Gaming the Aging Brain: Digital Cognitive Performance in the Shadow of Dementia

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:36
Location: Hörsaal 42 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Stephen KATZ, Department of Sociology, Trent University, Canada
This paper explores the articulation of aging, memory, performance and cognitive fitness through online, self-tracking and digital brain games, as part of a critique of ‘neuroculture’ and its pervasive discourse of brain plasticity.  Neuroculture is theorized as a convergence of brain sciences, popular images, lifestyle industries, gerontological advocacy and medical technologies aimed at the optimization of cognitive function for older individuals.  Neuroculture is also marked by an absence of attention to the social and environmental determinants of health and the relational, interactive conditions that make memory and cognition possible.  As background, the paper comments on: a) the role of scanning and imaging technology in opening the aging brain to biosocial experimentation and to public attention, b) the influence of pharmaceutical discourses and their metaphorical vocabulary of ‘neuro-protection’, ‘cognitive health’ and ‘memory fitness’ that slips between clinical states of ‘maintenance’, ‘improvement’ and ‘enhancement’, c) and the spread of culturally ageist expectations for unfailing and infallible memory skills across the life-course.  Data are drawn from marketing, advice, corporate, science, research and internet materials, including historical images of brain, memory and aging to provide a genealogical perspective on how we think about the aging mind today.  Discussion focuses on the construction of performance of successful aging through brain games. While critical research questions promotional claims that brain games improve cognitive fitness or brain plasticity, the promise of brain-games lies in its field of play, represented through compelling techniques of score-keeping, shared profiles, and testimonials by experts. Conclusions consider how brain games extend the ambiguous image of aging itself, as both positive and improvable, and negative and inevitable and raise the larger question of the meaning of normal aging in the shadow of dementia, where increasingly broadened stages and symptoms are shaped by social forces that stratify new bio-identities.