LumosityPosit ScienceNeuroNation, Fitbrains, and other “brain exercise” programs have saturated cyberspace with their hype:

  • “Increase memory, focus, and attention.”
  • “Changing lives, one brain at a time”
  • “Enjoying a faster, sharper brain”
  • “Games for a Smarter Brain”
  • “We provide you a personal trainer to exercise your brain.”

All you have to do is sign up for the program…for a modest (or not so modest) fee, of course.

Since no one wants a flabby brain and we are all worried about getting Alzheimer’s every time we forget a word or two, we get sucked into buying brain fitness games—this game to sharpen your memory, that game to help you focus, and another to make you smarter. No wonder, brain “fitness” revenues hit “$1 billion in 2012 from $200 million in 2005 and are expected to surpass $6 billion by 2020.”

 

What do you gain?

The problem is that brain fitness games are specific in their effect. fMRI studies indeed show changes in certain areas of the brain after a brain training, but there is no transfer of the changes to other areas of the brain. This means that the brain activation is limited to the specific area that subserves the specific task. For example, working a crossword puzzle will light up the hippocampus area, but will leave the rest of the brain “cold.” Becoming an expert in solving crossword puzzles, or any other specific task, will accomplish just that—expertise in that specific task. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is an exercise in futility at best; selling it as if based on science is, to say the least, highly misleading.

 

Show me the evidence

brain gamesWhat is Lumosity offering as evidence that their games really work? Their commercial claims that “Lumosity is based on the science of neuroplasticity.” But the evidence is anything but. The original “paper” by Lumosity’s founder Mike Scanlon, a 2007 poster at a neuroscience meeting, was not peer reviewed and was never followed up with a peer reviewed publication. It is based on a study of 23 (!) participants—in most circles, that is called a pilot, not a study.

Many other papers were published by Lumosity or its collaborators—mostly posters at meetings, papers in non-peer reviewed publications, many funded by Lumosity. But here is the most important fact, none of the publications demonstrated improvement in what is called “fluid intelligence.”

 

What is fluid intelligence?

Fluid intelligence (which we refer to in everyday language simply as ‘intelligence’) is a complex human ability that allows us to adapt our thinking to a new cognitive problem or situation. It is critical for a wide variety of cognitive tasks, and it is considered one of the most important factors in learning. The emphasis here is on adaptability. And for that, it turns out, you need interactions between many brain regions, all working in tandem.

In neurobiology, this neuronal orchestration is called synchrony. A whole raft of papers demonstrates that training in a specific task does not generate widespread synchrony in the brain, nor does it increase intelligence.

For instance, Thomas Redick and colleagues at Georgia Tech tested 17 different cognitive tasks, including tasks for fluid intelligence, multitasking, working memory, and perceptual speed. They also had two control groups: One that underwent placebo training and one that did no testing whatsoever. After 20 sessions, Redick found that while participants improved performance on the tasks at hand, their newfound abilities never actually transferred to any global measure of intelligence or cognition.

brain games scam
Is she expanding her mind?
Credit: Aaron Gouveia

Also, a recent meta-analysis of 23 studies confirmed these and others’ findings. Monica Melby-Lervåg and Charles Hulme of University of Oslo concluded that brain-training programs did indeed produce short-term, highly specific improvements in the task at hand, but with no generalized improvements to overall intelligence, memory, attention, or other cognitive ability.

These are but a few examples of scientific papers meticulously refuting the claims of the brain games industry. An international group of 69 neurobiologists and psychologists took the unusual step of publishing an open letter warning the public that there is no scientific basis to the claims of brain fitness games likes the ones offered by Lumosity.

Lumosity is not alone in playing on people’s fears of loss of memory, or worse. CogniFit, CogMed, and Jungle Memory all participate in the charade. I focused on Lumosity because they are the biggest (their website claims 70 million members in over 180 countries) and most brazen in claiming scientific validation. The industry is projected to reach 20 billion dollars by 2020. Remember Deep Throat’s advice to find the crooks? Follow the money!

 

So what does work?

First and foremost: Aerobic exercise

A CDC report summarizes many studies showing that aerobic exercise is positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and psychosocial functioning outcomes.

And it makes a lot of sense, to boot. Aerobic exercise increases blood supply to all regions of the brain, increasing the metabolic activity of the neurons. Furthermore, it causes the release of BDNF, a brain hormone that acts on certain neurons of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system, helping to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. In the brain, it is active in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain—areas vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking.

 

Second: Eat well

The Mediterranean Diet, enhanced with extra virgin olive oil and nut, has been shown to improve cognition.

 

Third: Read a lot, especially fiction

Neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The recent study on the brain benefiting from reading fiction was conducted at Emory University. The study titled, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” was recently published in the journal Brain Connectivity. The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Interestingly, reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports.

 

Fourth: Listen to music

Surprised? Since ancient times, probably since we became human, people hungered for stories. Homer roamed Greece in the 12th century BC telling the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. At about the same time, the “best seller” in what is today’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel was the epic of Gilgamesh, told and retold countless times by roving storytellers. What is interesting about these people is that they mostly accompanied their stories with music.

So, is it any surprise that essentially all brain regions activated by reading are activated by music as well? In fact, most of the brain “lights up” by reading and by listening to music.

 

Fifth: Here is the biggest surprise

In the state of total relaxation and in meditation, there is synchrony of the whole brain. Daydreaming, a state of wandering thoughts and relaxation, is also associated with creativity.

 

Bottom line

Don’t fall for the snake oil purveyors of mind games. Not only is it a waste of money. It is also what economists call, opportunity loss. In the time you spent memorizing which geometric shape came before the circle, you could have gone for an invigorating run, or become absorbed in a novel, or have your spirits soar to the music of Chopin or even the Grateful Dead. Do it, your brain will be grateful as well.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

56 COMMENTS

  1. I did a little research on my own and found close to 100 studies, not just on their website, but also on this domain (http://www.cognitivetrainingdata.org) that show the efficacy of Posit Science’s program. I couldn’t find any studies of the other products you mention. Why did you not cite those studies? They clearly show that the right type of brain training works.

  2. Dr. Michaeli,

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this article. I’ve always wondered about the efficacy of these kinds of programs. I’ve got to admit…I actually bought it – both literally and figuratively. Maybe I’m just a sucker? Or maybe I just wanted to believe it?

    I’m a firm believer in #5 – the issue I’ve personally found is that trying to make the brain do nothing is much more difficult than it sounds.

    Also, I’m curious if your criticism also applies to “n-back” and “double n-back” training, or “working memory training”. I can’t remember it at this moment, but I recall reading some – at least what I thought to be – convincing material on its effectiveness.

    Thanks Again,

    Spencer

    • Some studies showed that N-back marginally improves working memory (aka fluid intelligence). however, these studies came under criticism of flawed methodolgy. The main problem of this, as well as other brain training games, is their lack of transferability. In other words, you become good at the particular task you train for, but there is no transfer to other tasks. So far, the only modalities that seem to work are the ones that activate multiple regions in the brain, such as aerobic exercise or reading fiction.

  3. Simply want to say your article is as surprising. The clearness to your
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  4. Thank you so very much Dr. Dov Michaeli,
    For the past 15 years or so I have been fascinated with human behavior, I can sit for hours on a bench at the local mall just watching people as they carry about, wondering to myself why they do, and does it even matter, the things they do. I came across your writings on the “supplement” LECITHIN, after a friend recently told me that it will aid in weight loss. I feel fortunate that I came across your article on the subject, and thank you for the easy to understand information you provide. In any event, upon researching yourself, I came across your article on “The Brain Games Scam” about five years ago, I signed up for “Lumosity” and after “playing” it for a few weeks, I had seemed to have mastered some of the training games. Realizing my skill was nothing more than memorizing the next step; I stopped logging into and no longer promoted the site to friends. It was reassuring after reading your article that I wasn’t to far off. I feel the best exercise we can do for our brains, and or fluid intelligence is variety in our cognitive thinking. I signed up for your updates and “liked” you on Facebook, so I am looking forward to more of your incite and critical thinking. Thank you for your time and your genius.
    Rennie

  5. My tablet is game-free and so very much happy about it. I did occasionally install games played it few days. Then uninstalled it. Coz I feel that tese games are not doing any good. I once bought an adventure game coz i love the graphics design and i have to figure out how to use clues to so the character can advance to next level. It’s problem solving. But i get irritated when i can’t figure out how to do it. I spent 2 to 3 hours. I stuck at a single habit. So after 3 days, i uninstalled it. I felt better, relieved.

  6. I like crosswords. But i prefer doing crosswords on newspapers and books because i can write and my fingers can touch the paper. We r so dependent on computers and phones that we seldom write.

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