Tanning Tales and Arthur in the Underworld on BBC Radio 4

You know when you've been Tango'd.

Tanning Tales; Arthur in the Underworld

BBC Radio 4

“I’m rubbing extraordinary butter into my kneecaps,” preens the presenter Kit Hesketh- Harvey, preparing his body for a spray tan. “I’m exfoliating. Yes, listeners, I am trimming.” Tanning Tales, a documentary about the immense UK tanning industry (1 July, 11am), burlesqued the subject enough for even the conveyor belt of the usual gender studies professors to laugh it up. One confessed that a daughter had chosen a university purely on the basis of how tanned the other students had looked on open day. I think she ended up in Nottingham. A landlord despaired over the state of his mattresses: “We thought it was from bodily fluids . . . but then we realised the orangey colour followed more or less a body shape.”

Any bounce that the programme had was slaughtered by Hesketh-Harvey – formerly of Kit and the Widow – who suffers from the same compulsion as Nicholas Parsons to peddle that unctuously camp tone that Radio 4 doggedly believes is humorous and stylish but comes over as the default setting of a peppery tyrant hauling a freight of indescribable mocking and violence. The “charming” this, the “wonderful” that. “How gorgeous!” “How terribly glamorous!” “Oh, you are splendid, you adorable redhead.”

Other standard male tones celebrated on the station include the “rapturous murmur” to which even David Attenborough has been known to resort. But it can be compelling. The writer Horatio Clare, in Arthur in the Underworld (4 July, 11.30am), a spooky and meaningful documentary about the great author of the supernatural Arthur Machen, travelled to Wales to see if he could spy an elf or a sprite in a forest. “Unfocus your eyes,” recommended Machen grimly, when committing to search for such surely malign but alluring creatures. (“You do just want the ground to open up and something to come out from underneath.”)

Squatting in the unnatural conifer gloom, Clare confessed to having fallen into a mass grave for sheep when he was a child lost in a forest like this. Speaking in the dreamy rat-tat-tat of someone perpetually tottering on the edge of a properly crazed monologue, he was suddenly distracted by the call of a nightjar hunting for beetles and off Clare went again, his chatter unstoppable, low and melodious, like a sports car purling madly into the unknown.

Tanning Tales is a Radio 4 documentary about the UK tanning industry. Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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.