Lumosity is a company that provides online and mobile games that it claimed are scientifically designed to enhance memory, focus, mental flexibility, and even stave off dementia. In a recent decision, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded that Luminosity’s claims are not based on adequate scientific evidence. They imposed a $50 million judgement against Lumos Labs, the company who sells Lumosity, and allowed them to settle for $2 million.
Being mentally active
The idea behind “brain training” is not a bad one, it’s just easy to misrepresent as something it isn’t. The basic notion is that using your brain makes it function better. It is better to be mentally and physically active than inactive. This overview summarized the evidence:
Given the complexity of the dynamic reciprocal relationships between stimulating activities and cognitive function in old age, additional research will be needed to address the extent to which observed effects validate a causal influence of an intellectually engaged lifestyle on cognition. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that an active lifestyle that requires cognitive effort has long-term benefits for older adults’ cognition is at least consistent with the available data.
While the evidence is less than definitive, the current evidence suggests that being mentally active does improve cognitive function. The effect appears to be most robust for activity that involves the frontal lobes (planning and executive function), integrates multiple areas of the brain, and that is novel or new.
As with dietary advice, all of the complex research can currently be boiled down to rather simple advice – be mentally active, try new things and engage in different types of mental activity. Also get regular physical exercise. Such simple advice does not sell many self-help books or subscriptions to brain-training services.
The very term “brain training,” in my opinion, is inherently deceptive. It implies that something more than just learning or practice is going on. This is the crux of the FTC decision against Lumosity – they claimed that their games were scientifically designed to train your brain and thereby confer some generalizable cognitive benefits. They were, however, getting ahead of the research, and their claims happened to land on the wrong side of reality.
This was, and to some extent remains, a legitimate research question: when you engage in a specific mental activity do you get better at just that specific activity, or does your cognitive function improve in general (do you get “smarter”)?
Another way to state this question is this: how generalizable are the skills improved by engaging in a specific activity. In other words – if I engage in a word game, like a crossword puzzle, do I get better at just crossword puzzles, at similar word-based games, at all language-based games, or at all cognitive tasks? Products like Lumosity imply or directly claim that the answer is close to the extreme of generalizability – that playing specific games make you smarter.
The answer from current research, however, is close to the extreme narrow end; playing a mental-training game makes you better at that specific game, and maybe very similar games, but that’s it. Skills do not seem to transfer to untrained tasks, general cognitive function, or daily activities. They may, however, make people feel smarter.
The research is somewhat plagued by a lack of adequate control groups in many studies. The best studies do have adequate controls, which are absolutely necessary. In one study, for example, researchers compared three groups: one group was trained on programs designed to enhance reasoning, planning, and problem solving. The second group was trained on memory, attention, visuospatial processing, and mathematical calculations. The third group, the control, was given five obscure knowledge questions and asked to use the internet to find the answers.
They found no difference in outcomes for all three groups; they all improved slightly in the assessment tasks, reflecting a generic training effect, and perhaps also an observational effect and confidence effect.
I do need to emphasize this is complex research and there is some room for a range of opinions about what it says. For example, there are studies that show that playing certain video games may enhance a surgeon’s ability with virtual reality endoscopic procedures. This implies some transfer of skills, specifically visual processing. It may reflect comfort level with navigating a virtual world on a computer screen.
However, what is true for visual processing may not be true for memory, language, math, or other cognitive skills. This is part of the challenge for this research – there are countless ways to parse the specific claims.
Conclusion: Stay mentally active, there are no panaceas
The current consensus based upon existing research is that engaging in cognitive tasks is overall a good thing. Stay mentally active and engaged, and try to engage in a variety of activities and in novel activities. Video games can be part of this.
However, the evidence so far does not support the claim that specific skills learned in one task are transferable to other tasks (with the possible exception of visual processing and perhaps task switching), or are generalizable to overall cognitive function, memory, focus, or mental quickness.
There is also no evidence that games “scientifically designed” for “brain training” are any better than regular games.
The bottom line is that you will improve at whatever task you practice, and perhaps closely related tasks.
There is no evidence to support spending any amount of money on specific products. Do what interests you, challenges you, and engages you. Don’t believe the “brain training” hype.
Hopefully, the FTC decision against Lumosity will take the wind out of the sales of brain training products, and reduce the hype somewhat.