Grasping at straws

Photo by Steve Slater (Wildlife Encounters)

Photo by Steve Slater (Wildlife Encounters)

So I got an email from Lumosity recently. I just looked at it today.

More challenging training leads to better impulse control
In a 2012 Psychological Science study, University of Amsterdam researchers used challenging working memory exercises (similar to Lumosity’s <games>) to affect positive changes on problem drinkers.

The 48 participants — all of whom had trouble controlling the impulse to drink alcohol — were split into a training group and a control group. The training group did 25 daily sessions of challenging working memory tasks, while the control group trained with the easiest levels of those tasks.

The training group drank less than the control group after the working memory training. In addition, those who trained had less positive associations with alcohol, as determined by a psychological assessment called the Implicit Association Test.

If you haven’t heard of Lumosity before, they are the group that makes the games that are supposed to make your brain better for longer. It has been sold as a way to help people retain their mental functions as they age. There is plenty of skepticism on that claim as shown on the Wikipedia entry.  I played their free games two years ago and ended up on their mailing list, but I’ve never subscribed. This, however made me sit up and take notice. In fact, it made me sit up and pull out my wallet and become a subscriber.

After making the purchase, I realized how desperate the move was. Like grasping at straws. I never knew why that phrase was used to describe a desperate, perhaps futile attempt at avoiding destruction.  Google provided the answer, of course. The Word Detective gives the following:

“Grabbing at straws” (or “grasping,” today the more common form) comes from the very old proverb noted by Samuel Richardson in his novel Clarissa (1748): “A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says.”  The “straw” in this case refers to the sort of thin reeds that grow by the side of a river, which a drowning man being swept away by a fast current might desperately grasp in a futile attempt to save himself.

The thing is, I know that the claim is shaky at best. Like my hands in the morning after a serious binge. I have listened to far too many episodes of Skeptoid and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe not know that some silly computer game won’t keep me sober. But I am a desperate man.  A desperate man who will spend the evening playing “working memory” games and finding a way to get a copy of the Psychological Science study.


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