The more than $1 billion dollar brain training games industry has suffered a few concussions lately. To be fair, the major players can blame themselves for some of the injuries; they weren’t wearing the proper padding and they have made a habit of sprinting across the middle of the field with their heads down.
After years of heavy and relatively bombastic marketing campaigns, Lumosity had accumulated tens of millions of users only to turn the corner on 2016 and be attacked by the Federal Trade Commission for several violations of the FTC Act. The “Complaint for Permanent Injunction and Other Equitable Relief” rocked the brain training ringleaders with a $50 million judgment that was tapered down to a loud $2 million fine and the mandatory extension of an easy opt-out to all their subscribers.
The company had featured 160 testimonials from ecstatic users of the Lumosity Program, some of which anecdotally claimed heightened athletic performance and ADHD relief; the company failed to inform the public that forty-six of those testimonials were collected through a contest that offered prizes to the most impressive storytellers.
They aired a seemingly omnipresent blitz of ads boasting, among other things, that “No matter why you want a better brain, Lumosity.com can help”; marketing messages represented “directly or indirectly, expressly or by implication” (the words of the filed complaint) that their games and programs could help people improve performance in “real-world” scenarios like everyday tasks, school work and professional responsibilities. Lumosity even implied, with references to internally conducted studies and externally unrelated conclusions, that users of their products could combat “chemofog” from cancer treatment, fend off Alzheimer’s, and help protect themselves against age-related conditions like dementia.
According to the FTC, these implications were at best “false or unsubstantiated”, and according to members of the scientific community, at worst, predatory and exploitative of the health desperation commonly found among the elderly. A chorus of discord within the scientific community—one open statement was even published as a “consensus” signed by 75 members of the academic community—certainly was and still is the pressure on the pedal driving the denigration of the brain games industry.
As the New York Times summarized earlier this year, “What scientists call “transfer,” real-world results beyond the laboratory, lies at the heart of the debate.” The stated science guiding the design of brain games is “neuroplasticity”, suggesting that, much like a regular exercise regimen, 10 to 15 minutes of daily activity could have long-lasting effects and benefits. But as Thomas Redick, a psychologist at Purdue University puts it, “I’m pretty skeptical. The evidence is pretty clear that it’s not a good approach for causing the changes we care about.”
The kind of evidence to which Redick is referring can be found in meta-analyses of working memory studies that suggest only non-transferrable short-term effects; studies on young adults that showed no statistically significant performance shifts in general cognitive ability tests even immediately after brain game use; not to mention studies that did prove heightened performance on processing speed and reasoning tests 10 years after training sessions were administered, but upon extended experimentation, failed to show any notable development in the execution of “real-life” activities, like managing medications.
Most recently, several psychologists from George Mason University published a paper warning people of the overlooked possibility of a placebo effect in cognitive training. In their study, people explicitly primed for a brain-“enhancement” experiment showed greater IQ increases relative to a control group simply told they were going to participate “in a study”; as a Vox article summarizes, nobody actually became more intelligent, but rather “The placebo group grew “smarter” because they expected to grow smarter.”
Of course, media outlets have been quick to embrace the skepticism and outright assassination of the merits of companies like Lumosity, publishing headlines like, Brain Games Are Bogus, Lumosity’s Brain Games Are Bullshit, and Brain Games Like Lumosity Are Snake Oil. Don’t Waste Your Money.
Now, having read through several articles on the topic and statements from both sides of the academic fence, having gone through a number of study abstracts and results as well as the entire 26-page complaint from the FTC, and having lived a fairly diverse 34 years on this planet among both the grave idiots and the glorious intelligentsia, allow me to chime in with an alternative message for your consideration:
EVERYONE CHILL THE FUCK OUT AND TRY SHOWING A SMIDGE OF GRATITUDE THAT COMPANIES LIKE THIS ARE EVEN TRYING.
Sure, their language might be a little inflated and their scientific process a little light. I understand that there are important bodies and institutions out there that must protect and uphold certain standards for the safety and betterment of society as a whole, and I applaud those groups for their vigilance in this matter. Now if we could all just step out of our professional cocoons for a second, take a deep breath, and fuck off a little bit, that would be great. At the end of the day, so what if people are paying to use these brain games—isn’t that the kind of stuff we want people doing with $80 a year and 10-15 minutes of spare time a day??
I don’t want to get into scientific merits or the validity and applicability of certain tests relative to other tests. I do find it laughable though that a bunch of people immersed in fields blessed with prime views of both scientific discovery and healthcare trends would piss all over brain exercises in favor of more established “lifestyle” enhancements, while some of the most influential entities around them (and behind them) continue to jam prescription drugs down its elderly citizens’ throats at growing rates.
I have read several anti-brain-gamers instead propose things like, “go for a walk” or “exercise”. How that is an argument against the possible net benefits from a 10 minute think-challenge is beyond me.
9 Year Old Child: Hey, mom. I don’t want to do any more thinky brainy stuff for the rest of my life.
Child’s Mother: Oh, that’s fine honey. Just make sure you jog a lot.
Can’t we tell everyone to do both? If you’re struggling to accept the parallels I’ve just drawn, then we’re on the same page; nobody is actually worried that people are treating brain games as mutually exclusive from proper medication and active lifestyle habits. It’s a complement that some people have felt to be helpful, and some studies have found to be effective.
What would you rather 70-year-olds be doing as their skin slowly binds to a rocking chair at 6:08pm on a Wednesday? Watching Wheel of Fortune? Playing bingo? Reminiscing about their first Slinky while they polish their dentures on a Baby Ruth?
What about everyone else, from pre-teens to health-conscious 40-somethings? With what are you so desperate to replace those 10-15 minutes? A Harry Potter book? Netflix? A trip to Starbucks? What do we think we’re fighting here, prostitution? “Vitamin” Water?
The placebo argument is hilarious to me too. First of all, using IQ as a comprehensive measure of intelligence (scientifically or socially) now has just as many valid concerns surrounding it as brain game boosts. Second of all, why do we care so much if the boost is “real” or “permanent” or “transferable” on some universal, pseudo-objective level? What are we so gallantly classifying as a “waste” of money?
Unless an employee is blowing lines in the bathroom before meetings, do I really care if their performance increase is the result of internal expectations or external scientific corroboration? If someone feels happier, smarter and a little bit more cognitively agile, do I really need to dump a glass of milk down their pants and say, “Whatever, idiot – you just think you’re smarter,” like some acorn-dicked bully who’s frantic for an opportunity to posture?
It’s a 10-15 minute brain game for $80 a year. As one article pointed out, there is some evidence to suggest (I should fucking hope so) that each additional year in school adds 3.7 IQ points. So why don’t these people redirect some more of their time, energy and genius to helping us fix the sideways shithose that is the funnel from which we actually rely on a stream of intelligent, contributing citizens?
Again, I understand the importance of proper process and the care that must be taken not to mislead consumers at the risk of inducing undue dependency; at a high level, that’s critical stuff. The sting of the venom coming out of the detractors’ side of this debate, however, seems unnecessarily crippled with formalities, broadly short-sighted and most concerning of all, potentially lethal to the future of this industry and the science that is genuinely exploring it.
Especially when there isn’t actually a consensus!
In response to the aforementioned jab from the “Scientific Community” via the Stanford Center on Longevity, an opposing letter (though not expressing full disagreement) was written and signed by over 100 neuroscientists, psychologists, and other experts in the field of neural plasticity. That response is now published on cognitivetrainingdata.org. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to focus on a few notable passages:
We cannot agree with the part of your statement that says “there is no compelling scientific evidence” that brain exercises “offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline.” We fear that most readers would take this to mean there is little or no peer-reviewed evidence that certain brain exercises have been shown to drive cognitive improvements…
Over three decades, researchers have built a huge body of evidence that brain plasticity is a lifelong phenomenon – as you acknowledge. However, the statement fails to acknowledge that this evidence was derived from training experiments directly documenting the improvement of sensory, cognitive, motor, and functional performance…
It also diminishes the contribution of thousands of volunteer research participants who gave their time and effort to these studies, and the time, effort, and expertise of the grant-makers who awarded the funding for most of these studies through the National Institutes of Health, other government agencies, and foundations…
but particularly, I want to focus on this part:
We also believe the failure to recognize the results of well-run studies makes further investment of time, effort, and money in plasticity-based improvements to the human condition less likely. Regrettably, your statement contributes to precisely the environment that you (and we) seek to discourage – one where investments in science are outweighed by investments in advertising. It causes real harm by discouraging use of validated exercises by people who could benefit from them…
George Rebok is a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins and a signer of the above letter. As he put it, “It would almost chill the whole field if people concluded it was all bogus.” If you hard-asses out there kill this particular effort on a couple of technicalities, I promise, you will have only succeeded in an effort of unsolicited stagnation.
So to the brain-game industry—the Lumositys, the BrainHQs, the NeuroNations of the world, and the scientists supporting them with their hours and expertise: regardless of all the existing doubt and criticism, I’d like to jump in with simple thank you.
Thank you for trying.
Thank you for not putting your efforts towards developing video games that award points for hitting old ladies with cars and shooting people in the face, knowing that about 75% of gamers play precisely those kinds of games most often.
Thank you for not shelling out $100 million to produce a single season of an HBO series about a bunch of fictional assholes slaughtering other fictional assholes, petting dragons, and doing shocking things until the only thing still shocking is the occasional lack of shocking things.
Thank you for not being yet another company trying to cash in on a $5.6 billion opportunity to give every hick and hobbyist a flying camera.
Thank you for not soaking up your cash to assist the country in more than doubling its number of breweries from 2,033 in 2011 to over 4,100 by the end of 2015.
Thank you for encouraging tens of millions of people to spend idle time exercising their memory and their reasoning instead of chugging a soft drink, eating a bag of chips, reading dinosaur erotica, buying a new smartphone, paying to feel prettier, or watching anything on Bravo.
Thank you for what you have chosen to pursue. You may have a few cracks to fill in your helmet, but I for one like where your head is at.
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Steve Cox says
What a well thought out and POWERFUL article. Congratulations for stepping up to the plate! I specifically like your comparison of brain games to the very idiotic programs and “reality shows” presently in a phase of dramatic OVERLOAD. Interesting that the authors of the bashing article did not provide the monetary loss caused by the production of this garbage! Bravo for you Ben!
Benjamin Mann says
Thanks, Steve – much appreciated 🙂
Melinda Gentry says
I don’t know. Even with 100 neuroscientists and their thoughts, I still really like the games because they make me feel smarter 🙂
Connie Horning says
This is an interesting read. In the meantime, I am going to check into some of those sites 🙂
William Mills says
Any time I can give my brain a little tease, I am all for it. I love puzzles and strategy and things like that so I see no issues with the brain games as you mentioned.
Billy Denton says
I do like the brain games and like Cody said, even if they do not work, they are just another type of game for you to play online.
Cody Green says
I really do like the games. I guess it is just something different and even if it makes me “feel” like I am doing my brain good, that’s all I need.
I agree, however, to put it on the simplest terms;
When you practice any skill consistantly you will get better at it period. If it is fun you will practice more. If it is fun and you practice more and you believe it to be increasing brain power it will increase brain power (placebos welcomed). Very much worth $80 a year.
BUT, there is a big difference between ‘Helpful Hype’ to ‘Liable Claims’. There is a line that deserves consumer protection.
In this case I believe the media did far more of a disservice to the user’s and the public at large than any false claims from the ad campaigns. Because the placebo beliefs can work the opposite as well. If people feel ‘Stupid for trying to improve their mental capacity through brain exercises” then in my humble opinion, the writers are way more liable.
Jean Robertson says
Very good comment David. I agree with you and most people would not understand that the placebo can go both ways.
Benjamin Mann says
Obviously, I second that 🙂