$50m Judgment Says Brain Training a Sham
To be mentally sharper pay attention, not dollars—and don’t multitask
Posted Sep 19, 2016
As a brain doctor, Lumosity’s sponsorship messages on NPR make me cringe. A welcoming voice invites listeners to play its brain–boosting games “based on neuroscience.” Tens of millions are already doing so, the ad informs you, cleverly playing on the fear of being left out: Here you are tuned in to All Things Considered hoping to stay merely informed while thousands of others are one step ahead working out in a secret brain gym.
So far Lumosity’s marketing has rattled more than 70 million target members who have flocked to it, registered an account, and ponied up for training in the belief that playing the company’s software games will stave off age–related mental decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even the pernicious side effects of chemotherapy.
Not so fast said the Federal Trade Commission, perhaps smelling snake oil. In a unanimous ruling its Bureau of Consumer Protection slapped a $50 million judgement against parent company Lumos Labs for deceptive advertising (because of the company’s precarious balance sheet it paid only $2 million to the Commission and had the rest suspended) [1, 2].
In its massive advertising the company had claimed its training would help customers reach their “full potential in every aspect of life,” including school, work, and athletics. But to the FTC, “Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” Whereas the company said “We transform science into delightful games,” a group of concerned neuroscientists found little of the former. Nor did they find evidence that brain games broadly expand cognitive abilities or enable one “to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.
A similar study in the journal Computers & Education concluded that Lumosity players “showed no gains on any measure”  . Lumosity said its games are based on neuroplasticity, a fancy way of saying that the brain is flexible and can rewire itself even into adulthood. What brain–training sites basically do is entice customers to spend time at isolated tasks on their computers.
But aren’t they doing that already?
It is true that software–based gaming can improve performance in a particular task such as eye–hand coordination, but that gain doesn’t carry over to other areas . Games don’t alter neural function in lasting ways that improve general mental fitness in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.
Your mother had it right: The most reliable way to improve your thinking is to eat a varied diet, get enough sleep, exercise moderately, and focus on whatever you are doing instead of flitting from one thing to another. Previous columns have extolled the benefit of building sustained attention, taking walks in nature, and avoiding the temptation to relentlessly check screens and become hypnotized by what I call “the infinite scroll.”
I have also challenged the nonsense that we only use 10% of our brains, a myth hucksters love to use to peddle brain improvement programs. But the brain is not a muscle you can build up through exercise the way you buff up your real muscles by lifting weights at the gym.
I am often asked to how you can sharpen attention, improve concentration, and fortify your memory. The biggest return on investment is not to multitask because switching from one activity to another is the most expensive thing our brain does in terms of energy cost. It’s why shifting attention is draining and leaves you scatterbrained. Focus on one thing at a time, preferably an activity that is linear and sequential.
For example, you’ll strengthen your attention better by following a full article rather than a snippet, especially one that diverts you with hyperlinks. Reading longer stories or novels are even better because it takes time to follow an argument or a plot as it builds. Sustained reading or listing to a podcast is an excellent and inexpensive way to strengthen your concentration as well as your critical thinking skills.
Another big payoff comes from eating without reading, checking email, or watching TV at the same time. Not only does splitting attention like this make you distracted, but you will wolf down your meal without savoring it. Studies have shown that shoveling food in mindlessly leads to overeating and weight gain.
So bringing your attention back to the moment and keeping it there will do far more to boost your concentration and overall mental fitness than paying for computer games will. Basically any cognitive task that requires undistracted focus will in effect help you “feel sharper” and “think faster.” You don’t need to pay good money for that. You just need to switch off and pay attention.
Click here to comment, receive Dr. Cytowic's low-frequency newsletter, or a copy of his American Interest article, "Digital Distractions: Your Brain on Screens." Follow him @Cytowic, or see his talks and articles at Cytowic.net or LinkedIn.
1. Federal Trade Commission, 2016 Lumosity to pay $2 million to settle FTC deceptive advertising charges for Its “Brain Training” program.Available from: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/01/lumosity-pay-2-mi....
3. UNderwood, E., Neuroscientists speak out against brain game hype. Science Magazine, 2014.http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/10/neuroscientists-speak-out-against...
4. Shute, V.J., M. Ventura, and F. Ke, The power of play: The effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on cognitive and noncognitive skills. Computers & Education, 2015. 80: p. 58-67
5. Greenfield, S., Mind change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. 2014, London: Rider Books. xv, 368 pages