The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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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.