Brain Games Are Fun, but Are They Science?
Here is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of snake oil treatments in the health and self-improvement market.
TV advertisements for a product called Lumosity suggest that you can “reclaim your brain” by engaging in mind games at the bargain price of $15 a month. With a scientist’s dubious perspective, John M. Grohol, founder and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral.com, looked at Lumosity’s research and website to vet the claim.
Would it surprise anybody to learn that it wasn’t exactly a model of scientific rigor?
Grohol wanted to see if these kinds of cognitive games help normal adults-not seniors or people suffering from cognitive impairment. He examined the company’s “select” list of studies supposedly supporting Lumosity’s brain benefit. He found that exactly none of them was scientifically sound in terms of studying a large and representative enough population of normal, healthy adults.
One study included normal adults, but involved college students whose results weren’t replicated within other populations. That’s a “caution” sign right there. Another study included subjects who were self-selected-that is, not a random group of people, which is the gold standard for population studies-and the sample was small; only 23 subjects. That study also was published in a journal not known for original, peer-reviewed research.
A third study was presented at a professional conference, but not as a published, peer-reviewed article; it was in the form of a poster. Its subjects, again, were college students, and only 26 of them. The results? Subjects who received Lumosity training had significantly enhanced self-esteem relative to those who didn’t get the training.
Psychologists measure self-esteem on something called the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The difference in self-esteem scores of the subjects who had Lumosity training versus the control group was about 3/4 of a point. The Rosenberg scale barely would consider that measurable, much less significant: Its range is from 10 to 40. In addition, Grohol points out, “[W]ithout knowing the actual score means, we don’t know whether the people already had good self-esteem which improved slightly, or lousy self-esteem which was still lousy, but slightly less so.”
This study’s trained subjects also had better emotion regulation (whatever that is) and reduced ruminative thinking (some people might call this “brooding”). The measure used for the latter was neither statistically nor clinically significant, meaning that there was no real difference between the two study groups.
This isn’t science, it’s advertising.
Grohol isn’t opposed to playing games you believe might improve your memory. He thinks they can be fun. He also agrees that some reasonable professionals and researchers might support Lumosity’s claim that users will see “dramatic improvements” in memory and cognitive skills.
But he objects to the implication that the company’s product has a solid scientific foundation, has sufficient data to claim that it can help normal adults improve how their brain works and that it’s leveraging an association with prestigious institutions including Harvard and Stanford universities “to enhance [its] shine.”
If you like brain games, play them. But don’t allow a $15 monthly fee to convince you that they’re medicine or even vitamins for your brain.