Want to be smarter? Look no further than Lumosity, a suite of brain training games that promise to help you make better decisions in life and work by targeting key areas of your brain in just an hour or less per week.
Here’s what Lumosity promises: Spend less than an hour playing “brain training games” to target key areas of your brain; get rewarded with smarter, more enhanced you.
But as you might have guessed, It’s (mostly) bullshit. So far, no solid research has been able to show that brain training exercises change your thinking or behavior in measureable ways once you leave the smartphone screen. In fact, a study published Monday indicates the very opposite: There’s no indication that Lumosity training affects a healthy adult’s ability to make better decisions.
“We went in testing what I think of as a pretty remarkable hypothesis, if it’s true — that you can play these brain training games, [improving] your cognition and changes your brain activity and leads you to become less impulsive,” Joseph Kable, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the research, tells Inverse.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, looked at whether Lumosity games could improve the brain’s executive functioning and thereby help people make better decisions. Executive function is a suite of cognitive abilities that has to do problem solving and decision making. It includes things thing the ability to sort through complex information and sort out the important things from the irrelevant, or rapidly switching between cognitive tasks.
“It seems to be a critical component of human intelligence, but it also plays this critical role in decision-making,” says Kable.
Kable and co-authors looked specifically at two measures of cognitive ability, delay discounting and risk sensitivity. Delay discounting is your ability to pass up a small reward now for a bigger one promised in the future. The researchers tested this by offering a choice of rewards, say, do you want $20 today or $40 a month from now? Risk sensitivity has to do with your willingness to pass up a smaller reward that’s a sure thing for a chance at a larger one. For example, do you want $20 or a 50/50 shot at winning $40?
The researchers picked these measures because they are associated with healthy decision-making in general. Kable’s co-author Caryn Lerman, a psychiatry professor with University of Pennsylvania, was specifically interested in nicotine addiction. People are more likely to get addicted and stay addicted to cigarettes if they prefer immediate rewards and have a high tolerance for risk. If it were true that you could train the brain to be patient and risk-averse, you might actually help nicotine addicts quit just by having them play a few video games.
That, unfortunately, might be too good to be true. In a randomized, controlled trial of 128 healthy, young adults, the researchers found no change in delay discounting or risk tolerance for those who played Lumosity or for the control group, which played regular, dumb computer games. Brain scans also failed to notice any neural activity shifts during decision-making tasks, for both groups. On a suite of cognitive tests, both group improved, but to an equal degree. However, when the researchers tested a third group, which did no brain training or video games, they improved just the same. The improvement, it seems, came from having taken the test before, rather than from any training done to the brain in between the tests.
“We’re pretty confident looking across those three measures that there’s no effect of the kind of training regimen in healthy adults,” says Kable. “It didn’t affect their decision-making at all. They didn’t become less impulsive or less risk-taking.”
It’s possible that the games actually do help, but only if you’re starting for less than healthy levels of cognition, or if you’re trying to prevent cognitive decline. (Kable’s team only looked at healthy, normally functioning young adults.) But evidence that’s true is mixed at best, he says.
Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, agreed to pay a $2 million settlement last year for misleading advertising, for “[preying] on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” according to a Federal Trade Commission statement.
The company’s scientists completed their own study, where 4,715 people did either Lumosity training or online crossword puzzles for 10 weeks. The ones who played Lumosity did better on a cognitive assessment afterwards, according to that research. But do the games make you better at things besides taking tests similar to the games themselves? The company now admits that it doesn’t know. “These results are promising, but we need to do more research to determine the connection between improved assessment scores and everyday tasks in participants’ lives. That’s our next focus,” the website says.
Abstract: Increased preference for immediate over delayed and for risky over certain rewards has been associated with unhealthy behavioral choices. Motivated by evidence that enhanced cognitive control can shift choice behavior away from immediate and risky rewards, we tested whether training executive cognitive function could influence choice behavior and brain responses. In this randomized controlled trial, 128 young adults (71 male, 57 female) participated in 10 weeks of training with either a commercial web-based cognitive training program or web-based video games that do not specifically target executive function or adapt the level of difficulty throughout training. Pre- and post-training, participants completed cognitive assessments and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during performance of validated decision-making tasks: delay discounting (choices between smaller rewards now vs. larger rewards in the future) and risk sensitivity (choices between larger riskier rewards vs. smaller certain rewards). Contrary to our hypothesis, we found no evidence that cognitive training influences neural activity during decision-making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of delay discounting or risk sensitivity. Participants in the commercial training condition improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time. Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults above those of standard video games for measures of brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance.