What makes us alive? Moreover, what makes us dead?

When it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life.

There’s a claustrophobic moment in the new film of Stephen Hawking’s life when he describes his wife being given the option to let him die. It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript. Hawking had been hospitalised with pneumonia. He was placed on a life-support machine and put into a drug-induced coma. The doctors asked Jane Hawking if she wanted them to turn off the machine.
 
We can all be glad she said no, otherwise the planet would have been much the poorer for the past 28 years. Nonetheless, the shadow of death hangs over the whole film. One day – and it may not be many years away – Hawking will be no more. His declaration in September that assisted suicide should be possible without fear of prosecution suggests he might be squaring up to the idea.
 
Death seems to be the one thing that sets human beings apart: we are aware, unlike most (if not all) other animals, of our impending demise. Worse – as Jane Hawking knows too well – in this technological age, we have to make fine decisions about death. And here the advance of science seems to offer more hindrance than help.
 
Death is not what it was. Until half a century ago if you couldn’t breathe, you would soon be officially dead. Then someone invented the ventilator. Is a body that needs a machine to operate its lungs still alive? For sure, we now say.
 
It’s no longer the case that the heart has any jurisdiction over whether you’re dead. Remember the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba? His heart stopped for 78 minutes but then defibrillation got it started again. It’s a testimony to our scientific resourcefulness that we have learned how to choreograph the pulses of electrical current that will kick-start a long-immobile heart. Nonetheless, this, too, has complicated the notion of being “alive”.
 
Even what has been termed “brain death” is not enough. A lack of electrical activity inside your skull is not a sign that your brain cells are all dead. It takes up to eight hours to start dying and you can lose a lot of them before significant damage ensues. What’s more, damage to some cells makes permanent loss of consciousness inevitable. But damage to some others isn’t much of a problem.
 
Perhaps the most extreme technological management of death is among those who have paid to have their bodies frozen. Their hope is that future technologies will be able to defrost them and repair the damage that freezing cells full of water inevitably causes. This is not the last refuge of the frightened fool: plenty of our finest minds, including the MIT professor of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, have signed up to be cryo-preserved.
 
So, when it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life. That’s why a few researchers have suggested that doctors are no longer qualified to make life-and-death decisions. Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, goes further: he thinks you should be allowed to come up with your own definition of death and inscribe it in a living will for others to respect.
 
It would certainly be nice to have a say – especially when you can see it coming. Long live Stephen Hawking. As long as he wants, that is.
Science has complicated death. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.