Nothing to Brain Games

brain games tree

Oh, if it were only that simple. If you could just spend an afternoon playing brain games and ramp up your intelligence. Life would be so much easier. Perhaps we should recall the quote sometimes attributed to Carol Rees,

“Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Maybe that’s the true message to take away when it comes to these so-called brain-training games are misleading. This assertion doesn’t come from a lone study, but rather in a statement released by 69 scientists, organized by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

Their summary statement reads:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”

These are strong words by psychology professors and others from all around the world. The statement highlights a growing problem in popular media in our connected age. While science wants to share knowledge, some exploit it.

Brain Games Fail

Cognitive decline is a scary subject, and thus, produces a desperate populace. They use claims of neuroscience, the latest science buzzword, to bolster their “credibility.” They assert scientific evidence where it doesn’t exist.

As the scientists’ full statement points out,

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products.”

It is certainly not case in this industry alone, but in many health claims you encountered on TV advertising, mobile ads, and product packaging. The problem with brain games lies in the blatant misuse of science.

And as writers, this subject may hit home in other ways. We have, after all, a more intimate relationship with words. Cognitive decline takes on a different meaning all together for those of us who live by the pen.

That is precisely what makes this statement infuriating. Perhaps we know that advertisers are overselling when buy anything packaged. I mean, seriously; has any frozen food you purchased looked like the picture on the box when you cooked it? If so, I want to know what you’re buying—as long as it is gluten free.

The problem here is that the act of misleading has greater consequences. It’s harmful and cruel, I would add, to promise a youthful mind. Some of it is unavoidable, but you can take some control of your destiny if you use it by learning skills, exercising, and yes, reading.

If you want the secret to a long, long life, take to heart the wise words of George R.R. Martin in A Dance with Dragons.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” Chris DR

photo credit: Eduardo Mueses via photopin cc

Hindsight Bias in Mysteries

mystery hindsight biasYou see it all the time in mysteries. “If I only knew that that bannister was about to give way, then Aunt Jane never would have fell down the steps and broke her neck.” Welcome to hindsight bias.

Sometimes, guilt motivates it. Other times, a seemingly clever murderer will bemoan his failure to spot the obvious to throw suspicion onto someone else. His brother, maybe?

Many writers and wise ones have had a lot to say about hindsight. Billy Wilder allegedly said that “Hindsight is always 20-20.” The truth of it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. Along with it comes a lot of baggage, including some things that are quite unpleasant.

For example, you have to wonder what motivated Kurt Vonnegut to say, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.‘” Makes me a bit sad just writing it. Or how about when Greek playwright, Sophocles, said, “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.”

What Is Hindsight Bias?

Israeli-American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator, Amos Tversky, identified hindsight bias as one of those mental mechanisms we use to navigate life. In this case, we fool ourselves into thinking that an event was predictable all along, the I-knew-it-all-along effect.

For every time you’ve heard it, said it, or read it, it’s probably been repeated dozens and dozens of times more. We invoke the hindsight bias to save face within our group. We may do it to console ourselves or to rationalize a bad choice. That’s what makes mystery writers like Agatha Christie so great.

Mysteries Using Hindsight

Christie and others like her brought a sense of realism to their work by exposing our humanness. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. After all, who likes to admit they screwed up? Guilt, of course, acts as another powerful instigator of the hindsight bias.

There’s a valuable lesson in learning about the biases and heuristics we use, even if they don’t always give us the right answer or point us in the right direction. They help us learn about ourselves. And they help us understand how important we view our place in society and within our group(s).

We gravitate to what seems the easiest course. It’s human nature. But, lest we rely too much on hindsight, lest us recall the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who knew a thing or two about logic.

“It is easy to be wise after the event.” Chris DR

photo credit: i k o via photopin cc