another brain training product – Elevate – pitches itself to consumers, with emphasis placed on the judicious use of time. Advertisements feature actors discussing the product’s benefits: time well spent; productive pleasure; and enhanced work focus. Indeed, these Elevate ‘users’ suggest that the right kind of play is actually the most effective and rational means of enhancing productivity:
Elevate’s emphasis on personal productivity is part of a broader ‘corporate mind hack’ trend. Under this regime, the labouring subject is disaggregated into discrete functions pre-determined as valuable, and then incentivized to improve them.
This is sometimes put into practice by leveraging competitive drives in workplace settings, with some arguing that it can prove ‘socially connective with the self and co-workers in just the right lightweight competitive way’. Such ‘biohacking’ is also driven by simmering distrust of more intuitive and holistic assessments of one’s wellbeing. Instead, ‘hard’ data is sought through mediating, non-human authorities. Still, it remains noteworthy that brain training retains a form of embodied volition. Note, for instance, how brain training is typically offered through devices imbued with haptic feedback capabilities, enabling a pleasurable experience through the sensory bleed between mind, body, device, and the virtual world presented within it.
Still, the expectation is that we should circumvent our sensing, intuitive apparatuses, and instead seek data neatly cleaved from its source. These mediated outputs can then provide reassuring, purportedly objective markers of our accumulated human capital. Yet, human capital, of course, is determined only by what counts as worth counting in any particular social context. Hence a circular pedagogy emerges, for as Foucault noted, one cannot ‘know’ without transforming that which is observed, and to ‘know’ oneself requires first abiding what is deemed of value to know.
The result is that these narrowly derived brain ‘profiles’ and ‘indices’ ultimately prescribe far more than they reveal. Likewise, virtuous play is a discursive veil by which productive expectations are heaped upon dutiful biocitizens. This is further compounded by the hasty rush-to-market. Emerging products looking to cash in on contemporary hopes and anxieties are limited by available affordances, yet still exploit obligations of self-care. This generates constraining ontological frames, hardening precisely at the very moment in which personal neurotechnologies are touching upon extraordinary exploratory potential.
Given these trends, we should aspire to foster discursive spaces where ‘enhancement’ can be reimagined. Or, better yet, perhaps we can sidestep the insistence on ‘enhancement’ altogether, and cease hyper-reflexively categorizing ourselves into endlessly improvable higher cognitive functions. Alternatively, perhaps we may better take advantage of flexible affordances within digital platforms. Could we find more ways of turning our hopes, fears, anxieties, and desires for pleasure not to high scores and top rankings for sole virtuosos? Such habits accrue hard metrics that confer worth only to oneself. Instead, can we turn personal neurotechnologies more towards discovering new avenues for our social capacities to soothe fears and anxieties – and, perhaps, even be a source of pleasure – for others?
This is not to advocate for metricizing intimacy through the ‘quantified relationship’. To precisely metricize good conduct – and give authority over these measures to mediators that cannot accommodate the creative ruptures of ‘play’ – is to wilfully foreclose the very same elusive potentials we are striving to attain. Instead, perhaps we can reimagine self-fashioning in ways less tethered to rigid and pre-determined instrumental ends, and instead embrace more experimental modes.
In any case, following their smackdown by the FTC, Lumosity are now far more cautious in their claims:
Matt Wade is a postdoctoral fellow in NTU’s Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Singapore. His primary research interests are within the sociology of science, technology, and morality (particularly around obligations of virtuosity and assessing moral worthiness). These interests are pursued in various contexts, including: debates and applications of moral neuropsychology; consumer-friendly neurotechnologies; self-tracking practices; and appeals for aid through personal crisis crowdfunding. Matt also has an interest in cultural sociology, particularly spectacles of prosumption and emotional labour. Previously, this research focused on evangelical megachurches, and now is pursued through a project on contemporary wedding rituals.