Brain drain, brain game


I was recently with some friends who were discussing Lumosity, the “online brain training platform.” The company’s mission is to provide a “personalized training program” to “challenge your brain with scientifically designed [games]” that stimulate different cognitive functions like attention, flexibility, memory, speed, and problem solving.1 These games involve tasks like matching shapes and colors across a series of flashcards or remembering which tiles were highlighted in a set. You get points based on your performance which is tracked through time. Your stats can even be compared to all other Lumosity members… how does your memory stack up? The idea behind this system is that the more you train via these games, the better your cognitive performance will be. This increase in performance will spread to other daily tasks and you will be an overall better person as you interface with your world more effectively. Really now, who doesn’t want increased focus or a better memory? But there have been “snake oil” cures for better brain function throughout history… why should we believe that Lumosity has finally figured it out? How can playing these seemingly silly games help us build better brains?

Perusing the Lumosity site will reveal that these games are not just cute little diversions, but are actually backed by the scientific concept of neuroplasticity! This fancy word just means that the microscopic cells in your brain (the neurons) can make new connections throughout your lifetime. According to Lumosity, you can increase your cognitive facility by promoting the growth of neural connections in areas of the brain associated with specific cognitive tasks. “Training your brain” with games that supposedly exercise these cognitive traits leads to the proliferation of these beneficial connections. A good analogy would be weight lifting as a means of strength training. Your muscles respond to lifting heavy things by regenerating, growing stronger in the process. Lumosity claims a similar thing happens when you “train your brain” with their games.

Now, don’t get me wrong: neuroplasticity is a known phenomenon with a maturing body of neuroscientific evidence to back it up. The brain is not a static, fixed organ that finishes developing around age 20; instead, the brain is a dynamic system that is constantly changing in response to its environment. Given that this ability to respond to the environment is a characteristic feature of all living systems (which includes the human body and its organs), it is surprising that the prevailing opinion in neuroscience for much of the 20th century was that the human brain reached terminal development in early adulthood. We are now seeing that this is, in fact, not the case and that the brain continues to change and grow throughout our lifetimes – but, I digress…

So if our brains are indeed plastic, it makes sense that we could encourage the sharpening of certain brain functions by training them as we do with our muscles. Lumosity’s claim to brain training sounds less dubious now, but we shouldn’t stop our foray into the field of neuroscience just yet. Another important idea in the field is that many of our cognitive functions rely on context in order to operate.2 For example, your brain doesn’t perceive absolute contrast between light and dark areas in the visual field. The vision pathways in the brain instead work by recognizing relative differences between color and brightness of the surrounding scene. This fact explains why you can see both during the day when the sun is shining and at night (albeit poorly) when there is much less ambient light around. The visual system uses context to determine what images the eye is taking in. Another example is the idea of state-dependent learning: you will be able to best remember learned facts when you are in a similar physical environment (both external and internal) to the environment you were in when you did the learning. Drinking a lot of coffee while studying for the test? You might want to grab a cup on the way to the exam room. These are just two examples of many in the brain where context is paramount to cognitive ability.

Let’s reconsider the premise of our Lumosity games in light of this important fact. What is the brain’s context when playing these games? The player is probably staring at a brightly lit screen a few inches away from the face. The player interacts with the game by either tapping on this screen, or clicking a nearby mouse or hitting a key on the keyboard. Most importantly, the user is playing a game from the same limited set of games each time.3 Unless you want to optimize your cognitive ability for playing games on your iPhone, the ultimate claims of Lumosity’s training don’t seem to hold up due to minimal variance in context. We can refer to our handy muscle building analogy to elaborate this point: training with Lumosity is like training with exercise machines. You train the same limited set of motions on a given machine each time. Different muscle groups are exercised, but they are trained in isolation. This type of physical exertion is different from strength training with free weights where the focus is still on one particular muscle group, but the rest of your body acts in concert to support the full motion. Applying this analogy, you will get very good at matching simple shapes and colors with the Lumosity games…. but will this really extend your ability to pattern match in daily life?

To really settle this question, you would have to do a proper cognitive evaluation (cf. large sample size) between consistent Lumosity users and compare their results to a control group to see if using the training does, in fact, improve your general brain ability. Although for the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think that you would see only minor improvements, if any at all. The Lumosity users will be trained to perform well on the games, but I expect that losing the context of the game environment will hinder the brain’s ability to sustain this increase in performance given a different setting. There is another line of argument to be made here in terms of the brain’s complexity. Given how little we know about the brain and the sheer numbers of interacting parts involved in its operation, it is a tacit assumption in Lumosity’s mission that we can “spot train” the brain with a relatively simple set of games. To really see improvement, I expect the brain needs a wide variety of tasks that range in difficulty from simple to complex.

So is all hope lost? Not exactly… I agree with the overall idea behind Lumosity. You can promote healthy cognitive function by using the brain (“mental exercise”), but to see improvement across the board you need to be working with a variety of tasks like I just mentioned. Want better pattern recognition? Try completing a puzzle. Want to be able to strategize better? Try playing some chess. Want greater speed in your thinking? Try going on a run (outside!!!). Not even these specific activities alone are the key to a better brain; the important point is to use the brain in as many varied contexts as possible, as often as possible. Limiting yourself to the Lumosity set of games won’t necessarily hurt you, but it probably won’t help you that much either.4 Remember, “variety’s the very spice of life.”

  1. http://www.lumosity.com/

  2. Lecture notes from NYU neuroscience professor David Heeger on contrast perception, for the interested reader…

  3. Sure, the games are novel at first – but once you become accustomed to them, you are only playing 10 or so of the same games every day in an attempt to “train” one of the most complex organs we know of…

  4. Any perceived improvement is probably just the placebo effect at large, anyway.