A technician snapped a stretchy electrode cap onto my head, and I felt a cold pinch as she affixed each sensor to my scalp with a dose of icy gel. Perched on an office chair, with a rainbow of wires spiraling from my head, I followed the tech’s instructions to stare at a small orange object while an EEG recording device measured the electrical activity in various regions of my brain.
I was checking out the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., branch of Neurocore, a “brain performance” company owned by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos resigned her Neurocore board seat when she joined the Trump Cabinet, but she and her husband maintain a financial stake of between $5 million and $25 million, according to a financial disclosure statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics. The DeVoses’ private-equity firm, Windquest, identifies Neurocore as part of its “corporate family.” The Windquest website posts Neurocore news and includes links for job seekers to apply to Neurocore openings.
In other words, the family has a lot riding on Neurocore’s claims that it can help you “train your brain to function better” — addressing problems as diverse as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss and migraines. “Unlike medication, which temporarily masks your symptoms, neurofeedback promotes healthy changes in your brain to provide you with a lasting solution,” touts a Neurocore overview video. “. . . We’ve helped thousands of people strengthen their brain to achieve a happy, healthier, more productive life for years to come.” The company currently has nine offices in Michigan and Florida, though there’s been talk of making a national move.
When the DeVos-Neurocore connection made headlines during her confirmation hearings, I was skeptical of the company’s claims. I had come across brain training while working on a book, “Learn Better,” about the science of learning. The field is rife with vague and overblown promises. Last year, the creators of Lumosity paid a $2 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle a complaint that they deceptively advertised that their memory exercises could improve everyday performance and stave off memory loss.
Neurocore hasn’t been subject to any federal complaints, chief executive Mark Murrison told me. But my impression was that the company’s premise runs counter to an immense body of research suggesting that the human brain isn’t all that trainable. Study upon study has failed to support a game or a tool that can boost intellectual RAM.
So what is our education secretary doing investing millions in a brain performance firm? I couldn’t find any public remarks by DeVos about Neurocore or brain training. Her spokesman at the Department of Education did not respond to my requests for comment. But in January, Neurocore’s chief medical officer, Majid Fotuhi, asserted to the New York Times that “Betsy DeVos really believes in improving brain performance and helping children who have syndromes such as attention deficit disorder.”
I wanted to understand what Neurocore was about.