If you were tuned into the news last week, you may have heard that the Federal Trade Commission slapped Lumosity - the company known for its "brain training games" - a hefty fine. The reason for the fine is that Lumosity made some grandiose claims about how the games would improve performance in work, school, and athletics; protect against decline related to age, Alzheimer's, and dementia; and reduce impairment from conditions like stroke, PTSD, and chemotherapy - all without sound evidence supporting the claims. (Source: FTC.gov) These are severe charges as the FTC frowns upon preying on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly with their fear of, well, getting elderly. In addition, Lumosity frequently provided significant reimbursements for consumer testimonies without disclosing this to its customers. All this means a $50 million fine, which will be suspended (due to the financial situation of the company Lumos Labs, which owns Lumosity) once $2 million has been paid to the FTC.
Yikes! You think those Lumos Labs folks are buying Powerball tickets right about now?
But to anyone who even remotely keeps up with the latest on brain science, this comes as no surprise (thanks, LA Times for this gem of a headline: "If you weren't smart enough to know Lumosity was making bogus claims, the FTC has your back"). In late 2014, several cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists signed a statement that there is "little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of daily life" (Source: Science Magazine). Numerous studies with publications in journals such as Developmental Psychology and PLoS One concluded that, while people who did the brain training games improved their performance on those specific games, there was no evidence of improvement outside those games. As one article noted, "memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize" (Melby-Lervåg and Hulme). Basically, if you play the Lumosity game, then you get better at the Lumosity game, and that's it.
More interestingly, researchers at Florida State randomized 77 undergrads to play 8 hours of Lumosity games or 8 hours of Portal 2, a popular puzzle-solving video game. As it turns out, the Portal 2 players showed a statistically significant improvement from baseline scores for problem-solving, spatial skill, and persistence over their Lumosity-playing counterparts. Yep. That's right. Playing my boyfriend's X-Box game helped me more than your Lumosity addiction.
Fine, but if all those brain training games are snake oil, what actually works?
Exercise. This is the one thing all the experts and researchers seem to agree on. Roberto Cabeza, a neuroscientist at Duke University just down the road, and a signatory on the aforementioned statement against "brain training games" notes that it's fine if you're playing the games for fun, but that "cognitive improvements from exercise appear to be modest, but are still greater than any of the small, fleeting gains yet observed in studies of gaming" (Source: Science Magazine). While exercise won't miraculously make you smarter or improve memory drastically, the data clearly shows exercise improves blood flow through the brain, which strengthens neural connections and reduces the risk of stroke. And it turns out you don't even need to run marathons to reap the benefits of exercise. You just need to avoid being sedentary. But then again, this isn't the first time it's been proclaimed that "sitting is the new smoking" - we KNOW being sedentary is the silent killer. It leads to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and so much more. Combine this with research indicating the benefits of being in nature and meditation and go ahead and step away rom the screen that is burning through your retinas and let's go outside for a walk, jog, run, bike ride, hike, swim, ski, kayak, skydive, or whatever it is that gets your blood flowing.
I'll see you out there.