A Learning Expert Tries Betsy DeVos' Neuron-Stimulating Headset—and Is Far From Impressed

DeVos has invested millions in the brain-training company NeuroCore.

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has invested millions in a brain-training company called NeuroCore, which claims its neuro-feedback treatments can help relieve serious illnesses such as ADHD, anxiety, autism, depression, memory loss, migraines, sleeplessness and stress. Ulrich Boser, an education policy expert, writer on learning processes and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, visited a NeuroCore office as a prospective patient and wrote a long piece for the Washington Post. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld asked him what he found.

Steven Rosenfeld: Tell us what led you to visit this business where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a multimillion-dollar investor.

Ulrich Boser: I just wrote a book on the science of learning and one thing that I thought had not really been looked at enough is this idea—and it’s really in some ways almost even ancient—is that if you study one thing it will have spillover effects. For a long time people argued that if you learned Latin, for instance, you could be better at law, or if you studied chess, you’d be a better strategic thinker. All of this is a type of argument for brain training. The fundamental idea is the same, that there’s some deep muscle of the brain and you can train it. A lot of research shows that stuff doesn’t transfer from one field to another. 

More recently we’ve had brain training companies, like Luminosity, and at least one other get into some legal issues around brain training. Betsy DeVos’ company, NeuroCore, takes a technology, if you will, that’s been around for quite a few decades, and dresses it up again, arguing that it can solve ADHD and autism and depression and this long list of ailments.

SR: So you signed up and went for their assessment.

UB: I signed up, went for the training, identified myself as an author, my name’s unusual. I didn’t want to hide anything. At the time that I went, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I would do with the material. I went there and I got an assessment. I didn’t actually do the training. I did the prospecting, if you will, to see if I was someone who would be ready for their training. The woman that I met with was thoughtful and walked me through my results. As I say in the [Washington Post] piece, she didn’t diagnose me with ADHD, but that was something that hung out there pretty clearly. It wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if I did have it.

SR: As you write in your piece, it seems like there’s a pop psychology or pop self-improvement aspect to this that is not accepted by medical and scientific researchers. How would you put it?

UB: We know the brain has electrical impulses and we know these impulses are associated with certain mental states. If it runs high, you can be anxious. If it runs slow, you can be sleepy or distracted. That’s been established. You can train those brain waves. [NeuroCore claims to positively manipulate these electrical impulses.] What is harder, then, to do, is to say that the training of those brain waves causes certain solutions [to illnesses].

One of the things that they do in their training that they don’t promote as much, but I think in my opinion actually shows some promise is just helping you regulate your breathing. In some ways it’s like a biological meditation. That’s not what they promote. They are called NeuroCore, not BreathingCore.

There’s a large number of researchers who I spoke to who said that this is an interesting field, it could work out, but the science is not definitive. What we can say is that the major medical bodies that try and do a good job of saying what the balance of research says, what should we endorse for illnesses that families struggle with, whether it’s ADHD or depression, what they said the evidence isn’t there yet [for NeuroCore]. Now, NeuroCore is in a building that’s very nice. Where I went in Florida, it was next to a raw juice bar and a place to blow out your hair. I think you could spend your whole life in that mall and improve all aspects of your life, at least that’s the promise.

SR: Doesn’t NeuroCore also reflect values that DeVos holds as Secretary of Education and in her philanthropy? These specious beliefs bother you, don’t they?

UB: What I would say is this isn’t that different than online websites that hawk echinacea or nutritional supplements or vitamin E. It’s like a late-night television type promotion. Smarter people than I have debated how markets should function in this regard, what guardrails we should have for people who are not sophisticated enough.

If she was just simply a private citizen and can make money, that's one thing, but in her position as the Secretary of Education, she has the ability to promote this. I want to be clear that I found no evidence that they were actively moving into schools. Since the story came out a blogger in Michigan shared with me a press release from a very early version of the company before it was called NeuroCore. That press release from this company said that they did want to go into educational institutions. It shows that they, of course, had some thought of going into schools.

Then the question is, why do we have a Secretary of Education who made this investment and what does it say about her and the future of education?

SR: It reminded me of other experiments done under the charter school umbrella where you have unproven methodologies that are being subsidized at taxpayer expense.

UB: My problem with NeuroCore is slightly different. They present themselves as a medical institution, but it’s not a medical institution. The person who administered it to me was a social worker. No insurance in Florida covers this. The charter schools, at least supposedly, are operating within a public school sphere. This is just something that operates at the edges. Their main claim is that it’s going to help you sleep and improve your attention, but they also put autism on the list. I want to be clear that autism is very, very difficult for many, many families. They struggle with this, they’re reaching out, and now the company is make some promises to help cure that. If you talk to them [NeuroCore] at length, they hedge it, but if you visit their website, autism is listed as one they can make a difference on.

SR: What’s your biggest takeaway here? You have written books on effective learning. We have a Secretary of Education who’s very into privatization. Where does it leave you?

UB: It makes me feel very uncomfortable. She, today or within the past few weeks, talks about evidence in education, and yet the DeVos family has this massive investment in this firm that is promising an educational or medical intervention for which there is very little evidence and does not meet the muster of evidence that is agreed upon by the scientific communities.

I think it shows in a pretty concrete way that we’re not dealing with people who care about evidence. I think it’s another sign of putting profits over people. We can go back and forth about what caveats they should or shouldn't have and where the research is, but when you reach out to a major medical establishment, and that to me was the biggest thing, because the American Association of Pediatrics has not endorsed this. They say no, there isn’t enough evidence, and yet this is what our Secretary of Education is pushing. I think that's deeply disconcerting.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).