Scientific debunking of brain training games

24 Oct

Stanford University released a statement about the brain training industry signed by 69 scientists last week, which Gizmodo addressed with the aptly titled Lumosity’s Brain Games Are Bullshit. People have been criticizing Lumosity’s claims about “neuroplasticity” and “making your brain brighter” for years.


Though I think Lumosity began with the best of intentions and believed that their research could be extrapolated to larger results, it’s really just a hugely overpriced collection of basic task games. The claims have been toned down over time, to the point where they now say only that using Lumosity on a regular basis will make a person better at Lumosity. That’s useful. I would expect to improve at any game I played regularly, but it doesn’t mean it would make calculus seem easier.

In fact, recent research pitted Lumosity against Portal 2, and Portal 2 was the clear winner. In a study involving 77 undergraduate students, the researcher found that those who were selected to play Portal 2 performed better on cognitive tests after gaming, but those selected to play Lumosity games actually performed worse on a couple tests. With a study that small and in a population where Portal 2 has more social cachet than a brain training game, I doubt that the results are really significant, but they do suggest that Lumosity isn’t the answer. This Nerdist post about the study asks a useful question, “if playing a problem-solving game actually can increase your cognitive performance in some way, what are brain training games missing, and what is Portal 2 getting so right?”

Brain training games are an appealing concept. There’s a huge market of people who fear losing cognitive ability as they age or are just hoping for more sharpness. Lumosity’s website states they have over 60 million members, and with prices ranging from $4.99-$14.99/month depending on length of subscription, a lot of money is involved. Wouldn’t it be nice if just playing small games would improve our mental abilities on a wide range of tasks? The signatories on the Stanford statement had this very reasonable recommendation:

Much more research needs to be done before we understand whether and what types of challenges and engagements benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life. In the absence of clear evidence, the recommendation of the group, based largely on correlational findings, is that individuals lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them. Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.


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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical, Research


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