I’m a master procrastinator, which is why I usually ban myself from computer and video games. But a few days ago I succumbed to temptation in the form of Lumosity.com, whose dozens of online brain training exercises purport to “improve brain health and performance” and “enhance memory, attention and creativity.”
Oops. I told myself I’d try Lumosity because I was sick of losing my keys, but now I’ve spent more hours than I care to confess playing the site’s addictive brain games. Taxes? Housework? Who cares? I’d rather try to remember whether Robert, Richard or Ryan ordered the chicken wings, cheeseburger or chicken salad, or solve falling math problems before they dissolve into a lake.
Turns out I’m not alone. Lumosity.com reports having recruited more than 20 million users since its inception in 2007, including almost 9 million unique visitors last January. That’s a lot of other people hankering to sharpen their face-name recall or remember where they left their cell phone (Inside a clothes drawer? On a shelf at the grocery store? In my case, yes and yes.)
The site’s popularity is no surprise. Besides its alluring games, Lumosity entices users by tracking their scores over time and showing how they stack up against other players. Since I started using the site, my “brain performance index” — Lumosity’s measure of cognitive power — has nearly doubled and I now outscore more than half of users in my age group. When else in adult life can you improve that much in five days?
But whether such gains translate to meaningful real-life abilities is debatable. In a much-cited study published in the journal Nature, 11,430 volunteers aged 18 to 60 who played brain training games for six weeks got better at playing the games, but showed no significant change in their ability to reason, retrieve words or shapes from short-term memory, or correctly associate one word or concept with another.
In a 2010 study, 11,400 people showed no significant improvements in various cognitive tests after an average of 25 brain training sessions. Experimental groups 1 and 2 played one of two types of brain training games, while the control (comparison) group searched the internet to answer a series of obscure questions. Notice that the control group also improved slightly, but not significantly, casting further doubt on the legitimacy of brain training games. Source: Putting Brain Training to the Test. Nature. 2010 Jun 10;465(7299):775-8.
It’s important to note, though, that the Nature study didn’t help answer a central question: whether brain training might help slow or reverse age-related cognitive decline. That’s because the researchers tested 18 to 60 year old volunteers with normal brain function, not older people with mild cognitive impairment.
But since 2010, when that research was published, no other major study has shown that brain exercises help people function better in everyday life. Indeed, as McGill University neuroscientists pointed out in a lengthy review published last month in the journal Brain and Cognition, there’s little evidence showing that getting better at one cognitive task through brain training helps people improve in other areas, or that brain training boosts healthy older people’s overall cognitive function. So far, most studies have been hampered by small sample sizes and design limitations. A PLoS One study published in March 2012, for example, reported that older people who played Nintendo’s Brain Age outperformed Tetris players on tests of thinking speed and executive functioning (the ability to organize and plan, manage time and make reasoned decisions). But the study included only 32 participants and assessed neither real-world tasks nor memory, one of the brain functions most susceptible to aging, stress and depression.
Does that mean there’s no value in using websites like Lumosity? Not necessarily. As the McGill authors noted, brain training games won’t hurt you and may have a helpful placebo effect, inspiring users to pay better attention to the world around them, focus more when making decisions, or engage in other activities that stimulate the mind. And brain training may also hold promise for more specific types of disabilities, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or impaired cognitive performance after a stroke.
For me, Lumosity has reinforced a couple of ideas. First, my husband’s right when he says I’m good at solving problems, but not always at paying attention. In fact, my Lumosity scores mirror his observation exactly. I’m dubious whether brain training can make me slow down and focus in the kitchen, where I’m prone to burns because my mind jumps ahead of my fingers, but sometimes just knowing you need to slow down and compensate for a weakness can help. And second, sleep really does make a difference in brain function. When I’ve slept five hours, I score lower on the exercises no matter how much coffee I drink. It’s a good reason to sign off Lumosity, wrap up this post and climb into bed — until tomorrow, when that tax deadline looms even nearer.