Brain Games and Brain Gains

Building a better, stronger brain through Brain-Training.

With scattered days of sunshine and warmth among the crisp winter winds, the countdown to spring break and summer has begun, and so has our rush to eliminate our pasty “winter legs” and to reveal our rock-hard abs. Superfluous hours will soon be spent in gyms and tanning salons everywhere in attempts to get in tiptop shape, but how about our brains?

People fail to realize that our brains, like our bodies, require maintenance and exercise. Most of us have heard about “brain foods” such as salmon, loaded with omega-3 fatty acids that are said to improve memory, and walnuts, containing high amounts of antioxidants and vitamins and minerals that are essential for our brains. So, if our brains are like our bodies, and we eat certain foods for a strong and healthy body and brain, there must be exercises for our brain, too. Right?

The diagnoses of Alzheimer’s in both grandmothers sparked an interest in the field of neuroscience in Michael Scanlon. Wanting to know more of the disease that impaired his family, he realized there is not enough known on the topic, especially how to treat it. His specific area of study became neuroplasticity.

Later, Scanlon became acquainted with Kunal Sarkar and David Drescher and went on to create Lumos Labs, Inc. in San Francisco, California in 2005. Two years later, the website Lumosity.com was launched and has continued to grow since.

Lumosity is an online database that offers its users over 50 “brain-training” games that claim to challenge and improve “5 core cognitive abilities” and help its users with sleeping habits and mindfulness. After setting up an account, users must take the “Fit Test”, which will provide a baseline score on three games. These games will tell you how you are in comparison to other people with similar demographics and are used to help tailor brain “work-outs” to fit your level of cognitive functioning. Lumosity claims to have neuroscientific research and backing in all of its games and overall functioning.

What are cognitive abilities?

Neuroplasticity? Cognitive abilities? Brain-training? What is all of this about, anyway? The Oxford Dictionary tells us that neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to “form and organize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience.”

Cognitive abilities, as described by Dr. Michelon, are what allow us to carry out all the minutia in our lives. They are involved in learning, problem-solving, and attention.

Perception, our ability to recognize, interpret and differentiate between stimuli, attention, the ability to concentrate on a particular object, action or thought, memory — short-term working memory (has limited storage) and long-term memory (has unlimited storage) — motor skills which allow us to mobilize our bodies and manipulate objects, language, visual and spatial processing, our ability to process visual stimuli and understand spatial relationships between objects, and executive functions, abilities that enable goal-oriented behavior, are all cognitive skills that are said to be enhanced by participating in brain-training.

Where did this come from?

Now that we understand those terms, we can relate them to the idea of brain-training. The acuity of our cognitive abilities changes throughout our lives due to constant learning, adapting to our environment, and injury.

Brain-training plays with the idea that we can strengthen our cognitive abilities and the strengthening of these will allow us to enhance our IQ's and overall functioning, specifically functioning in the brain. This practice includes exercises (in Lumosity’s case, games) that cause us to hone in and work on certain cognitive abilities, with the end goal of strengthening them.

The belief is that strong cognitive skills are critical and that constantly working them and improving upon them will help eliminate our chances of diseases that prey on our brains, such as Alzheimer’s.

The concept of brain-training dates back to the 1900s and Pelmanism. As defined in the Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary as a “system of mind training to improve the memory.” One aspect of Pelmanism involves using cards to play the now-classic memory game. This system is said to have been developed by William Joseph Ennever at the Pelman Institute, founded in 1898.

What goes on at Lumos Labs to create Lumosity.com?

In an interview conducted by Michael Abbott from TechCrunch.com, Scanlon gives viewers an inside peek at the processes of Lumosity. A board of “science advisors” discusses ways to enhance neuroscience and cognitive science benefits from the games. Their goal is to “provide better training and tools for improving yourself.”

The RND team provides a basic first idea of a “training mechanism” and that is taken to the production team who has the job of transforming it into a catchy, stimulating game.

What users may not be aware of is they are part of a massive research experiment known as the Human Cognition Project founded by Lumos Labs, and each time they login for their daily brain-training, their results are collected and put into their profile which is sent to researchers who are interested neuroplasticity and how effective, if at all, these games are.

The impact of the game is determined by looking at their first score from the Fit Test and following their progress to their current position. More importantly, they screen monthly tests that are taken by each member. These tests are used to evaluate how well the training is working and allows them to see what games may need improvement.

Is it too good to be true?

Lumosity has gained significant popularity since its creation in 2007, with over 70 million members, as of 2015, according to its website. While many have hailed Lumosity, allowing the site to find great success, the true reason for its tremendous success is highly controversial. A large lawsuit was brought against Lumosity on the basis of false advertisement:

Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease, but Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.

A vast majority of people bought membership to the website because they wanted to protect themselves from memory loss, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Lumosity is not the only website of its kind. NeuroNation, FitBrains, Memorado, BrainHQ, BrainMetrix, and countless other websites advertise under the guise of “preventing Alzheimer’s and memory loss” and “base themselves off of neuroscientific research,” which assures the public, most importantly the millions of users, that there is scientific backing and that they’re not wasting their valuable time and money (especially in Lumosity’s case with hefty membership fees that can total to an annual bill of $100).

If these websites are unable to prevent memory loss and Alzheimer’s, why should we bother using them? There is no simple answer to that. On one hand, Lumosity and its members claim they see positive differences in their daily functioning. However, others claim that it’s all brain games and no brain gains — the members are breaking their banks to play entertaining games, making it a not so economical decision.

The validity of “improving your cognitive abilities” and neuroplasticity are sensitive and highly controversial topics that will continue to be researched and analyzed by many perspectives.