Everyone wants to be better: more beautiful, more exciting, more intelligent. It's how the self-help industry thrives, why gyms get swamped after New Year's, why kale is a thing. It's why Lumosity, a company peddling digital games to exercise memory, can charge users $120 a year and net millions from investors.
The promise to train a better brain is alluring, like the promise of chiseled thighs and higher pay. A better brain is a golden ticket to a better life.
Peddling luminous hope is lucrative. With over 60 million users and counting, Lumosity is a hit. Along with Cogmed, CogniFit, Elevate, and other apps that say they can train the brain and boost working memory, Lumosity is part of a movement that insists we can bulk up our brainpower through exercise just as we mold our muscles at the gym.
It's a movement with momentum, but there are plenty of skeptics questioning whether these programs demonstrably expand minds as they expand their user bases. The scientific community continues to grapple over whether Lumosity, Cogmed, and their ilk are a mental lubricant, or just snake oil.
Recently, a coalition of nearly 70 researchers spoke against brain games like Lumosity, signing a letter of consensus posted by the Stanford Longevity Center that lambasted the brain training community for promising a kind of mind power boost that just isn't provable.
They are spot on:
It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are "designed by neuroscientists" at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training.
Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell. In addition, even published peer-reviewed studies merit critical evaluation. A prudent approach calls for integrating findings over a body of research rather than relying on single studies that often include only a small number of participants.
Reading the letter, the frustration that these scientists feel over the way these brain-training games have been marketed is obvious.
But so is the impulse to believe the marketing.
I want to believe
Cognitive training based on neuroplasticity—the idea that our brains can function better, if only given the right set of challenges—is an enormously attractive concept, which is why institutions the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force, the Marines and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IAPRA) are all funding research to make workable training programs. This isn't some pie-in-the-sky shit. Serious scientists and organizations are invested in the idea that we can train ourselves towards a sharper mind.
As the Stanford letter made clear, there is no scientific consensus that programs like Lumosity work. In fact, there's been a wide variety of people noting, again and again, that they don't. In 2009, a consumer group in the UK asked a panel of scientists to look into brain-training games, including Lumosity. These scientists explicitly debunked Lumosity's claims, and they are not alone.
There is no bigger skeptic of the brain game movement than Zach Hambrick, a professor of cognitive psychology at Michigan State. Hambrick is especially critical of a study used to validate Lumosity in the company's "The Science Behind Lumosity" paper.
(Update: It's been brought to my attention that he author of the study in question actually signed the consensus against Lumosity's claims, and has given interviews explaining that she does not support Lumosity. She has also published a meta-analysis explaining the limitations of the study. "Any categorical claim about positive or negative impacts is premature," the analysis reads. So even the lead doctor of the study Lumosity uses to substantiate its claims does not support how the company uses them!)
Hambrick has spoken out against this study, and he is deeply critical of the mind-boosting powers that are attributed to programs like Lumosity. "The bottom line is that there is no scientific consensus that brain training works. All that can be concluded at this point is that time and money spent on brain training is, as likely as not, time and money wasted," Hambrick told me.
And now Hambrick has unprecedented support from a scientific community fed up with the influence programs like Lumosity have over people hoping to better themselves.
A weak hedge
Though you'll see promises to "train memory and attention" on the homepage of its website, Lumosity's exact claims to brain boosting are decidedly narrow. Now, if you're starting the program, you'll see messages like this:
Analysis of our database shows that just 10-15 minutes of Lumosity training per day can lead to improvements in Lumosity over time.
Note they don't say 10-15 minutes of Lumosity training per day can lead to overall cognitive improvements—just improvements in the game. That is not accidental. While Lumosity still markets the idea of neuroplasticity, its current language dances around the idea that it can make you sharper overall.
Probably because it can't.
Even this current, hedging language is disingenuous, according to the coterie of scientists who posted the Stanford letter. "The consensus of the group is that claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading," they wrote.
It's not skeptics all the way down
Science journalist Dan Hurley is well aware of the battle between Lumosity and its vocal dissenters. He wrote a very interesting book called Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power examining whether it's possible if people can make themselves smarter, talking to hundreds of researchers and using himself as a test subject. He has a more measured view than Lumosity's most vocal opponents, with an optimistic outlook on the general research. He believes the study Lumosity used to justify its neuroscience is veritable. "Maybe [Lumosity] doesn't work as some people say," he told me. "But if you don't have a dog in that fight, you have to say hey, there are a hell of a lot of studies saying it works."
Well, I'd argue that most of those studies are on shaky ground. I emailed a bunch of the contact people Lumosity provides on its "Ongoing Research" page, and I wasn't exactly cheered by the response. Most never responded, but in one case, when I emailed the doctor Lumosity said ran the study, he referred me to his doctoral student. This student told me that the study in question was still recruiting, and that the researchers preferred to comment after November. So basically, "ongoing" was more like "just starting."
(By the way, I have tried to get an interview with someone from Lumosity about all this on numerous occasions over the past few months. The company did respond to me once, via Twitter, but they didn't follow up so we could set an appointment and haven't responded my last two emails.)
The doctoral student sent me a completed paper she believed relevant to what I was looking into. It was a paper about the potential of using brain-training to help elderly people with cognitive function that did not conclusively endorse the training. It does not mention Lumosity.
This does not mean Hurley is wrong to be optimistic. A group of scientists doesn't share his faith in a particular study, but there is still plenty of excitement about the possibilities of brain-training programs in general. Even in the Stanford letter dismissing the current brain-training claims, the scientists acknowledge that several isolated studies have had promising results, and they deserved to be looked into further. And the concept that the brain is malleable, even for super old people, isn't just wishful thinking: It is true.
It's just that these games have no credible evidence that they can help people mold their brains into something sharper.
Though Hurley's research gave him confidence that brain-training programs have a positive effect on people, he acquiesced that the Lumosity "brain performance index" is questionable. Over the course of his training, his index soared four times higher than it was at the beginning. "The increase was so dramatic, I had to assume there was some bullcrap factored in just to make me and people like me feel good," he wrote. "The idea that my brain is now performing more than four times better than when I started, or that I'm four times smarter, is of course ridiculous."
"I am unaware of any convincing evidence to support the view that the commercially available brain-training devices have general benefits in normal healthy adults," he continued.
In that way, Hurley's investigation into the science of making a person smarter isn't so far off from the measured criticism scientists are currently giving Lumosity. It's not like they are wholly writing off the studies that Lumosity and other programs are using to prop up their products; rather, they're acknowledging them, but emphasizing that they've been given way too much credence:
In commercial promotion, these small, narrow, and fleeting advances are often billed as general and lasting improvements of mind and brain. The aggressive advertising entices consumers to spend money on products and to take up new behaviors, such as gaming, based on these exaggerated claims.
As frequently happens, initial findings, based on small samples, generate understandable excitement by suggesting that some brain games may enhance specific aspects of behavior and even alter related brain structures and functions.
However, as the findings accumulate, compelling evidence of general and enduring positive effects on the way people's minds and brains age has remained elusive.
Get luminous in other ways (like sweat)
If you use Lumosity or a program like it now, there's no need to feel sheepish. The way these products have been marketed is so convincing that they've generated millions in revenue and launched an entire mind-boosting market.
Unfortunately, unless you're participating in a competitive Lumosity game challenge where it is to your advantage to get really, really good at Lumosity games for their own sake, you're better off spending the money you would spend on a brain-strengthening program and spending it on a gym membership or a fitness class, since exercise, unlike those games, has been proven to enhance cognitive abilities enough that the scientific community has reached a consensus about it.
This doesn't mean we need to jettison all hope for a brain-training app that works. It does mean that we should stop paying for Lumosity unless we just really like playing the games for their own sake, because there's no proof they're making us smarter. And even if you do really like playing Lumosity games, I'd go so far as to say you're better off downloading an app that offers similar games but doesn't insult the intelligence you already possess by making promises that it just can't keep.
Art by Jim Cooke