Workings of Brain Games for Maximum Brain Gains

How the brain-training website Lumosity works and what they do next.

Brain training is reaching new levels of popularity. This is the concept concerned with neuroplasticity, or how our brain changes in response to stimuli, learning, and damage, and how we can stimulate certain areas of our brain and enhance cognitive processes with the help of enjoyably-challenging games.

Online brain training and its effectiveness is a concept that is relatively new and comes with controversy, bringing some users to ask the question “does this really work, or am I just playing a game,” while others tend to praise the concept that they themselves know little about. Wanting to further understand and to be able to explain the workings of these almighty brain training websites, I signed up for a one-week free subscription to Lumosity.

On the user’s side, a profile must be made through an initial assessment. One of Lumosity’s trio of profile-building games requires you to manage multiple trains, altering the tracks and guiding them to the tunnel with the corresponding color of the train. So, if a purple train appeared on the screen, you would have to click certain tiles that will prevent the purple train from entering the green tunnel and guide it toward the purple tunnel. Sounds easy, right? Well, I will be the first to admit that I was very, very wrong.

The game starts off pretty easy with just one train at a time, however, it becomes more challenging as you progress. At one point, nine trains were on my screen, each a different color needing to be directed to different tunnels. Some of the tunnels are so close together that if you look away for a split second, your train will be in the wrong tunnel and before you know it, you find yourself with a new resentment towards trains. The description for this game was that it works on your ability to multitask, a skill that I always considered myself a master of, until now.

After creating your profile and obtaining your scores from the three assessment games (and laughing at them), you are welcome to visit the website and its many games — unless you are using the free version, then you have fewer games available to choose from and three daily training games that change each day (but are usually the same few that rotate), one way the company tries to get you to purchase a premium membership.

Each time you log on to Lumosity, similar to building a resume, you are building your cognitive profile with games and scores. However, Lumosity is collecting far more information than just your game scores.

“We may also receive information such as your browser type, IP address… the type of device you use, operating system version, unique device identifier… the date/time of your visit and files you viewed on our site… Internet service provider, clickstream data, the pages you view and the websites you visited immediately before and after visiting Lumosity. In some cases, we link this automatically collected data to other information we collect about you.”

Lumosity is watching you like Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. So, what do they do with this massive amount of information they collect from their millions of users? Without realizing it, you are a participant in a global-scale research project called the Human Cognition Project.

Now, on the producer’s, more technical end, we see what happens with our profiles. Lumos Labs created its own research platform, the Human Cognition Project (HPC). The HPC is a “collaboration between neuroscientists, clinicians, teachers, and academics worldwide.” These academically-rich persons work with Lumos Labs, using Lumostiy, its users, and the laboratory as tools, so they may further delve into cognitive performance, the validity of Lumosity’s current working structure, and projects Lumosity has developed, such as the NeuroCognitive Performance Test.

On a webpage from their lab in San Francisco, abstracts from seventeen peer-reviewed research papers published in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015 are displayed with their corresponding researchers. One paper uses Lumosity and its users’ data to test the reliability and validity of the NeuroCognitive Performance Test (NCPT), a “brief, repeatable, web-based cognitive assessment platform that measures performance across several cognitive domains,” created by researchers in Lumos Labs.

The NCPT platform consists of 18 subtests — this research looks at the results of 8 subtests taken by 130,140 participants. What researchers are working towards is supporting the reliability and validity of the NCPT so it may possibly be used in clinical research, where it could be utilized as a screening tool for placing participants into trials, or in clinical settings, where it could possibly “aid in the diagnosis of cognitive impairment and monitor cognitive change over time.”

Concerning the effectiveness of brain training, a study conducted in the UK under the hypothesis that the participants will not develop cognitive enhancements through the use of online brain training websites explains that “the widely-held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population in our opinion lacks empirical support.”

They reported the results of a six-week study of 11,430 participants that trained several times a week online in a format similar to popular brain training websites, such as Lumosity. The tasks were formatted to improve memory, visuospatial skills, attention, and planning. What they observed was minor improvements, however there was no statistically significant evidence that “was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

Other studies have unveiled some ironic, amusing factoids. Florida State University ran a study which found that video games such as Portal 2 “showed a statistically significant advantage over Lumosity on each of the three composite measures — problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence.”

The participants assigned to play Portal 2 also showed significant improvements in their pretest to posttest scores on spatial tests. The Lumosity group did not show any differences in their scores.

Advertisements play an important role in Lumosity’s processing. Past commercials, computer ads, and other forms of advertisements claimed the constant use of the website will prevent Alzheimer’s or delay the onset of dementia. The company could not back their claims and Lumosity was charged with false advertisement. As a result of this, Lumos Labs has included this statement on their webpage for the research that has been published through the HCP:

This content is for informational purposes only. Lumosity is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. (The Human Cognitive Project, emphasis added)

Advertisements are so important because consumers feel they should be proactive and train their brains in an attempt to prevent or delay diseases. This theme was touched upon in previous paragraphs, such as my laughing at the mediocrity of my scores. They made me want to play the game again to get a better score, more for self-assurance than wanting to improve my beloved cognitive processes, however, as a starving college student, I cannot take on the hefty prices.

Looking back at the studies mentioned, a shared thread was that brain training appears to have a statistically significant effect only in laboratory atmospheres. Research has been, and is currently being conducted under that exact question, and we still do not have a definitive answer.

Briefly, Lumosity requires users to create a profile where they take scores from initial assessments and then compare that individual to where they should be, based on where other people of similar demographics are on the scoring spectrum. These scores then motivate people to return to beat your old score either to prove your intelligence, or to sustain your already high scores.

Advertisements and misconceptions also reel people in by playing with their fears. By returning to the website and building a profile, users are put into the Human Cognition Project, a global research platform created by Lumosity. Researchers have access to profiles and scores and use them to help in their research. Members of the HCP are interested in Neurocognition and work to determine the effectiveness of Lumosity and brain training websites and other things, such as the NeuroCognitive Performance Test.

Conflicting research argues that you cannot improve your cognitive abilities through websites like Lumosity. Unfortunately, there is little supporting evidence that brain training works outside of a laboratory setting, but this may change in time.