June 8, 2009
San Francisco Chronicle
Deborah Gage

Earlier this year, a car ran a red light at an intersection in Pittsburgh and narrowly missed smashing into the driver’s side of W. Larocca’s car.

Larocca, 57, was able to stop in time. He believes what saved him was the 40 minutes a day he spent using brain fitness software that supposedly improves reaction time and peripheral vision.

The program was part of an experiment run by Allstate Insurance and Posit Science, a San Francisco software startup.

“I was thinking it was just like the (software) game,” he said, remembering his near-miss. “I was looking straight ahead – I didn’t expect this car on the left. I can’t prove it, but I’m 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t taken the course, I would have been hit.”

Posit is one of at least five Bay Area firms that design products based on the theory that the human brain can be rewired and improved no matter what its age.

Although it’s not clear how effective these programs are, interest is growing in this type of software, which is evolving rapidly. Some firms are attracting venture capital. USA Hockey last year signed a partnership to develop brain fitness software for its players, and the Army is using it to screen soldiers before they’re deployed.

This week there is a conference in Boston to discuss games and brain health.

“The brain is more complicated and more flexible than people thought,” said Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder of SharpBrains, a research firm. “Physical fitness matured as an industry 50 or 60 years ago, and the same thing will happen with brain fitness.”

Allstate is experimenting with the software because it wants its customers who are over 50 to become better drivers so they have fewer accidents and can drive longer, perhaps in return for lower premiums, said Tom Warden, an assistant vice president in Allstate’s research and planning center.

The insurance company is still sifting through data from the experiment, which began in October, and is looking at ways to use the software. If it’s shown to work with young people, for example, Allstate could use Posit to appeal to different age groups, Warden said.

Allstate found Posit after the insurance company’s own scientists, who were working on the physiology and psychology of good drivers, discovered research done by Visual Awareness, a company in Alabama that has worked with State Farm and various state motor vehicle departments on expanding drivers’ fields of view. Posit acquired Visual Awareness last year.

A portion of the software used by Allstate – called the Jewel Diver – is demonstrated on Posit’s Web site. The user is asked to keep his eyes on a black-and-white fish as it swims through a reef hiding a red jewel behind its body.

As the game goes on, more jewels and more fish, all identical, appear, and as the fish swim and blend into a school, keeping track of all the jewels becomes impossible. Nobody is supposed to get all the answers right.

Fernandez has just co-authored a consumer guide to brain fitness, and SharpBrains challenges claims made on public broadcasting that some of Posit’s software can rejuvenate brains by 10 years. Posit CEO Steven Aldrich said the claims are backed by scientific research.

There is also concern about how information gathered by brain fitness companies could be used, or misused. Would Allstate, for example, use information gleaned from Posit to get rid of its bad drivers?

Warden said no – Posit masks the names of drivers so Allstate can’t see them. Allstate is more concerned with trying to keep drivers paying for auto insurance. He said some customers might see brain fitness as an unexpected and “delightful” benefit from Allstate.

Meanwhile, both Allstate and Posit continue to refine the driving experiment. Although Allstate sent letters to 100,000 of its Pennsylvania customers, age 50 to 75, inviting them to try the software, only about 8,000 did, even though Allstate rewarded them with gas cards.

Warden thinks that asking customers to wait for a CD, install it and spend at least 10 hours training may have been too much. A spokeswoman said Posit is aware of the concerns and is working on making the software more convenient.