Lumosity Can’t Help Your Brain or Your Soul

Lumosity“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:

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.

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.[1] 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.

9 thoughts on “Lumosity Can’t Help Your Brain or Your Soul

  1. The games were mildly entertaining but I had much better ones on my kindle/cell phone.

    Honestly, it seems like there is a new claim every other day on what to do to keep brains active until you die but I think it’s mostly nonsense. Plus, as you mentioned, it does seem like intelligence changes over time. I understand certain things way better now then when I was a lass while others are almost gone (like math.)

    • I think it is important to keep your mind active. But I suspect that this is mixing up cause and effect. Ultimately, we are prisoners to our genes. Just look at poor Terry Pratchett. There was nothing he could have done. Whether we have a name for the disease or whether it happens fast or slow, I don’t think it matters. As Lou Red put it, “You know, it’s called bad luck.”

      • I would have to say I agree. It is going to be what is going to be.

        Did you ever watch Fringe? It had a very bittersweet episode called “And Those We Left Behind” about a man who couldn’t bear to leave his wife in the shell of a woman she became after early on-set Alzheimer’s. If you watch it, make sure you have a very thick shirt on because you will bawl like a four year old who had their cookie stolen. I have no idea if the science is even remotely accurate so you might be too busy cringing like I do at historical shows.

      • What I understand is that there’s degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and then there’s run-of-the mill senility. Nothing will save you from Alzheimer’s. But being active is good for your mind at any age.

        • Yeah, I’m just wondering if senility will tend to slow your mind. Does having an active mind keep senility away, or is it just a sign that senility is not a problem? I really don’t know.

  2. I was never going to pay the outrageous monthly price for Luminosity, but I did do the free stuff for a while, just out of curiosity. The initial “tests” found that I scored far above average in “mental flexibility”– a term which sounds like a vague insult now that I think about it. I did find that some of the games exercised areas of my brain that are very weak, like spatial abilities and math-y stuff. I played them and I did get better at them over time, but I found them painful, tiring, and unrewarding, so I stopped doing those and just gravitated towards the one that fit my natural tendencies. So really, I learned nothing, except that it’s less tiring to just grow where you’re planted.

    • So basically, you used them as games. It’s like when I was into video games, I like Donkey Kong and Q*Bert and Ms Pacman. But that’s more a temperament thing. I’m the kind that runs away. I don’t attack. Q*Bert is probably the ultimate game for me — not only is it about running away, it’s very math-y but in a cool 3-D way.

      I think of all life as a game. Kids tend to get bored because they haven’t learned that. BTW: I just bought a box of balloons for making balloon animals. I’m really looking forward to learning a new skill! It has no instructions, but I managed to make some kind of four-leg thing with a big nose but then destroyed it. The life of a balloon animal is short and brutal!

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