Mad Men: season 5, episode 4

Cinderella, rape, and a murder dream we wish was real.

Oh Red, we knew you had it in you. If “Tea Leaves” was dominated by Betty’s blubber, episode four ventured deeper – historically, socially and more subtly – into female physicality. Mad Men doesn’t get more triumphant than this: Joanie, all woman, ridding herself of her scumbag husband in one stoical swoop. Never have we forgotten that crude, heartbreaking scene from Season Two where Greg overcomes his fiancée on Don’s office floor. Now, finally, Joanie vindicates herself that awful act: “You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about”. Was it inexplicable from the show’s start that Ms Holloway would be our feminist heroine? Now a single mother and, presumably, returning soon to work (note Peggy's referral to “Joan’s office”), her attempt to take charge of both whilst handling her mother (a traditionally subservient wife) and miserable-in-marriage Roger will be fascinating to watch.

Rape, of course, looms over the entire episode. On the surface is the 1966 Chicago nurse murders; Peggy’s friend Joyce presenting the gruesome photos (the story did indeed make the cover of TIME) so salaciously that Ginsberg’s disgust has us sweet for him. As important as these overt political references are - and increasingly will be as the show moves through the latter part of the decade - Mad Men’s beauty lies in its poetic allusions to current affairs, its ability to tap into the nation’s climate through the intimate and personal. So as the ninth nurse escaped death by hiding under the bed, so the dream corpse lies on the carpet beneath Don, her Cinderella foot exposed; Sally sleeps fast on the livingroom floor underneath the sofa. There’s actually a lot of women struggling to sleep in the second half of the episode: Dawn on Don’s couch; Joan on the bed with her mother; Sally under the sheets, horrified by the newspaper story. 

Our other troubled sleeper, then, in Don. What is this dream sequence fad? Unlike Betty's funereal breakfasting vision, Don's nightmare is quite (a)rousing. Don't you rather wish it were true - Don sweaty, fevered and adulterous? There's not too much to analyse here, though. What do we learn about our protagonist we didn't know already? Probably most interesting is Andrea's (read: Don's subconscious) passing comment on his interior decoration skills, "Everybody probably thinks she did this but I know it was you."

To Peggy: it's taken us four episodes but here she finally is in all her nuanced glory. What many marvellous things has Peggy become? Let us count the ways: the pithy copywriter, the teamplayer, the attempting mentor, and – most thrillingly – the player's player (does "the racist" really fit in here? How believable was that handbag suspiciousness?). Peggy won’t be taken for granted at SCDP, least of all by Roger, and counting her bills with nervous glee we know she's thrilled, too. This self-respecting and playful act can't be what leads her to wonder out loud to Dawn whether she behaves like a man. Why this concern, Peggy?

A final note on the episode title which neatly plays off the innocence/ experience theme. A TV commercial for the boardgame Mystery Date plays in the livingroom while Sally, intrigued by Grandma Francis's gossip, wonders exactly what happened to the Chicago nurses. A young girls’ game about welcome/ unwelcome men behind doors recalls not only the murderer Richard Speck but cobbled alleyways, a stranger's hand on a shoulder, and a Butler glass slipper for a princess.

Read the Mad Men series blog

Ditching Harris: Joanie's back. From Mad Men episode "Mystery Date"

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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.