Friday, October 11, 2013

Did you see the first episode of "Redesign My Brain"? At first I thought it was pretty good, but now that I think about it.....

Did you see the first episode of Redesign My Brain featuring Todd Sampson? It was broadcast on the Australian ABC on Thursday night, and it's a series so more of it will be on this Thursday. You can probably catch up with the first episode thru the website of the series below, and find out more about the show at the website.

If you've come to this blog out of an interest in the unacknowledged and largely untold story of Daniel Tammet (which I wrote about one of my books), you should also take a look at the first episode od this series, because it is an introduction to the world of memory sport and memory techniques which Daniel Tammet was definitely a part of during the years 1999 and 2000, even though he didn't mention this in his autobiography. In a nutshell, the main story of the first episode is that Todd Sampson, an ABC television personality decides to turbo-boost his brain by doing brain training computer applications and also by learning the ancient and powerful "method of loci" memory technique from an Australian memory sport champion, and sets himself the goal of going off to London to compete in the World Memory Championship, which he does. Sampson speaks about how wonderfully healthy and alive the brain training makes him feel, which is quite reminiscent of every ad for a quack cure or brain tonic that you've ever read or viewed. The world of memory sport is shown in this episode, but you would need to have some insider knowledge and good face memory to pick out all of the memory sport identities who are shown briefly in this episode: Ray Keene, Tony Buzan, Dominic O'Brien and Ben Pridmore, who is briefly interviewed, or at least only shown briefly. As we know too well, interviews with memory sport identities can be edited out of science documentaries. As ever, Pridmore comes across as a most likeable and humble man despite his solid body of world-class mental achievement.

I never comment on anything without offering some form of criticism, because I'm just one of those negative, picky people who are bad for business, and for sure there are quite a few things that I don't like about Todd Sampson's series already. The most important objection is to the idea of "neural plasticity, which appears to be at the heart of this TV series and is promoted solidly. I just don't buy the idea that our own brains are potentially our own playthings to be moulded and modified at will, but of course my position cannot be absolute. Of course, I believe we can all to a degree learn new facts and new skills, but the fact also remains that some people can't or have great difficulty in learning particular skills and in performing certain cognitive tasks. If the brain does indeed change itself as the title of a popular book on neural plasticity suggests, why do we still have dyslexics, dyscalculics, prosopagnosics, adult stutterers, people with cerebral palsy, intellectually disabled people etc? What could the idea of brain plasticity possibly mean for a person who has unsuccessfully been trying to stop stuttering their whole life, with a past littered with quack cures and ineffective therapies? I think it all sounds like a cruel joke, designed to entertain the able and give them an excuse to dismiss people who have real cognitive problems.

Another thing that I don't like about the Redesign My Brain series is the way that Sampson has stolen or at least copied shamelessly without credit the premise of Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein, by promoting himself as just a regular guy (not a savant or autistic or innately gifted person) who has applied his mind to memory techniques and then gone off to compete in a major international memory competition, which is pretty much what Foer did in his popular non-fiction book. Maybe I missed something, but I didn't notice Sampson acknowledge Foer or his book anywhere in the first episode, and although there are three pop psychology books recommended at the website of this series, none of them are Foer's book. I think Foer has every right to feel hard done by.

And I'd like to say something about one of those three pop psychology books which were cited at the website of this series. This series could be seen as one big promotion of the idea of brain plasticity or neural plasticity. One book above all has promoted this concept to the public, and it is one of the books cited by this series. I think the book is crap, and I've expressed this opinion over a number of years in various places. I'll admit that I've never read The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge from cover to cover, but this is because I simply refuse to read anything that looks like it is based on the long-discredited ideas of Sigmund Freud, and this book certainly has a Freudian stink about it, and when one looks into Dr Doidge's education and qualifications one can see where that came from. Doidge has a medical qualification in psychiatry, but it was apparently studied in tandem with psychoanalysis, which is just a fancy term for Freudian f***wittery. So an ABC television series cites a book that is a bit questionable. So what? Well, it isn't just this series. Over a span of years I've wondered why the ABC in many different media and programs has been quite aggressively promoting this book. The ABC has been shoving this most questionable book at the Australian public for a number of years now. When I think of all the many great and under-appreciated pop psychology and popular science books that our national public broadcaster could have been promoting instead I could cry. So what's the deal with the ABC and Dr Doidge's book? I thought the ABC wasn't supposed to run advertising, but it appears to me that the exposure that the ABC has given and is still giving to this book is disproportional, and I also think the series Redesign My Brain is a great big ad for vendors of brain training programs. Just take a look at the blurb at the head of the series's website: "It can turn an ordinary brain into a super brain in just three months. The fastest growing science on the planet, brain plasticity will revolutionize how we live in the future. It has the potential to cure learning and mental disorders, such as OCD, bipolar disorder, addiction, ADD, autism and some dementias." And the host of the series is an advertising executive. FFS ABC. I'm sure there is a conflict of interest story in here somewhere. Journalists?

Another thing that I object to in Sampson's series is the idea underlying the series that Sampson is just a regular guy who has improved his overall cognitive performance measurably by doing brain training. This idea is supported in data shown in the first episode, with Sampson doing some cognitive tests which were administered by some kind of expert, and his baseline results pre-brain-training were found to be average or just pretty good. My skepticism about this is for just the same reason why I've expressed skepticism about some of the cognitive tests that were administered to Daniel Tammet by supposed experts; there is no way to exclude the possibility of deliberate underperformance on tests. Prof. Baron-Cohen concluded that Tammet had a deficit in face recognition based on some interestingly inconsistent poor results in one test that he administered, in apparent ignorance of much evidence that Tammet has no problem with memorizing faces or interpreting facial expressions. Where's the proof that Tammet didn't deliberately underperform on that test? And why should viewers be assured that Sampson didn't underperform for his baseline tests? The viewer can only put their trust in Sampson, or not. Did I mention that Sampson is an advertising executive? Is there evidence that Sampson actually isn't cognitively the average guy that he is portrayed as in this episode? There's tons of evidence. I wish I could remember which reviewer mentioned that Sampson had gained early entry into university. Hardly an average achievement. A quick Google turns up a biographical story about Sampson from the Sydney Morning Herald from 2010 in which it is very clear that Sampson was never an average guy. One could say he was the stereotypical intellectually gifted kid gone bad, taking risks and living on the edge probably out of boredom. He was unexpectedly identified as intellectually gifted by testing at school: "An answer came in year 7, when an aptitude test launched him from the bottom class to the top." Read more: An average guy? My arse!

My last objection to this series (or at least the last one that occurs to me at this point of time) is that in the first episode there was no mention of Daniel Tammet, even though the main theme of the episode seemed to be debunking the central theme of Daniel Tammet's books and public persona - the idea that autistic savants can magically do cognitive feats that other people can only dream of. To be fair, in his second book Tammet wrote at times in a way that confusingly undermined his savant media image and promoted a self-help message, but the mass media of the world continue to portray Tammet as a mysteriously gifted autistic synaesthete savant, not a trained memory sportsman. Tammet is very famous and he did indeed compete in the World Memory Championship in London just like Sampson did in this episode, and the book by Joshua Foer which it appears Sampson has copied to a degree in this episode exposed Tammet in one chapter, but despite these many ways in which Tammet's story is related to the material covered in this episode, Tammet didn't rate a mention? Why I wonder.

Links that might be of interest:

Redesign My Brain (ABC website of the series)

Todd Sampson as guest on a Triple J radio show on Oct 9th 2013.

Preview: ABC’s Redesign my Brain with Todd Sampson. The Conversation.

Lumosity Ordered To Quit Claiming Their Games Make Users Smarter, Prevent Dementia.
Laura Northrup
January 5th 2016 Consumerist

Media Watch (ABC)

Lodge a complaint. ABC.

ABC Advisory Council

Redesign My Brain Episode 1 event page at Facebook

Mindful Media

Mindful Media on Facebook

Joshua Foer

Daniel Tammet: the Boy with the Incredible Story by Lili Marlene


Adelaide Dupont said...

"What if we could not wear clothing"?

"We would be in touch with nature".

(so tempted to liveblog this 2nd episode about divergent thinking!)

And there are triangles and shoes - uses for both.

Another good link about REDESIGN MY BRAIN is ATOM. (This is Australian Teachers of Media).

Redesign my brain

Does require an e-mail.

Laura said...

Doidge's book mentions savantism at some point, but does not discuss Tammet at all. The two of them were interviewed together on Canadian radio a few years ago because both had books about the brain newly released. I think Doidge was sensible not to bring Tammet up in his book.

You are quite right about psychoanalysis being a crock of sh*t. Much like most, if not all, of Baron-Cohen's work.

Lili Marlene said...

Was that radio show The Agenda? It appears that Doidge is indoctrinated but not completely silly.