Simple ways to make yourself cynical

piensa_statue.jpgWhy do I have a bad feeling about the upcoming BBC series Get Smarter in a Week? It’s discussed in this article in The Guardian.

Is it because it claims that ‘brain exercises’ can make someone ‘40% cleverer’ in a week (whatever that’s supposed to mean), or perhaps because this claim is based on a trial of 15 volunteers with no control group?

Control groups are essential because people can improve due to non-specific effects (such as the placebo effect or the Pygmalion effect) where simply being involved with people trying to help you can have a beneficial effect – regardless of how effective the actual treatment is.

Looking at the advice recounted in The Guardian article, it mostly seems quite sensible if continued in the long term, i.e. practising mental skills, eating well and staying fit (although I’m not sure there’s much evidence that having a shower with your eyes closed in likely to improve the mind in any significant way).

I suspect, however, that most people will come away from the programme with the idea that doing these activities for only a week will cause a permanent improvement in their intelligence.

One of the best ways of making yourself ‘cleverer’ is to understand how to evaluate scientific claims, particularly when they’re used as ideas for TV programmes.

Of course, this may all be hype before ‘Get Smarter in a Week’ hits the airwaves, but I’d question the use of misleading scientific claims to promote a popular science programme.

Anyway, I look forward to being pleasantly surprised (or not).

In the meantime, the best bets for sharpening your mental abilities are: eat healthily, exercise regularly, stay mentally active.

Oh, and consider watching less TV (see also this pdf). Strangely, that’s one they forgot to mention.

Link to uncritical Guardian article on ‘Get Smarter in a Week’.

2 thoughts on “Simple ways to make yourself cynical”

  1. RE: Showering with your eyes closed
    Has anyone done a study on this? I doubt it but there is good reason to suppose it is beneficial in training the balance system. Your balance is maintained by a combination of the vestibular, visual input and samatosensory information. By shutting your eyes you force the other two systems to work harder, causing neurogenisis in those areas of the brain. There are some interesting hints about the role neurogenisis and the depression [ http://www.biopsychiatry.com/neurogenesis.htm ] that suggest that improving your brain anyhow is good for you.
    Will showering make you smarter? On its own, no but there is clear evidence that balance and in particular the vestibular has a role to play to learning problems such as dyslexia and ADHD.
    For more information of balance and learning difficulties, check out my blog, Myomancy [ http://www.Myomancy.com ]
    Chris

  2. Actually they did suggest watching less TV! And, if you go to the website it even suggests watching the C4 show, Countdown. There were no suggestions for brain stimulating programmes on their own channel; so I guess they couldn’t think of any.
    Re. showering. I agree with Chris’ comment, but I doubt the producers put as much thought into it. Ultimately there are far better (and safer) ways of improving your balance than showering with your eyes closed.
    Incidently, it was nice to see Johnny Ball again, even if it was for a fleeting moment.
    I’ve discussed the show in more depth on my website.
    Alan

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