All Brain Games and No Brain Gains

Brain-training websites are scientific infomercials

Too many people buy things they don’t need. We pick apart infomercials containing characters that would fall prey to natural selection if let loose in the real world, then buy the unnecessary products because, what if one day we spill a nonsensical amount of soda and chips — because we would obviously fill the largest bowl we own to the brim with barbecue chips, accompanied by a bucket of soda — and we need our almighty Sham-Wow towel, only for it not to be there? Or we fear we may fall asleep on the toilet, so we have no choice but to purchase Potty Putter to prevent this fatal act, as Elvis and King George II know all too well.

Whether the transactions occur out of an amusing pro-active measure or because your adorable grandmother thinks you might actually benefit from the Wearable Towel (because bath robes are nonexistent), three in ten people purchase the “as seen on TV” junk. Websites such as Lumosity, FitBrains, and others of the sort are not so far off from infomercial products.

These are brain-training websites that function off the premise of neuroplasticity, that our brains physically adapt to learning and damage, and that our cognitive processes can be improved by such. Cognitive processes include perception, memory, learning, problem solving, and language. Our brain adapts to the world around us daily and does not require a specific stimulus to induce this change.

Lumosity has published empirical articles (many utilizing the website as a tool in their research) through the Human Cognition Project (HCP), a “collaboration between neuroscientists, clinicians, teachers, and academics worldwide” that was founded by Lumos Labs.

Lumosity and other companies sell products that claim to stimulate certain areas of the brain and enhance cognitive processes with the help of enjoyably-challenging games. Brain-training websites may show (minuscule) effects, but they are not worth your time and money.

There may be cognitive improvements, but those studies take place in a strict laboratory environment.

There is a growing mountain of research regarding the level of cognitive improvements due to the daily use of these websites and the transferability of such acquired skills. But much of the research is conflicting. On the “about us” pages on websites, companies list their evidence in the form of empirical articles. These articles are often new (published within eight years or so) and are all in favor of the site.

If you look closer at the findings of these studies, you will notice they conclude that cognitive improvements are shown through extensive research conducted in a laboratory setting.

External validity asks, to what or whom can these findings generalize to? Ecological validity asks, can this generalize to real-world situations? The studies on the HCP website take place in laboratories where participants are on a strict training schedule, an example being a study done by Morrison and company.

While these studies may yield (small) results, there is low ecological and external validity. In the real-world, people would not be in a blank room for hours, on a strict training schedule to improve their cognition.

There may be cognitive improvements, but it’s compared to crossword puzzles.

A three-year study completed with the HCP by Michael Scanlon (a founder of Lumos Labs) in 2015 was published. They hypothesized that Lumosity would lead to greater cognitive improvements than crossword puzzles.

Participants were recruited through Lumosity and researchers utilized the site in their methods. The study evaluated an “online cognitive training program comprised of 49 exercises targeting a variety of cognitive capacities.” In their abstract conclusion, we are told that Lumosity can show a transfer of skills to a variety of untrained measures.

To clarify, they have proved that there are cognitive improvements from the regular use of Lumosity, and there are more improvements from using Lumosity rather than crossword puzzles. I’m not denying that (small) cognitive improvements are shown, but these skills are being compared to crossword puzzles.

Upon reading the data and the rest of the article, the cognitive improvements, while statistically significant (meaning there’s a difference), are incredibly small — there is a greater than 0.1% chance that this result will occur. It’s like the difference in using a Snuggie rather than a regular blanket: yes, it is nice to have sleeves for use of your hands, but you can get the same amount of warmth from a sweatshirt (which keeps you warmer and has a hood and pockets) or a blanket — it’s a greater than 0.1% chance that the thin Snuggie keeps you warmer than a thick blanket.

The difference is there, but it’s so small that it’s practically useless.

There may be few cognitive improvements from using Lumosity, but evidence shows more improvements from playing Portal 2.

Florida State University ran a study which found that Portal 2 “showed a statistically significant advantage over Lumosity on each of the three composite measures — problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence.” After playing Portal 2 for eight hours, players showed more improvement on different standard cognitive skill tests than Lumosity players. Lumosity players did not show more improvement than Portal 2 players on any test at all. In Shute’s own words, “Portal 2 kicks Lumosity’s ass.”

There may be cognitive improvements, but the skills are not transferable.

A study conducted by Adrian Owens worked with BBC program “Bang Goes the Theory” and recruited participants through the show. Participants had a six-week access period to an experimental website similar to Lumosity where they created accounts, took baseline assessments to see their standings, and performed a series of cognitive tasks “capable” of training executive abilities. A post-test was conducted to compare their progress.

What they concluded was, while minor improvements may be observed, the skills are insignificant and not transferable. Consider the following:

Although improvements were observed… no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related. (Owen et al.)

The daily use of these sites may show cognitive improvements, but the skills do not carry over to situations in the real world, and the improvements that are shown are so small that they don’t even matter.

Overall, few studies show improvements in cognitive abilities from the use of websites such as Lumosity, but there are issues with this. These studies take place in laboratory settings with a rigorous training schedule, something not present in a real-world setting. The results may be statistically significant, but are so tiny that the effects hardly matter. These improvements are usually non-transferable in their nature; when they are transferable, which is very unlikely, they are in minuscule amounts.

You are enhancing your cognitive abilities specifically for the game you are playing and usually nothing else — usually because a previously mentioned study did show very minor improvements, but they are hardly enough to make a difference.

This is how brain-training websites are like our beloved infomercials: they promise great things, ways to make ordinary and easy things easier, and, while they may (rarely) work, they have very small differences, are borderline useless, unnecessary to purchase, and usually end up breaking, thus being a waste of time and money.

There is no scientific reason to allocate funds into brain-training websites for the purpose for training your brain, but the games are rather entertaining.