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Brain Training Games Are Bunk

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lumosity logo brain training gamesWe’re all familiar with the strategies, and most of us are guarded when it comes to them. We’ve been hyper exposed to “before and after” pictures promising easy diets. Our email boxes have been inundated with products promising herbal supplements and treatments to promote penile growth. Snake oil salesmen are everywhere, looking to pray on desperation.

The appeal isn’t hard to understand. People want to improve themselves, and they don’t want to work very hard at it. We have all these insecurities that we want to treat, and the fact is, some of them can’t even be treated. As a result, a lot of people waste a lot of time, money, and effort trying to perfect themselves through largely ineffective means. Sometimes there’s even a placebo effect that helps the marketing. Other times, there’s an added desperation as people begin to feel like they are the problem; not the predatory product.

Most of the people I know are aware of these practices when it comes to vanity products. But brain training games like Brain Age and services like Lumosity have pioneered the tactics on an all new front —cognitive function.

It’s clever, when you think about it. After all, who wouldn’t want to be smarter? And, for the most part, who can even tell if they are getting smarter? It’s hard to measure, and most customers won’t go out of the way to test themselves. They’ll simply believe, in part convincing themselves, that their efforts have come to fruition. As such, they will remain hooked.

lumosity memory matrix brain training games

But wait, what about the “science?”

The science promoting brain training games is peculiar in that there are no positive studies promoting Lumosity other than the ones actually commissioned by the company. What’s more, regarding their Brain Age games, Nintendo refuses to make any actual claims regarding the effectiveness of their product, asserting that they are only an entertainment company.

Contrary to the questionable Lumosity Lab Tests, which are completely lacking in peer reviews, are a bunch of tests that refute their claims. These findings don’t have the marketing budget, or the interest, to completely undo Lumosity’s business model, unfortunately.

A 2010 study by actual neuroscientist (as opposed to the founder of Lumosity, who dropped out of his degree) found that, through tracking 11,000 adults over a period of 6 weeks, that cognitive function didn’t approve and that they didn’t demonstrate any general advantages in their day to day life. They did, however, improve at the tasks designed to improve “neuroplasticity,” whatever the hell that is.

Essentially, people that repetitively played brain training games, got better at them. In layman’s terms, they realized that practice makes perfect; a great way of creating an illusion of becoming smarter. Truthfully, if you do anything over and over, you will get better at it. We’ve known that for ages.

So, What’s the Harm?

brain age concentration training brain training gamesOther than the obvious, where these brain training games and programs extract money from unsuspecting customer’s wallets, they reroute their focus to irreverent, mundane gaming that isn’t even fun. If someone wants to get smarter, there are other routes to take that could prove to not only be more fun, but actually effective. Timeless practices like reading books, watching documentaries, studying language, or even talking to people spring immediately to mind. Immersion in the unknown is the key to growth, here; not rapidly doing basic math.

In his fantastic piece over at the New Yorker, columnist Gareth Cook, alludes to inherent problems far more eloquently than I ever could.  There, he talks about the responsibility of Lumosity has towards its customers.

“The responsibility is so heavy because the needs are so great. Many people who have suffered brain trauma are haunted by a feeling of diminishment and a frustration that they can’t do more to help themselves. There are millions of children with learning disabilities who feel lost and ashamed. And then there are all the seniors who struggle with mental dissipation. These are the customers.”

So, please, spread the word. Don’t let your friends waste their money on this rubbish, and when they launch into a fit of cognitive dissonance as the rubbish fails to take effect, assure them that they aren’t broken; their exercise routine is.

And then give them a book, a free sudoku puzzle, and a comforting hug. They have been duped.

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3 Comments

  1. So, if Lumosity and other services like it are bunk, what is the real deal? I certainly understand the concept of the illusion of progress with services like these through the use of simple games. In the real world is there some guidance on how to truly exercise your brain? If Lumosity (and associates) are too simple and are just a scam, who offers a real solution? Please keep in mind I am by no means referring to “quick” or “easy” solutions, just real and proven ones. I personally read on a regular basis (both non-fiction and fiction, averaging about 2 books a week), play quite a variety of games (table top, puzzle, video games, etc.), read the news (researching further on topics that are new and interesting to me), and even engage in math exercises on a regular basis to stay familiar with what I have learned (after all, if you do not use it you loose it). I still feel that I could use guidance or suggestions on activities that could further stimulate my brain as when I am left to my own devices I tend to either be too repetitious or distracted (hence why I would like to try and improve myself). With the world of education constantly changing I currently feel “less intelligent” when I compare myself to current high school / college students even though I was near top of the class when I was in school. I know part of this is due to the constant introduction of new technologies that were not around when I was younger, but I really feel my feelings are based on actual demonstrations of knowledge and not technology based processes. I even now can think back to when my parents would struggle to help me with my high school homework (they did not go to college) and can relate to how they felt, but I did go to a university for my degree but still feel this way when I interact with my nieces and nephews (I have no kids of my own). I would be interested to hear further on what your thoughts are on this topic towards what are real solutions and not just proving the above mentioned services are bunk.

    Tek Lee
  2. It’s certainly a complicated issue. The insecurity you’re speaking of is part of the reason companies make these products.

    Truthfully, though, the solution depends on what you’re looking for. Are you looking to learn a certain thing? Are you trying to improve reflex time? Are you just trying to know a lot more about the world as it continues to evolve?

    The best advice I can recommend is to always be inquisitive. If someone knows something you don’t, that’s natural, and don’t feel inferior for it. Ask them questions. They will enjoy your interest, and you will learn more. I feel like the smartest of people are the ones who are confident enough to always be making these inquiries, without considering it an admission of inferior intelligence. Everyone has blind spots. And because you’re learning through conversation, you’re more likely to remember it.

    Now, if it’s response time you’re looking to improve, there are lots of ways to do that. Video games themselves have been shown to improve reflexes in research participants. The same is true of sports. Maybe try the occasional strategy game. Or chess. Play things that encourage flexible thinking. I can imagine that, at the very least, they’re better than Lumosity. And even if they’re not, they’re at least fun.

    But, judging from your comment, I don’t think you have to worry about your intelligence. Especially in regards to recalling stuff you learned in High School. Odds are, that was a long time ago. I just recently had to relearn some High School math. It’s something that you forget due to not ever needing to use it. But you probably learned it once, and you probably did fine with it. It’s important to remember that most people are in that boat.

    Benjamin Maltbie
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