Whether to ward off neurodegenerative disease or to earn an A on a test, many people wish to improve their cognitive abilities. With this rise in consumer interest, many websites have been established that promise to “improve cognition”. Lumosity, for example, with 70 million active users in 182 countries [V], is the largest of these sites and claims that its users “improved more than [the control group] on an aggregate assessment of cognition” [I]. However, the credibility of these claims are widely debated.
Lumosity’s methodology revolves around the idea that regular use of memory, problem solving, and attention exercises will improve people’s mental abilities. According to “The Guardian”, Lumosity claims to work using the concept of neuroplasticity, the concept that, as people repeat the same tasks over and over, the connections in their brain strengthen . Although neuroplasticity was previously believed to occur mainly in children, new research has shown that it can also occur in adults . The key to unlocking the purported effects of brain training is, according to MDhealth, regular use: around once a day .
A cognitive panacea?
Lumosity claims there are effectively endless benefits of brain trainings. Almost every day on the television, people hear convincing advertisements stating that users’ decisions come quicker, and they are more productive. “It’s serious brain training, it just feels like games…” (Jhaveri, 2016).
However, companies such as Lumosity often use false advertising. According to Time Magazine, in January 2016, Lumos Labs, Lumosity’s parent company paid a two million dollar fine “ to settle charges that they deceived consumers with unfounded claims, which include protecting against Alzheimer’s disease and helping users perform better at schools” .
Research at the University of Michigan and Brown University has shown that people do display a higher memory and attention span and also perform better on tests after a regimen of brain training games. However, the conditions at which the test subjects practiced their “brain games” are not representative of real life. They played the games for hours a day for many days, while most people already have busy lives and not enough time to dedicate to websites such as Lumosity .
Sites such as Lumosity could have great potential for aiding struggling students in school. In a study by Andrea Paula Goldin published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she found that struggling first graders were able to catch up to their peers in most major subjects after a three month course of online cognitive enhancing games .
However, D. Zachary Hambrick, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, contends that “It has to be replicated. I don’t find the results to be compelling.” His concern with the results stems from methodological weaknesses and statistical oddities; furthermore, he believes the results may not apply to many people . While all of the students in the aforementioned study received cognitive enhancing games, only the students who were struggling in class showed any signs of improvement.
For many, the price of $11.95 per month, seems rather excessive when coupled with the fact that results are not guaranteed . People can achieve the same results through exercises conducted at home, while concentrating deeply on a few tasks. Also, while some scientists have provided evidence Lumosity’s claims, other scientists were not able to replicate results. Dr. Susanne M. Jaeggi performed a study in 2008 which concluded that the “extent of gain in intelligence critically depends on the amount of training: the more training, the more improvement in” fluid intelligence . However, according to The Guardian, psychologists at Georgia Tech attempted to replicate her experiment with tougher controls and could not find any noticeable change in intelligence .
The improvements cited in previous studies, while possibly due to faulty research methods, may also be due to the placebo effect. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cyrus K. Foroughi found that when people opt into a cognitive enhancement course which was really a placebo, their IQ rose by 5-10 points . This study provides another alternative to why people “get smarter” due to Lumosity.
While the science community has not reached a complete and full consensus about the credibility of brain training, evidence still points to exercise as a highly effective method . So the next time you think about brain training, maybe hit the gym instead.
In addition to being a founder of the IYNA, I am also an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University and majoring in neuroscience.