“The brain economy” is the newest, biggest scam

With mental health in America on the decline, whether it’s a result of quarantine, family issues or work stressors, innovators and laymen alike are desperate for solutions to the constant, pressing burden of psychological turmoil. Some of those solutions are simple – go for a walk, drink more water, meditate before bed. And some of those solutions are, well, a little too heady.

The hottest new phenomenon in the business psychology world is that of “brain capital”, built by a force called “brain health”, ultimately contributing to the larger “brain economy.” Published in October of 2020, this late and breaking report has been covered in such publications as the Psychiatric Times. An entire institute dedicated to what’s now called “brain health”, located at the University of Dallas in Texas, is producing lectures and papers about this contemporary field of study.

If you’re caught in the hype, take a moment to step out of the world of corporate, and into the world of logic. While it appears revolutionary, this seemingly new-fangled concept is what the kids these days call fake deep. Creating a faux-scientific label for a very person-centered concept is nothing more than a reinvention of the wheel, and a misconception of behavioral health.

What is brain health?

Brain health is exactly what it sounds like – the health of your brain, like the health of any other body part you’d have.

Prodeo, the brain-health-oriented start-up founded in 2020, includes “brain injury, neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders” in their definition. The metaphorical brain-child of entrepreneur and Forbes columnist Dr. Harris Eyre, Prodeo seeks to implement an AI-run software for healthcare companies that assesses the brain health of their clientele, including one’s emotional and cognitive strengths.

The solutions to this ever-growing problem of chronically ill brains are, as of now, a bit vague. Currently, the way in which to help one’s brain health is to invest in the brain economy, which is made up of – you guessed it – brain capital.

Brain capital and the brain economy

Brain capital takes the idea of brain health and transposes it onto the world of business and economics. The study says that fundamentally, we now live in a world “where most new jobs demand cognitive, emotional, and social, not manual, skills, and where innovation is a tangible “deliverable” of employee productivity.” This means that at its core, brain capital is the gold mined from the cave of cognitive processes.

The study also says that brain capital seeks to measure a person’s capacity for hope, self-efficacy, and to “harness the brain’s innate neuroplastic abilities to optimize human performance”, enhancing the functioning of “neural systems, top-down cognitive control processes, psychological well-being and quality of life, real-life performance, and social agility.” If this sounds familiar, you’re probably a fan of the movie Limitless, in which Bradley Cooper takes a pill that unlocks his brain’s potential, allowing him to do most of the above at a breakneck pace.

It’s argued that this brain capital is part of a larger system, one called the brain economy. This is the trade and compensation of one’s interpersonal, psychological, and critical thinking capabilities. The authors of this October 2020 study pose that the investment of the brain economy should come in the form of government grantmaking, social impact investing, and new forms of corporate structuring.

They also posit the solution of “brain bonds”, which the World Bank Group Global Mental Health Initiative defined as “tapping the international financial markets through a bond emission that would support and add momentum to the global scale-up of mental health services,” focusing mostly on a progressive agenda relating to healthcare access.

So what’s the problem?

While this all sounds well and good, an apt name for a new phenomenon, don’t be fooled by the pithiness of the brain capital model.

First off, the investment in global mental health seems on the surface like a great idea. Mental health is one of the most stigmatized notions across culture, as numerous empirical peer-reviewed studies everywhere from Current Psychiatry Reports to The Lancet will elucidate upon. Attempting to create sweeping solutions for such nuanced differences across the globe is an impossible undertaking.

Scaling down, governmental and social impact funding in the USA sounds just as appealing. But with just a quick Google, even an amateur researcher could tell you about the latest neuroscience technologies worth investing in or the newest government effort to aid mental health accessibility. Progress is already being made without the overarching moniker of the brain economy – so what good would it do to add another cook in the kitchen?

Additionally, Prodeo’s seemingly concrete, tactile solutions for the amorphous and far-reaching field of brain health have a fundamental issue. Though modern medicine has brought us to certain conclusions about the structure of the brain, and functional MRIs have shown us how the brain interprets thoughts and feelings, we only have a few pieces of the brain puzzle put together.

Scientists at Stanford Medicine recently reported that though we know generally how the brain works, there are so many complicated processes at play that it can be hard to find out what variables influence individuals. “We know very little about the brain. We know about connections, but we don’t know how information is processed,” neurobiologist Lu Chen, Ph.D. says in an interview for Scope, the Stanford Medicine blog.

While the arguments of brain health and brain capital seem to be impeded by scientific hurdles, there are also philosophical and hermeneutical issues at play. There seems to be this need in the world of business to medicalize existing terminology just to see within its validity and reason.

Describing the simple notion of personhood with verbose pseudo-scientific jargon, unfortunately, turns the delicate amalgamate of differentiable personhood into a measurable commodity. The more this immeasurable thing becomes measured, the more its organic, diverse nature is drained, and replaced with a calculated, impersonal shell of what it once was.

This is the ultimate issue with brain capital: it’s not only a reinvention of the wheel but an overcomplication of the innate relational elements of humanism, abstracted to the point of near-irony.