Here's What You Really Get When You Pay To Play Brain Training Games

Do brain-training games really make you smarter?

With more than 50 million users — many paying $US15/month or $US80/year for full access — Lumosity seemed worth checking out.

We looked inside (which you can do for free) and at research about similar games to evaluate whether Lumosity is worth your time and money. What are the games like and do they provide anything more than a little distraction?

The truth is rather disappointing.

One of Lumosity's big selling points is that each person gets a 'training plan' designed to fit their needs. The first step is to tell Lumosity exactly what you want to work on.

There are five key areas you can focus on. Within each area, things get very specific. Can't ever find your keys? Try checking 'recalling the location of objects.'

Lumosity is popular among some people struggling with A.D.H.D., but many of these 'areas of improvement' will be relatable to almost everyone.

Speed is a major focus for Lumosity, with many games designed to help the user find the balance between speed and accuracy.

Flexibility seems to be the 'improvement area' that is defined the most broadly.

At this point, you might get a little sceptical. Can a computer game really help you 'dissect complex arguments' or 'determine the best course of action'?

Lumosity promises that it will improve your life quite broadly, but it's more likely that it will just make you better at certain narrow tasks -- like playing the games themselves.

There's some evidence that it can produce 'short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize' -- a small (if fleeting) boost to your working memory capacity, for example. But this can hardly be confused with achieving your 'full potential.'

Once your personal program has been set up, the first thing to do -- and you can do this part without paying -- is take some quick tests to establish a baseline in each core area. That way, Lumosity can track your progress as you play (or 'train').

As you train, you will almost certainly see yourself improve. The numbers of Lumosity's 'Brain Performance Index' -- tweeted by a random user here -- will invariably go up the more you play. And that's a good thing -- emotionally, if not intellectually.

Lumosity also lets you see how you stack up to others (a random user is shown here). One 2013 study found that this social element might be key: Lumosity-like games could 'positively impact one's sense of social connectivity and self-efficacy.'

But 'successful cognitive training programs will elicit effects that generalize to practical tasks for extended periods of time,' and that's something that has not yet been proven true for Lumosity. Improved BPI is not associated with greater applied intelligence.

Before Lumosity calculates your BPI, you have to play some games. Here's the dashboard you see when Lumosity is ready to go. Clicking 'start training' will launch the first game. You will see different games depending on what you selected as your priorities in the first steps.

When Lumosity presents you with a game, it tells you what it's called ('Speed Match'), the core area it works on ('Speed'), and then specific skill it targets ('Information Processing').

With Speed Match, you flip through a virtual deck of picture cards. If the card you're looking at matches the card that came before it, you press the right arrow. If it doesn't, you press the left arrow. The goal here is to learn to process sensory input quickly without making mistakes.

This is from another game called 'Lost In Migration.' It tests your selective attention, or the ability to pay attention to what matters while filtering out what does not. You have to press the arrow key that corresponds to the direction of the middle bird. Meanwhile, you have to ignore the direction of all the other birds, who are sometimes pointing in different directions.

Regular video game players may have improved visual attention skills, one study in Nature notes, and there's reason to believe that Lumosity could have this effect as well. But 'brain training' did not boost performance on other tasks -- even on those tasks that were closely related to the training games.

Source: Nature, 2010

Memory Match is a game designed to boost your working memory. The tutorial for it is below. But can such a specific game help you in your day-to-day life?

Probably not, writes Jordan Gaines Lewis: According to several studies, 'it seems that remembering which shape came before the circle in the sequence will not help you remember that one last item on your grocery list as you're out shopping. And it certainly won't raise your IQ by any significant amount.'

Memory Matrix is another games that focuses on building up your working memory capacity.

Here's how you play: Memory Matrix shows you tiles in a particular pattern, and then -- after just a second or two -- flips the blue ones over so they are all brown. You then have to click on the tiles that were previously blue. If you're good at the old card game called 'Memory,' you'll probably do well with 'Memory Matrix' too.

Familiar Faces is another memory game, but it's very, very specific.

In Familiar Faces, you're a waiter trying to remember your customers' names without mixing up their orders. When a customer tells you her name, you have to pay attention -- just like in real life.

As the game progresses, you get more and more customers, and between each 'Hi, I'm Elizabeth' and 'Here's your check, ___,' you have to keep track of orders for drinks and food. Actual waiters might be amused that this is considered a leisure-time 'game.'

The study that Lumosity cites to bolster its claim that working memory training is associated with increases in general intelligence has been called into question. While people who trained their working memory got better at the training tasks they were presented with, 'there was no positive transfer to any of the cognitive ability tests,' researchers concluded.

If you don't like the games Lumosity is serving up, you can swap in a new one from your training plan. And if you just want to play for fun -- perhaps the best approach to Lumosity -- you can also ignore your customised training plan and choose any game you want. But is it ever more than just fun?

Very specific populations -- children with cancer-related brain injuries, for example -- have shown some improvements in memory and executive function after Lumosity-like brain training.

'As the study results trickled in after its 2007 founding, Lumosity was starting to look like, at best, a minor medical product that doctors would recommend for a limited number of patients -- not at all like the nationwide phenomenon every Bay Area startup wants to become,' Matt Carey writes.

One study that did not test Lumosity in particular but rather brain training in general found that it seemed to curb cognitive decline somewhat in older adults. But another study on older adults that did use Lumosity found only mild improvement in visual attention.

In other words: While Lumosity has rabid fans who swear it has boosted their attention and memory, as far as scientific evidence is concerned, the jury is still out -- and so far, it doesn't look so promising.

If you're looking for a fun way to boost cognitive fitness, then exercise, reading, maths, language learning, crossword puzzles, and, importantly, a variety of such activities may be a better bet.

So is there anything you can do to flex your mind?

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