Down but not out

Why Leonard Cohen is the ultimate comeback kid.

The news that Leonard Cohen has postponed a European tour due to ill-health may come as little surprise -- after all, the Canadian singer-songwriter turns 76 this year.

Cohen, born three months before Elvis Presley in the autumn of 1934, has played 191 sold-out shows around the world since returning to the stage two years ago. Spin magazine named him the big comeback of 2009, which, after a hiatus of 15 years, seemed like a gross understatement. To his fans, the tour was something far more special and unexpected: many had written off the chance of ever seeing him perform live again.

Halfway through the Manchester Opera House concert last June, he stopped to quip: "The last time I was [touring], I was 60 years old . . . Just a kid with a crazy dream." Cohen, like Tom Waits, has always fetishised old age. His peripheral presence among the Warhol set during the 1960s seemed an odd fit; he was clearly far more at ease in the boozy, intellectually rigorous company of his mentor and friend Irving Layton (who was 22 years his senior).

In the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr Leonard Cohen, he makes for a curious spectacle -- a self-conscious young artist, brash among his contemporaries and easily crushed by television interviewers who see through the pose. A charmer though he was, his long digressions into paraphrasing passages of his second novel, Beautiful Losers, say, in response to a question about art, are a far cry from Bob Dylan's razor-sharp epithets.

That's because Cohen isn't -- and was never -- a hipster. Hipsters, like Dylan and Lou Reed, are concerned with mapping out the future. Even when they appropriate cultural artefacts from the present or the past, they are making manifestos for new ways of living and seeing. Dylan might sing "Don't follow leaders", but what he really means is: "I know you're going to follow me."

Cohen, on the other hand, has built a career on the art of saying goodbye. He's seen the future, he once mumbled, but "it's murder". Many assumed that Cohen's 2004 album Dear Heather was an elaborate farewell. In that record, melodies from earlier albums were appropriated and rewritten; an old live recording of the country standard "Tennessee Waltz" reminded us of his younger voice; and backing singers were allowed to replace him on lead vocals. "To a Teacher", a musical setting of one of his earliest poems, completed what looked like the full circle of his career.

But his return to live performance was an awe-inspiring reaffirmation of his powers. Every night, he literally ran on to the stage and growled out his songs with almost religious conviction.

While fans are no doubt concerned about the singer's health, they should take comfort in the knowledge that, according to the official press release, it was a "sports-related injury" that felled him. Some might comment on how the notorious ladies' man has injured his "lower back", but I, for one, won't.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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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.