The New Snake Oil: Brain Training & Brain Fitness
I couldn’t help but notice the new TV advertisements for a service called “Lumosity,” a company that suggests you can “reclaim your brain” by simply playing their brain training games (at only $15/month). Sounds like fun!
So I checked out Lumosity’s research backing to see if anything new has come down the pike to support the use of these kinds of cognitive games to help ordinary adults — not senior citizens or others suffering from mild cognitive impairment. In a nutshell, is there a solid research base to suggest that you can improve your brain’s fitness with these programs?
The answer should surprise no one.
Lumosity’s website has a navigation tag helpfully called “The Science,” suggesting that, well, there’s some “science” behind their service. This page helpfully lists “select” studies conducted on Lumosity. I would assume these are the most robust and “best” studies available to support its use (after all, why would you highlight your weakest studies?).
So how many of these studies are robust (e.g., with a large enough subject population that’s representative of the general population) and conducted on normal, healthy adults?
Two offered the most hope as they were conducted on adults without cognitive or other health impairments. Jaeggi et al. (2008)1 was conducted on University of Bern (Switzerland) students. There’s a set of significant problems with college-based studies, if the research isn’t later replicated with other populations. This research hasn’t been, so this pilot study’s findings must be interpreted cautiously.
Hardy et al. (2011)2 had problems with its sample as well. It was self-selected (not randomized) and was very small in size — 23 subjects. It was published in a journal not known for publishing original, peer-reviewed research either (which can be a warning sign about the quality of the research, since researchers always try and publish in the most prestigious journal possible).
Finally, Gyurak et al. (2010)3 presented a poster at a professional conference (not quite the same as a peer-reviewed journal publication, but included by Lumosity here). Lumosity suggests this research found:
They found that participants who received Lumosity training had significantly enhanced self-esteem relative to a control group that did not receive training. In addition, the trained group had improved emotion regulation and reduced ruminative thinking.
Again, using community college students (not representative) and a relatively small sample size (26 subjects in total), the researchers did find some improvement in the self-esteem of people who used the training program. But was that improvement equal to “significantly enhanced self-esteem?”
The difference in the self-esteem score appears to be about a 3/4 of one point between the control group and the training group (3.0 versus 3.7 respectively). Is this significant in the real world, or just significant for data purposes? The measure used — the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale — generally wouldn’t consider a difference of 3/4 of a point in any way, shape or form clinically significant (scores on the scale range from 10 to 40). And without knowing the actual score means, we don’t know whether the people already had good self-esteem which improved slightly, or lousy self-esteem which was still lousy, but slightly less so.
The ruminative thinking score is not statistically (a 0.09 p value? Really?) nor clinically significant — meaning there was no real difference between the two groups on this measure.
"Your brain, just brighter.
Improve brain health and performance.
Brain training produces real world benefits
Enhance memory, attention and creativity"
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t object to these programs on their own. If you want to play a game in the belief that it may help improve your memory, go for it. Who knows, it may even be fun! (That’s why I and most people play a game like Words with Friends — for fun, not in any belief it’s making me a better person.)
What I object to is the implication that these games have sufficient research backing suggesting they work as the marketing materials claim.
Namely, that they can help ordinary, normal adults who have no memory or cognitive impairments get better at brain tasks. And — just as importantly — these brain tasks can then help people in their everyday lives with memorizing a person’s name, a street address, solve a complex life or work problem, or how to follow directions to a store.
Perhaps reasonable professionals and researchers can disagree about whether the research supports Lumosity’s suggestion you will see “dramatic improvements” in your memory and cognitive skills by playing their games.
But it’s my opinion that the data simply aren’t all there. They’re using the support of relatively weak scientific data — and its associated prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Stanford universities — to enhance their shine.
Snake oil is alive and well in 2012. The only difference is that instead of it coming in a bottle, it’s being delivered via your screen. For $15/month.
Grohol, J. (2018). The New Snake Oil: Brain Training & Brain Fitness. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-new-snake-oil-brain-training-brain-fitness/