“No matter why you want a better brain, Lumosity can help.” So said the endless ads with the squeaky clean faces and doodles drawn on and around those faces. It was supposed to help you “improve your performance with the science of neuroplasticity.” Reading it makes it sound kind of portentous, but the ads themselves came off more like an ad for visiting the local farmer’s market on Saturdays. It’s good for you — and the kind of thing that upper-middle class, college educated people do. Unfortunately, it turns out that attending the farmer’s market is about as effective as Lumosity at improving your performance “but in a way that just feels like games.”
Last week, Lumosity settled a $50 million lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for false advertising. But they will only have to pay $2 million because the company is in bad financial shape. Now I’m not the kind of person to kick someone when they are down. So I leave it to you to piece together your own joke involving two or more of the words “bright,” “management,” “luminous,” “brain-training,” and “bankruptcy.” But it is a serious matter, because the company made some outrageous claims. As Jessica Rich at the FTC said:
But there was apparently one thing that Lumosity did help people with the training itself. As Michael Hiltzik put it, “The largest studies indicate there’s no effect except for performance on the tests themselves — possibly the result of increased familiarity with the tests.” And that’s great! But Noodlecake Studios’ Brickies is more fun and doesn’t cost $14.95 per month. (In fact, it is free.)
I understand the fear. But the commercials were clearly making an emotional appeal rather than an intellectual one. It was the “one weird trick” for losing belly fat — but for your brain. But I wonder about the people who liked these ads. And there are apparently 35 million people who pay for this service every month. I’m very much aware of my own mental deterioration over the years. But it isn’t as simple as my being smarter before. I know that I’m just not as good at doing quick mathematical computations. But it’s possible that is due to an autism like effect, where I was better at that kind of stuff because I didn’t think about much else.
With age comes different abilities. I’m able to make vastly more complex and creative connections than I could when I was 25 years old. But I was better at solving differential equations then. Lumosity promised to get me those old days back. But I’m highly skeptical that I could get that kind of brain processing back without losing the far more valuable things I’ve gained since. So the woman in the commercial who wants to “remember people’s names” strikes me as having an awfully dangerous desire. Are we willing to give up a profound understanding of the system of people we interact with just so we can know their names, like we are performing Harry Lorayne’s memory trick?
I don’t know what people want from their brains. My longstanding belief has been that it is far more important to be interesting than “smart.” And that is usually just a question of people being themselves. I have one friend who is incredibly well read — especially when it comes to philosophy. And he can be annoying to talk to, because he can (And does!) name an author who wrote about any “new” idea I’ve recently been thinking of. It tends to be a conversation stopper. At the same time, many people I consider a bit dim can make me rethink the whole world.
So even if Lumosity were delivering on its promises, I think what it was offering was awful: junk food for the brain and the soul.