It was scheduled to be a FF7 day today, but I got distracted by a topic which I wanted to address and also by a picture of a duck.
Let me open by stating my position in no uncertain terms:
‘Brain training’ games do not work.
It even feels redundant typing it out. You have to be a special breed of person to believe that feeding pretend fish on your Nintendo DS is going to put you on the road to Mensa membership.
It’s pretty much the same ruse that has run in perpetuity for a while now, albeit under different guises. Can you learn French in your sleep listening to tapes? No, you obviously can’t. Why ‘obviously’? Because I don’t care how much pseudo-science is out there: you’ve never met someone who learned French in their sleep. Fact.
C’Mon, We All Know These Games Aren’t Really Effective. They’re Just Fun!
I beg to differ. But at least the Brain Training games on the DS are a little bit tongue in cheek, and you don’t have to look far to see the ‘THIS IS FOR ENTERTAINMENT ONLY’ stickers. So the only people playing them are the easily conned, and those who are really lacking on entertainment options.
But here’s a bunch of scam artists who will go out of their way to convince you playing daft games can improve your intelligence.
Behold Lumosity and the ad which won’t leave my YouTube browsing alone:
Man, I’d hate to be stuck on a date with Emily. I don’t know what it is about her in this ad but I get the impression she’s one break up away from a break down.
Manic schizophrenia aside, what Lumosity (or Luminosity, as myself and others keep mistakenly calling it – great branding douchebags) want to suggest is that age-old stereotype that people with thick-rimmed glasses are more intelligent.
Not being disparaging here. I’m actually quite keen to push that stereotype as much as possible.
But What’s Shady About Luminosity, and Why is it a Scam?
Well, the scam is a pretty smart one because it melds together not just one but two classic plays in the world of conning – the idea that you don’t have to work hard for something because there’s a hidden shortcut, and the inherent belief that you could be brilliant if only you could tap some hidden skillset lurking somewhere in your brain-case. It’s a lovely mixture of ‘lose weight easily with this one weird old tip!’ and… erm… I guess some variation of ‘your penis could be bigger’ or whatever.
But there’s also a third, really clever ingredient here – the lovely, sticky glaze which holds the whole scam cake together and distracts you from the fact that it’s actually a shite sandwich. I’m talking about the science.
SCIENCE. Look at all the science!
See that graph? Yup, the guys at Lumosity perform LABORATORY TESTS. Such hard-hitting SCIENCE has concluded that Lumosity gamers have improved their memory span by a whopping 2.5! Yikes. To put this in perspective, that’s over two memories more than most people.
Of course, I’m being a little glib here. You can check out the full scientific research over at the ‘Lumos Labs’ section of their site. You could, although I wouldn’t recommend it given that their “science” is a total crock of crap.
Perhaps I’m wrong. After all, the research part of the Lumosity site does include some increasingly bigger words, footnote references to physical books (!) and statements made by people with intimidating letters after their names. And so I absolutely have to defer you to someone who did a way better job at picking apart the fledgling Lumosity way back in 2009 – go read Matthew Hartfield’s dissection here, which is more literate, informed and ergo entertaining than the page you’re currently on. If you need any further convincing, he’s got a PhD for goodness’ sake. He’s a scientist! Talking about science!
So the science of Lumosity is clearly ‘not real science’ at best and ‘invented by a tired freelance copywriter late into the night’ at worst. Their use of the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is also a bit suspect – yes, neuropasticity is a thing (here’s the definition) but not in the way they use it.
Sketchy PR Practices
If you haven’t already, go back to Matthew’s article linked above and pay some attention to the comments. I’ve kindly requested that Matthew look into the originating IPs if available – given his inactivity I doubt that will happen – but I strongly suspect they converge on one logical conclusion:
Lumosity fake comments under bogus profiles.
I don’t need to point to any comment in particular. If you weren’t savvy to the fact that shady companies do this on negative blog posts commonly, you’d easily be fooled by the well-constructed comments. But look at them with the knowledge that a company could not only do this easily but has a massive incentive to do so, and you’ll see how kooky it all looks.
And isn’t it interesting that they’ve blocked comments on their own YouTube videos? Personally, I instantly go into raised-eyebrow-mode whenever someone forcefully bans open-forum discussion on content they themselves put out there. It’s a tactic employed by snake-oil salesmen with something to hide (Creationist pillocks like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind are classic proponents of the YouTube Comment Blocking defence).
But I Don’t Care if Lumosity Works… I Just Want To Play Casual Games! Stop Being Such a Nay-Sayer!
Sure. I know I now say nay to sway, but any nays I say as a nay-sayer should not waylay anyway.
By that, I mean It’s not my business to tell you how to play games, let alone what to do with your life and what (nonsense) to buy into and believe in. But if there’s a single good reason not to trust Lumosity with your custom, it’s because Lumosity does not trust you as a customer. Sign up to Lumosity and not only do they want to extract as much money from you through their own service as they can, but they’ll also get some value from your details by selling them to spammers – I haven’t personally verified the following info, but see no reason to discount it as worthless: http://www.complaintsboard.com/byurl/lumosity.com.html
In a nutshell, it’s well worth avoiding Luminosity.
I keep doing that.
HEY MAYBE FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER AND RANT AT ME THERE: @ironmanmode
* Can you believe they’ve managed to convince people to give them over $70m dollars of funding at last count?
** $68m of this funding went on making sure I get the Lumosity ad every time I watch something on YouTube.
*** I can prove it. I have graphs.
UPDATE – 15/10/2013
So when I initially wrote this, I had no idea if anyone would read it. This is a comedy site primarily designed to raise money for the fantastic Child’s Play charity, and usually one-off posts like this outside of our main game series go unread. By the way, do consider donating a dime to the fundraiser if you’ve enjoyed reading this, and maybe poke around the site and see if there’s anything else you like.
But back to the matter at hand. Since its publication, this has become the highest-read page on the site and continually attracts hundred of readers a day. Many of these visitors aren’t aware that the site is really just for entertainment only and should be taken with a pinch of salt, which is entirely fair and understandable. As a result, though, people are then proceeding to the comments below – broomstick firmly affixed ass-wards – and trying to defend Lumosity.
There has been a lot of great insight added to the comments, including many studies, techniques and angles to the story that I hadn’t thought of. Alongside that, you’ll see a lot of people who think I’m dead wrong and Lumosity is totally legitimate – you can easily tell which of people in the comments have been using intelligence-enhancing, brain training products by the semi-legible, badly thought-out drivel that they write there. Scroll to the end of the post and you’ll see what I mean.
It has become hard to individually address the army of lobotomized gibbons that feel the need to mash their fists on the keyboard, but since they all boil down to the same thing, I’ll do a blanket answer for them all here:
1) This is an entertainment piece and, because of which, I didn’t go into the hard science. Plenty of people have, I already linked to a very good writer who did, and I spent a lot of time reading both sides of the argument before adding my own observations which I didn’t think had been voiced. None of this justifies your cry of ‘omg u need 2 do ur research’. I did. You’re wrong.
2) I don’t care if you ‘tried it an it raelly works!!1!’. I care about what empirical science says, not your anecdote. In addition, you’re wrong.
3) No, I have not used Lumosity. Does that weaken my argument? No, because see #2. I care about what empirical science says, not anecdotal reports (good or bad) and that would include my own experience. And no, I’m not going to try it. Why would I waste my money given that empirical science says it doesn’t work? See also: you’re wrong.
4) “Of course brain training works! Why wouldn’t it? The brain is a muscle/fluid intelligence/practice every day…” Nope. You bought their bullshit. You’re wrong.
5) “What harm could it do?” Plenty – Lumosity, Cogmed and the others propagate bad science and use it to take people’s money without being able to deliver what they promise. All the while, you’re wasting time you could have spent doing real exercise and even worse – it can lead to despondency among those looking for genuine mental improvement, such as those with degenerative brain diseases or age-related loss of memory. These are all high prices to pay for being wrong. Oh, and you’re wrong.
Whether some of the comments are from Lumosity themselves or affiliated parties is open to debate, and all I’ll say on the matter is that some of the IP addresses (and yeah, I track them) are suspiciously from San Francisco, where the HQ is based. Just sayin’.
But to close off, I’ll post a typical comment here followed by my reply in red. It pretty much says everything I want to add to the rebuttals, and provides the Pro-Lumites with the science they keep whining about. Here goes:
“What a load of bull. You’re suggesting that travelling is the way forward to develop brain power? What the heck are you defining as power here? How can travelling or watching a documentary improve anything other than learning? I think everyone should learn about other cultures and get out of the house and explore the world but that is another topic entirely.”
I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about here. I cannot find where I talked about ‘travelling is the way forward to develop brain power’, but at least we agree that travel broadens the mind, loosely speaking. He might be referring to a video I just put out before receiving this comment? Dunno.
“You need to understand that games, some similar to the lumosity ones, have been used successfully as part of neural rehabilitation. You can also then think of other games such as tetris, chess, sudoku, etc and how they help the users develop certain skills. You will also find that those who practice lots of math generally are better at maths than those who watch tv all day. Well, lumosity is all about practise and it has quite a few math games (not to mention information processing, spatial awareness, etc). You won’t improve anything without practice and Lumosity does not suggest you do… which is why there are sessions for you to practice daily/weekly/etc… so I don’t understand where you get your ideas from. Oh wait, I think I know.. you’ve never played a Lumosity game!”
How can I ‘get my ideas’ from having not done something? Not sure where his train of thought was going there, but it crashed into the station. Anyway, see the mini-FAQ above.
“Well then, why not give it a go? There are quite a few free games anyway! To be fair, for someone who advocates broadening your mind with travelling, this article is a ‘little’ on the narrow-minded side.”
Again, I fail to see the travel link. Nice sales pitch for Lumosity, though.
“Reading up Nature Neuroscience would also help you learning a bit more on how the brain works. What’s up with today’s lay dudes blogging and moaning about things they don’t know (and don’t bother knowing) anything about!?!! Yeah, it’s a lot easier than doing research.”
Remember that journalists and ‘lay dude bloggers’ like myself are impartial when writing about this kind of thing. Heck, I didn’t expect anyone to read this post much less to get into a war about it – I just took a look at all of the info out there with no prior biases, and felt compelled to call bullshit.
On the other hand Lumosity, and their butthurt customers, have every reason to be biased when making their grandiose claims. Perhaps you should do some proper research yourself, and as I keep having to remind Lumosity’s puppets in these comments, that does NOT include A) Annecdotes, or B) Lumosity’s own biased studies.
So I’ve decided to do the job for you. Here’s some of the research for you, if you can be bothered to look at something not put out by Lumosity. Note that these are peer-reviewed studies with massive control groups – on the contrary, most of the ‘positive’ evidence usually comes from tiny control groups, and if you look hard enough, the scientists/article writer is usually in the pocket of the brain training companies.
“Last year, Hampshire published research showing that out of 44,600 individuals who took an earlier version of the MRC tests, those who had regularly brain-trained showed no advantage in any form of intelligence relative to those who did not. By contrast, those who regularly played video games did better in short-term memory capacity and reasoning.”
“No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: a randomized, placebo-controlled study.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22708717
“David Z. Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and his colleagues Thomas S. Redick (lead researcher) and Randall W. Engle will soon be publishing new evidence that fails to replicate the very study that so much of the commercial industry rests upon.”
“… A 2010 study by the neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen, which tracked 11,000 adults over a six-week computer-based training regime… reported benefits in executing the tasks themselves but little general advantage in other areas. Owen concluded that regular players of brain games got better at the games themselves through familiarity rather than showing any marked improvement in fluid intelligence ”
“The answer, however, now appears to be a pretty firm no—at least, not through brain training. A pair of scientists in Europe recently gathered all of the best research—twenty-three investigations of memory training by teams around the world—and employed a standard statistical technique to settle this controversial issue. The conclusion: the games may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, but this does not transfer to broader skills… Playing the games makes you better at the games, in other words, but not at anything anyone might care about in real life.
… Over the last year, the idea that working-memory training has broad benefits has crumbled. One group of psychologists, lead by a team at Georgia Tech, set out to replicate the Jaeggi findings, but with more careful controls and seventeen different cognitive-skills tests. Their subjects showed no evidence whatsoever for improvement in intelligence… This failed replication was recently published in one of psychology’s top journals, and another, by Case Western Reserve University, has been published since. The recent meta-analysis, led by Monica Melby-Lervåg, of the University of Oslo, and also published in a top journal, is even more damning…”