A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.