A web site called Lumosity has launched one of those big online advertising campaigns that leads to the seeming ubiquity of an idea. Just as two years ago, people wondered what kind of weird cosmetic treatment could lead old women to peel off layers of their skin like dried glue, and last year, online ads plastered all over the place had people wondering whether mild-mannered language professors could really hate a man whose weirdly photoshopped picture made him look like a Soviet dissident in the 1970s, this year, people are wondering whether “brain game” exercises provided by lumosity can actually improve the practical functioning of their brains.
Lumosity points to two peer-reviewed studies to support its claims that its “brain games” can neurologically benefit all sorts of people:
- One study in which participation in a Lumosity training program was compared to a control group that participated in no additional activity at all.
- Another study in which a very small group of learning-disabled female children participated briefly in a mathematics exercise developed by the same company that developed Lumosity.
Lumosity scrambles for citations to make vague assertions that “brain training works”. After citing a research study into the impact of a completely different computer program in therapy for schizophrenics, for example, Lumosity boasts, “The evidence that “brain training works” is now sufficiently robust and compelling that it would be difficult for an objective, dispassionate observer to claim that there is no evidence that “brain training works.”
Brain training works?!? Sure. It’s called learning. The question isn’t the general assertion of whether “brain training works”, but whether Lumosity’s program delivers any significant, practical cognitive improvement for its members.
Lumosity doesn’t provide links to any studies that link its program to long-term cognitive improvement. “It is also not known whether changes in cognitive ability and brain activation would be stable over time,” states the paper summarizing improvements in number skills among learning disabled girls. Lumosity also doesn’t give links to research comparing the positive impact of its simple video games to the benefit of other activities known to improve cognitive abilities… activities such as physical exercise.
The Lumosity web site does offer its members little suggestions that their brains would benefit from physical exercise, but the Lumosity program itself has no physical exercise component.
Could it be that, by encouraging people to spend more time sitting down at their computers, rather than exercising, Lumosity participation results in a net reduction in overall cognitive activity, with benefits only in the specific areas that Lumosity’s games are designed to stimulate? It’s hard to say, given the spotty research behind the site’s assertions.
There are many questions raised by the Lumosity web site. Some of them, such as questions about mind control conspiracies (“Once one signs up and engages in these exercises, what subliminal/subtextual/conditioning could be integrated into them?”), are silly. Skepticism about the value of Lumosity’s “brain training” program, is quite reasonable, however, given the underwhelming amount of scientific research that specifically supports Lumosity’s claims.
Lumosity itself acknowledges that video games of many kinds, ones much more complex than those provided by Lumosity, but designed primarily to be entertaining, have been linked through research to increases in specific cognitive abilities. Tetris and Pac Man are among those specifically cited by Lumosity. Of course, Tetris and Pac Man, or knock-offs just like them, are available to play for free online – without any time-limited trial periods, even. Lumosity is not.
For those considering joining Lumosity, here’s a simple cognitive test: Is it really worth $15 per month to play simple video games on a website without adequate proof that the video games provide real-life benefit?
Maybe Lumosity will some day be proven to provide a special kind of neurological stimulation that can’t be acquired elsewhere, but that day has not yet arrived.